Alex Fattal on his book, Shooting Cameras for Peace

interview by Camilo Ruiz Sanchez

https://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780873658713

Camilo Ruiz Sanchez: It shook me to learn that the archive has almost disappeared and that what we are able to see today comes from 3% of its totality. Taking this into consideration, what would you say regarding the annihilation and destruction of archives with a strong popular character, such as the one built by Disparando Cameras para la Paz (DCP)? More concretely, what are the political effects of losing these types of archives?

Alex Fattal: I remember being on a research trip to Tumaco years ago and I stopped in a local church office that had been working with to document the violence there. They gave me a report they had written, which they had titled, “So Nobody Can Say, ‘Nothing Ever Happened Here.’ It’s determination to defy the structural constraints that erase the history of violence that the community had experienced was both admirable and a poignant reminder that such erasure is the default in communities across Colombia. Disparando Cámaras para la Paz (DCP) had the advantage of being closely connected to people who could ferry pieces of the archive around and keep pieces of it alive. Our key community partner, Corporación Social Fe y Esperanza, was constantly under threat. We left large parts of the archive with them, within a conscientious politics of keeping the archive in the community, but when the leaders needed to flee within hours because of an assassination attempt or when buildings were damaged because of the seasonal mudslides, large parts of the archive were lost forever. It’s very hard to prioritize archiving for most people who lead busy lives focused on the present and future, let alone for those living in extreme precarity and social abandon.

What are the political effects of erasure? The reproduction of what Loïc Wacquant has called the Centaur state, in which elites embody the democratic human head of the Centaur that calmly debates policy, while the torso and hooves of a horse below tramples discontent among the popular classes. Julián Gómez Delgado has argued that the recent National Strike protests portend a crack in this political formation. We’ll see. It’s been very resilient through Colombian history.

Camilo Ruiz Sanchez: In the book, you argue that DCP subverted a stereotypical perspective built by Colombian media outlets about impoverished youth affected by the Colombian armed conflict. I agree with you that the project succeeded in doing so. In this vein, I would like to know which particular aspects of the methodologies used helped the project most in subverting these stereotypes and why you think these methods and techniques prompted different narratives that contested national media outlets.

Alex Fattal: Well, it’s complex and the book tries to linger on that complexity. DCP benefited greatly from media attention even as it was frustrating to see the same tropes of helpless victimhood recycled and reapplied to children and the displaced community. It was precisely those tropes that we set out to challenge. In short, I’m not sure we really affected dominant structures of mediation in any sustained way.

What I’ve learned in working with DCP and its sister organization, the AjA Project, and being immersed in the world of participatory photography is that it’s not enough to redistribute access to technology. To really subvert a discursive formation requires taking control of the story with more concerted attention to narrative and partnering with others who want to change a particular narrative structure. Though that’s far from what we managed to do with DCP, I do think we inspired others to work with participatory media methods. A few years after I started DCP, other participatory photography projects started cropping up in different parts of the country. A rise in interest in participatory media has contributed to independent and alternative media environment in Colombia, a contribution which has since been mixed into the digital tsunami. To build on a popular Colombian adage, we contributed a few grains of sand and they are now swirling in the current media storm.

Camilo Ruiz Sanchez: I am under the impression that all the material presented was captured and created with analog technologies. What would you say are the technical and aesthetic advantages and disadvantages of working with analog photography, taking into consideration that photography has become mostly digital nowadays? 

Alex Fattal: Yes, DCP was almost entirely analog, which I think really played in its favor. The big problem with digital photography is that it appears limitless. I’m a big proponent of seeing limitations as creative opportunities and the students took the constraints of working with light sensitive paper, recycled jars, and rolls of film and transforming those supplies into inspiring images. Over the years, our different dark rooms in El Progreso were always sacred spaces where the students loved to work, loved to develop their images under the red safe lights. Jenny Fonseca who worked with DCP did a beautiful docu-animation film called FotoSensible: La Familia de Viviana about one of our students that showed how magic a space the darkroom was. When I first started DCP, I took the students to the darkroom at Universidad de los Andes and the university students each taught one of the young people from Altos de Cazucá how to develop — it was a beautiful if fleeting moment of radical cross-class collaboration.

When I went back to speak to former participants about their memories of the project, they all emphasized the pinhole photography and recalled how rumor had spread across the hills that there is a group of kids who were turning boxes, cans, and jars into cameras and how exciting that was. (Those conversations inspired me to turn a truck into a giant pinhole camera and make my most recent film, Limbo.) How do you create similar magic with digital photography? It’s hard. It’s something we’ve been thinking about a lot at the AjA Project and my sense is the answer lies in shifting the focus away from photography itself and more toward a project of which photography is but a part, thinking of it as a medium to be used creatively and strategically, combining digital and more tactile approaches.

Camilo Ruiz Sanchez: Colombia has a long-standing tradition of Participatory Action Research (PAR), which has permeated the arts; to name just a few, there is the work of Prof. Orlando Fals Borda and cinematographer Victor Gaviria. However, your text is not in dialogue with local theories, ideas, or works of artists, academics, and grassroots organizations that have used PAR in Colombia. Why? Furthermore, how do you think DCP fits or does not fit within local trajectories of PAR?

Alex Fattal: Your criticism is valid. I’m not aware of a history of PAR and photography in Colombia prior to 2001 and I was stuck on the medium specificity of photography. I wanted to keep the discussion focused on the emergent participatory photography literature in different parts of the world that now includes a large set of projects with books (though many of these are more celebratory in orientation).

Also, I’ve worked in Colombia long enough to know how large and dense the work on PAR is and didn’t think I could do it justice in a shorter text. Though I take up questions of self-representation in the literature on indigenous media in North American anthropology, I could have done more with the history of visual anthropology in Colombia, especially the work of Marta Rodriguez. Perhaps the text would have been stronger if I did that connective work, but I didn’t want to bog it down in too much academic jargon, thinking especially about readers from the community. I also figured I would leave the PAR research to people like Joanne Rappaport who has done such outstanding multi-media work on/with Orlando Fals Borda and his archive. My response is similar when thinking about Victor Gaviria and the discussions of realism in Latin American cinema, which has been a prominent thread in Latin American Film Studies; I didn’t feel equipped to deal with it succinctly and do it justice.

In the end, I was most interested in the organizational form of the national NGO — caught between the scale of international donors and practitioners, such as myself, and the local — as a mediator of the project through the years and analyzing the different iterations of the NGO and struggles within it to push back against the idea that participatory media projects are unmediated, more authentic, more real. Though they aren’t conditioned by an owner’s political agenda, and editor’s sense of what is important, or what is palatable to advertisers, as is the case with photojournalism, I’ve seen how the different backgrounds of the staff and demands of funding and reporting all influenced how the curriculum was developed, how the workshops were organized, and so on. So my engagement is with some of the literature on the anthropology of humanitarianism, but again, its done in a way so as not to be overbearing and off-putting to a broader audience.  

PAR does come into the story of the national NGO. Many of the talleristas who taught the students over the years were coming from public universities and bringing their PAR training to bear. In the text I reference this tension in DCP through the years as one in which tense conversations emerged about how much local control the project should have. Those who were coming with a PAR background (as key facilitators coming from outside the community) and urging total local control were generally coming from a left perspective and wanting to make the project more about denuncias, human rights-oriented denunciations. When that perspective began to win out, the repression on the project would increase — not surprisingly. Given the narco-paramilitarization of the area, which hasn’t abated, and given the fact that the project worked with youth who were already struggling to avoid the gangs that often operated as proxies for armed groups, I tended to find myself arguing for a more hybrid model tailored to the contradictory demands of the context. If you read the text closely, I think that comes through. The book tries to stay with the gray areas of DCP’s experience through the years by plying the boundary of insider and outsider perspectives as a case study in the niche world of participatory photography studies, which is the book’s center line.

Camilo Ruiz Sanchez: Finally, have you been able to share this book with the DCP photographers, and if so, what have their reactions been? If not, are you planning on doing so, and if yes, how?

Alex Fattal: Some of the DCP photographers helped to identify information about the photos that was lost in the archiving process and I shared preliminary selections of the images with them. But as a published book, not yet. The book was printed in the US in December of 2020 and because of the pandemic and inter-institutional difficulties, it took as a few months to get distribution in Colombia figured out. The book will be printed and distributed in Colombia starting in September 2021 with Universidad del Rosario Press.

In addition to book events in Bogotá and perhaps other cities, I’d like to do an event with the Casa de la Cultura in Soacha, where DCP had its first exhibit. I remember fighting with the mayor’s office to get the money for the busses to bring the students in for the opening and the office insisting on singing the municipal anthem; this from a local government that didn’t recognize their responsibly to provide services to the students or their families. In 20 years, much has changed. Some students have moved down the hill to apartment complexes in Soacha, some are still living in the hills. Most of the youth now have kids of their own at this point. Once the pandemic clears, I would love to distribute copies of the book in person and talk with former DCP participants about the work with the distance of time.

In digital conversations I’ve had with some of them while preparing the book or around social media discussions that I’ve seen, they seem to look at the photos the way I look at my high school yearbook, with the nostalgia surrounding a time capsule, but with the added sense of how profoundly difficult life was back then. The early 2000s, as you know and as I briefly contextualize in the book, was a very difficult period. The project served over 1,000 students through the years, I hope I can share the book with as many of them as possible. The imminent distribution in Colombia is a start.

Beyond the community itself, I would note that it’s a bilingual book (shout out to Andy Klatt and María Clemencia Ramírez for their wonderful translation) and the Colombian and Latin American audiences have always been very important to me.

Omri Grinberg takes the p. 99 test

Sarah Mitchell’s admirable avoidance of “gaming” the pg. 99 test (link) ironically inspired me to not avoid the temptation of doing so, mainly because despite “cheating”, the test’s results are two particularly unspectacular fragments of non-ethnographic, all-too-academic writing. The way I’m “rigging” the test is by presenting together a “fake” and a “real” pg. 99: the fake is pg. 99 of the PDF document, which is actually pg. 88 of the dissertation, and the real one is pg. 99 according to the page count of the dissertation text.

Both pages are part of the first chapter, which is essentially the second part of the Introduction. The chapter combines a historical survey of Israel’s occupation and its violence, the emergence of human rights NGOs and their characteristics, and literature reviews about human rights, NGO-state dynamics, and colonial intermediation. It culminates in the two sub-sections in which the two pages play a significant role: an attempt to think about agency and ethics in bureaucratic structures, while signaling the uniqueness of witnessing and testimony contexts. As I show, this uniqueness persists even as these core aspects of human rights are shaped and disciplined—as an experience (of witnessing) and text document (as testimony)–by the synthesized influence of different types of violence Israel uses (brute-direct, structural, symbolic) and the genres of human rights narration and documentation. These are what I define in the fake pg. 99 (below) as “contexts and considerations”.

The fake pg. 99 bridges between a review of anthropologies of agency and ethics in the Middle East, and the following sub-section, in which I focus on the role of testimony in Israeli NGOs and use the insights from the review to challenge some dominant anthropological perspectives about witnessing and testimony. The real pg. 99 is the final page of this sub-section, and of the whole introductory phase.

If apart and as stand-alone fragments, the two pg. 99s do not say much. Together, I think, they convey some of the main points of the dissertation. Other than place them in sequence and some clarifications [in square brackets], I made no significant changes in the two text fragments.

[FAKE PG. 99]

These contexts and considerations [see above] are fundamental to my effort of avoiding re-producing two common tendencies in studies of human rights (or humanitarianism) and NGOs: (i) overlooking (and hence denial) of the critical valences of the vernacular of human rights practices themselves by deterministically assuming the totalizing appropriation of human rights by colonial actors (cf. Perugini and Gordon 2015; Zigon 2013); (ii) The equally problematic assumption that the political subjectivities of those participating in these practices hinge on the benevolent option of practicing them, which is offered by visiting-experts from the Global North as agents constituting a new “global” ground of political morality (cf. Fassin 2008).

These foundations do not negate the relevance of insights from neither the harshly critical take, nor from the latter approach, that formulates a political philosophy of contemporary ethics based on anthropological studies of humanitarianism. What is at stake here is the important avoidance of assigning conscripting meaning to “testimony” while simultaneously maintaining clarity about what testimony is and does (Dean 2017). The careful framing of agency and ethics in relation to witnessing thus promotes studying and theorizing testimony as a multi-dimensional process and from different perspectives of scale.

 

[REAL PG. 99]

As I will show, Palestinian witnesses often demand the NGOs document their cases but refuse to let them use it for the NGOs’ own appeals to various state branches. Thus, the witnesses re-shape what the NGOs do and challenge organizations’ positioning vis-à-vis the state, even if the production of the text itself does not change.

For NGOs, testimony does indeed signify political change and an ethical obligation, but it is also—and perhaps, mainly—a system of archiving through disciplinary writing: codes of qualities and quantities, formalized categories and means of documentation, classification, determination, comparison, accounted for and transcribed in certain ways that constitute simultaneously both the power and authority of the documenting actor—NGOs—through the legal-bureaucratic apparatus of writing human rights testimony (cf. Cody 2009; Foucault 1995, 189–90; Messick 1993). These modes of documentation take part in affirming certain models and modes of political subjectivity while marginalizing others (Fassin 2012; Marshall 2014). NGO practices then have apparent and immediate repercussions on contemporary political realities, and in parallel, impose a historiographic authority – frames of in/validation[*] that perform what Michel de Certeau termed as “…a selection between what can be understood and what must be forgotten in order to obtain the representation of a present intelligibility” (1988, 4).

 

[PG. 99 REFLECTION AND APPRECIATION]

* “Frames of in/validation” is a term I use to theorize NGOs’ procedures of incessant verification and adaptation of Palestinian experiences of violence into simplified narrative structures, that conform to legal-moral discourses and definitions of human rights. As I claim in the dissertation, NGOs rely on frames of in/validation to sustain the paradox of human rights, at least in its Israel/Palestine vernacular: a genre of anti-colonial historiography that is itself based on colonial reason, mainly genealogies of surveying and bureaucratic writing. Thanks to the pg. 99 test, I now realize what I have probably always known on some level: that I do the same, only displaced into the disciplinary confines of academic writing.

Cliched academic self-deprecation aside, this exercise re-highlighted for me one of the main tensions I had to constantly work-through in my research, yet did not truly acknowledge in writing and only rarely discussed otherwise. Namely, between my focus on the bureaucracy of Palestinians’ testimonies in Israeli NGOs, and taking Palestinian witnesses and their testimonies into analytical consideration. That is, making this a study (and an ethnography) of colonial violence, and not (just) an anthropological analysis of representations of violence (whether those representations are themselves colonialist or not).

Omri Grinberg. 2018. Writing Rights, Writing Violence:  The Bureaucracy of Palestinian Testimonies in Israeli Human Rights NGOs – Ph.D. dissertation. Department of Anthropology and Centre for Jewish Studies, University of Toronto.

Works Cited

Cody, Francis. 2009. “Inscribing Subjects to Citizenship: Petitions, Literacy Activism, and the Performativity of Signature in Rural Tamil India.” Cultural Anthropology 24 (3): 347–80.

Certeau, Michel de. 1988. The Writing of History. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Dean, Carolyn J. 2017. “The Politics of Suffering: From the Survivor-Witness to Humanitarian Witnessing.” Continuum 31 (5): 628-36.

Fassin, Didier. 2008. “The Humanitarian Politics of Trauma: Subjectification Through Trauma in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” Cultural Anthropology 23 (3): 531–58.

———. 2012. Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present Times. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1995. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Marshall, David Jones. 2014. “Save (Us from) the Children: Trauma, Palestinian Childhood, and the Production of Governable Subjects.” Children’s Geographies 12 (3): 281–96.

Messick, Brinkley. 1993. The Calligraphic State: Textual Domination and History in a Muslim Society. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.  

Perugini, Nicola, and Neve Gordon. 2015. The Human Right to Dominate. [S.I.]: Oxford University Press.

Zigon, Jarrett. 2013. “Human Rights as Moral Progress? A Critique.” Cultural Anthropology 28 (4): 716–36.