Christian Vium is one of the 50 best emerging photographers for 2015, as named in the LensCulture Emerging Talent Awards. He was also one of the eight “jurors’ picks.” Here is his winning entry and artist’s statement. Below, you can also read an interview and learn what made his work so special in the eyes of the jury.
In May and June 2014, I was working in Central Australia, trying to creatively re-enact elements of the renowned photographic work of anthropologists and photographers Frank Gillen and Baldwin Spencer, who produced one of the most influential records of aboriginal life between 1875 and 1912. I wanted to revisit their cardinal work, and use it as a point of departure for a contemporary dialogue about how we see and represent “the Other.”
I went into the field with a selection of photographs, which I used as the basis for extended photo elicitation with descendants of those people engaged by Spencer and Gillen. Together with inhabitants of the central desert, I wanted to re-enact the old images in the places where they were originally made. I wanted to invite those portrayed to bring their points of view and ideas into the process.
One of the main themes that grew out of the archive work and subsequent photo elicitation was that of mourning, in particular as expressed in what is commonly referred to by Aboriginal people as “sorry business.” Mourning, I came to understand, was a particularly apt metaphor for the deplorable life conditions for Aboriginals in Australia today. On average, their life expectancy is 20 years lower than that of their fellow (white) Australians. Hence, rituals and practices surrounding death are abundant and woven into the fabric of everyday life to an extraordinary extent in Aboriginal Australia.
My ambition was not simply to produce “good images,” but to employ photography as a collaborative and improvisational practice for opening up dialogue and generate qualitative knowledge in the dynamic junction between the archive, the field, my interlocutors and myself. I wanted to create a space within which the people in front of the camera were invited to perform themselves in dialogue with the past representations.
Christian Vium has created an ambitious project that is artful, challenging, thought-provoking and insightful. It explores the differences and intersections of century-old anthropological photography and contemporary practices that still struggle with ways to present and represent “the Other” — in this case focusing on Aboriginal Australians from 1875 and now.
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
LC: How did you first come across Spencer and Gillen’s archive? And how did you come up with the idea to pair such old photos with your contemporary practice? Were you inspired only by the archive itself or by other similarly styled projects?
CV: I have known the work of Baldwin W. Spencer and Frank J. Gillen since I first visited Australia in 1999, fresh out of high school. Later, when I began studying anthropology, I became more familiar with the context in which their work was produced. Their work is quite renowned within anthropology and it had a decisive impact on the work of Emile Dürkheim, Sir James Frazier and Sigmund Freud, to mention but a few.
The research and imagery that Spencer and Gillen produced over a period of four decades between 1876 and 1914 was highly influential around the turn of the 19th century, when evolutionist theories predominated. In many ways it represents one of the earliest examples of fieldwork-based anthropology. Naturally, today, more than a century later, these images and the ideas about human life surrounding their production take on a new meaning and become layered with time. By bringing the photographs back to where they were produced and using them as templates for new photographs I was hoping to invite the descendants to elaborate on what they saw in the photographs and to see what responses it engendered.
In the process of preparing for the project, I have been researching different approaches to archival based photography and one project that stands out, to me, is Simon Norfolk’s photographical dialogue with Irish photographer John Burke (1843?-1900) in Afghanistan, which I saw exhibited at Tate Modern in London in 2011.
Within anthropology, using photographs as points of departure for interviews and dialogues is a well-known method. Where my project departs from much anthropological work is in the creative “re-enactment” of the subject material. By inviting people in front of the camera to embody their ancestors and “reproduce” body postures, expressions etc., I was aiming to establish a particular space for critical reflection and dialogue, based on the source material. The original material was produced in a context of domination and control, and—like much photography—is contingent upon very specific power relations between anthropologist/photographer and “subjects” in front of the lens. I wanted to explore this tension critically together with the people I worked with.
LC: In your artist’s statement, you call Spencer and Gillen’s work “one of the most influential records of aboriginal life”—but after taking these photos into the field, what did you find was the response from the subjects themselves? Were these old photos still relevant for the aboriginals?
CV: Today, one can have many inclinations against the work of Spencer and Gillen, but their record represents an important contribution to the study of humankind. To me, it is an extremely complex work full of ambivalence and friction—of contradiction and so open to interpretation.
Repatriating the original photographs to individuals and communities in Central Australia was a profound experience. While some people are familiar with the work—which is somewhat canonized in Australia—others had never seen them, let alone heard about them.
The responses to the original photographs were many and varied. Some people expressed feelings of pride and sadness. Others were outright angry and political in their discourses. People touched—almost caressed—the photographs and told elaborate stories about their family, traditions and homelands. The photographs came to serve as vehicles for extended discussions and many of the people I worked with expressed how the photographs made them remember things they had forgotten or think about things in a new way…
LC: You went into the field with a very specific purpose in mind—yet once you began the work, did your experiences out in the world contradict your expectations or force you to change your approach?
CV: The way I work as an anthropologist and photographer is to design a methodological framework which, while governed by particular ideas and motivations on my part, remains open and flexible to whatever I may encounter in the field. I acknowledge that I have a particular understanding of the archival material I engage with, and I acknowledge that this understanding has been formatted by my cultural upbringing and education. But nevertheless, I aspire to bring this understanding with me into the field and offer it to people, in exchange for their viewpoints and understandings. I see my entire project as one of dialogue and collaboration—and such work is contingent upon an openness and willingness to share viewpoints and accept critique and entirely different arguments than one’s own.
One of the themes that struck me when going through the archival material was the issue of mourning and healing rituals. This theme and the photographs documenting it appealed to me because they were difficult to understand. Given the nature of their compositions they were very open to interpretation and because the image captions were limited, I had to use my imagination to try and figure out what might be the story behind the photographs.
Bringing them into the field and showing them to descendants of those in the photographs, I was met with a wealth of detailed information about the meaning and importance of these photographs. The people I spoke with immediately contextualized these old photographs with contemporary practices and this contextualization was then continued in our collaboration around the production of new photographs in dialogue with the old.
LC: You seem to engage in deep collaborations with your subjects—did this ever pose problems for you or have you become comfortable with relinquishing control of the artistic process?
CV: For me, photographing is not so much about the final images as it is about the dialogue and exchange I have with people when making the images. Photography becomes a way of communicating and relating, an exchange, which enables me to understand the person in front of me, and hopefully also communicating my feelings and opinions and understandings to him or her or them. Ultimately, I have the editorial power, and in that sense I do not relinquish control, or only partly so. One might say that the nature of collaboration fluctuates throughout the process from initial planning and preparation through the practical stages of production and subsequent editing, juxtaposing and sequencing.
LC: At times, you distinguish your work from that of “most photographers”—where/how does your practice distinctly differ from theirs? At what point in your career did you begin to diverge?
CV: Perhaps it is too broad a generalization, but I have a feeling that many photographers put too much stress on the final image and its technical or compositional qualities. Obviously, aesthetics are important, I fully acknowledge that—however, as I mentioned, I am more interested in the process of making photographs with people. It is a very particular way of relating socially and creatively, and what fascinates me is how the people I work with and photograph perform themselves and narrate themselves. I see the resulting photographs as elements in a social, spatial and temporal composition, which affords me a means of making sense of my surroundings.
LC: Who do you imagine is the audience for this project? Photographers? Anthropologists? The public? Only Australians or does it have international application?
I hope this work meets varied audiences, in many different countries. I think the project raises a number of central questions about how we meet, see and represent “the Other.” These are fundamental questions inherent to both photography and anthropology—and to us all as humans. Representing somebody is a very powerful thing to do and carries with it a grave responsibility. For me it makes perfect sense to invite people in front of the lens into the process of defining and presenting themselves. “The Wake” is only starting to travel now, and I am anxious to hear how the audience reacts to it.
—Christian Vium, interviewed by Alexander Strecker