by Taous Dahmani
This year, Photo Oxford focuses on women. The 2020 festival highlights the variety of their viewpoints and relationships with photography. Asking myself what photography meant to others, I interviewed 6 women working with/for/on photography. They are all women for whom I have tremendous respect and it was a pleasure to be able to ask them 4 questions each, curious to hear their personal and professional photography stories. All these interviews are considered as a continuation of the conference « Let Us Now Praise Famous Women : Discovering the work of Female Photographers » This interview features scholar Siona Wilson.
Siona Wilson is author of the book, Art Labor, Sex Politics: Feminist Effects in 1970s British Art and Performance (University of Minnesota Press, 2015). Her writing has appeared in several edited collections, including most recently, A Companion to Feminist Art (eds. Hilary Robinson and Maria Elena Buszek), as well as academic journals and art magazines such as Artforum, Art History, Art Review, Feminist Review, October, Oxford Art Journal, and Third Text. Recent curatorial projects include I can’t breathe (2016, the Art Gallery of the College of Staten Island) and (co-curated with Katherine Carl and Valerie Tevere) Sexing Sound: Aural Histories and Feminist Scores (2015, The James Gallery). In collaboration with Oskar Korsár, Wilson was the writer and director of the performance, I Like Feminism and Feminism Likes me (2020). Her current research project is a monographic book, tentatively titled, Shooting Women: A Feminist History of the Captured Image at War, about the use, circulation, and disappearance of images of female combatants in a diverse range of twentieth and twenty-first century conflicts. Siona Wilson is Associate Professor of art history at the College of Staten Island and the Graduate Center, the City University of New York.
Taous R. Dahmani: Where does your interest in photography come from? Can you tell me about your first enthusiastic reaction to a photographic work?
My engagement with photography is less about the remarkable or memorable image, instead it is about photography as a social form; as a practice that is also about use rather than the production and appreciation of “great photographs.” I enjoy and teach about photography as an art form, “great photographs,” but I’ve become more interested in my research and writing in how images impact our social and psychic lives. The individual photograph that I remember as significant, haunting me as a child, was a newspaper image of one of the Yorkshire Ripper’s victims. Freighted with gendered violence and fear, this image cannot really be described as a “photographic work” and the reaction I had was certainly not enthusiasm. But it was one of a series of important and memorable photographs that captured the specific power of photography as a social form, its affective charge, and some sense of its ethical and philosophical significance.
Peter Sutcliffe, the so-called Yorkshire Ripper, killed 13 women and injured 9 between 1975 and 1980 (I was aged 5-10 years old). Growing up close by to these brutal acts was my earliest and most enduring sense of real-world terror—not immediate and personal, but formative and large in my imagination. I still remember the shocked fascination at seeing the images of his victims lined up and numbered in the newspaper. The photograph of Helena Rytka, the eighth victim, only 18 years old when she was killed, was the most memorable. She died in 1978 in Huddersfield, less then 15 miles from where we lived. I cannot say for sure but only speculate about why this image was so affecting. Living the sheltered life of a well-cared for white, lower middle-class girl (in a predominantly white neighborhood) I was surely attracted to her exotic beauty. Perhaps it was simply her difference that intrigued me, but her wide-eyed expression in this photograph also seems to intimate the horror that was to come. When I look again at this image (probably taken in a photobooth, possibly a mug shot), I can still sense the danger that adheres to it and it feels somehow potent with the kind of irrational menace that only children feel.
Taous R. Dahmani: Today, what does it mean to be an art/photography/video historian and what role or place should the teaching of the visual matter have?
Teaching about photography is very different from teaching about art, since photographs are integrated into so many aspects of our everyday lives, whereas art remains a rarified and specialized domain of elite cultural expression. Everybody takes photographs and in the last 15 years photography has become an ever more important means of communication that is integrated into so many aspects of our lives making photographic education so much more important. This expansion of photography’s democratizing promise makes it crucial to offer skills in analyzing photographs, both in terms of representation as well as cultural framing and shifting use. Teaching and thinking about various kinds of photo-reproductive work, I find that it is important to situate the specialized artistic practice and historical innovations within the more expansive field of vernacular, institutional, and media production and dissemination. The remediation of images has become a much more significant part of the way in which I approach my teaching and thinking. It is also a way of accessing and critically analyzing the production of historical knowledge including the loss or suppression of certain types of images and practices.
Taous R. Dahmani: Your work focuses on a gendered and political reading of art history and more particularly of the still and moving image. In particular, you have written about feminist image-makers such as Mary Kelly or Jo Spence. Given your expertise on feminist artists of the 1970s and your current curatorial practice with contemporary artists, do you notice a change, an evolution and if so, how would describe this? How has the feminist politics of image-makers shifted?
In one sense feminist concerns in the 1970s with the personal and the vernacular uses of photography have become writ large in the contemporary world. Vernacular photography (the growth of citizen journalism and the expansion of the family album into social media imaging) is a particularly important site for a reconsideration of the everyday manifestations of the neoliberal project that, as many agree, was nascent in the 1970s. But equally, it offers the potential for political intervention and transformation.
While second wave feminist photographers such as Jo Spence developed a confessional form of subjective self-imaging to expose the workings of institutional power in everyday life, comparable strategies of self-surveillance have become commonplace in today’s digital sphere. The mainstream proliferation and routinization of self-documenting, however, no longer carries the transgressive charge of exposing private images to public scrutiny. Not only are such strategies a new everyday norm, but the family album is also no longer a discrete, material object reserved for private use. It is now dispersed, immaterial and immediately available to—in many cases—a mass audience of “friends” and strangers. And even more significantly, these platforms are enabled by and serve commercial interests and, potentially, those of the state. This integration of state, commercial and personal spheres has profoundly transformed some of the most significant feminist questions of the 1970s, with the vernacular image as a newly central element. For example, the expansion of working life into private spaces, the experience of love and the socialization and psychical development of children are all now mediated in much more visible ways.
For second wave feminists the political significance of personal images lay in the sustained interrogation of the institution of the family as an important site for gendered subjectivization and social reproduction. Transgressing this public/private divide was part of a broader feminist project of the political analysis of social life—the normalized site of women’s oppression—that liberal theory had traditionally deemed beyond the scope of the political per se. Today such insights about the politics of the social might indeed be more widely assumed, but they have also become subject to an accelerated logic of what Wendy Brown has called a generalized “economization” of political life (Undoing the Demos). The second wave feminist leitmotif, “the personal is the political,” popularized by Carol Hanisch in a 1969 essay, is now much more closely linked to the ever-pervasive monetization of the self. Theorizing these transformations, beyond the melancholic laments of neo-avant-garde cooption or the unthinking celebration of technological democracy, is one of greatest challenges in bringing the 1970s into critical dialog with our current moment.
Taous R. Dahmani: You have been interested in gendered art history for a long time (as shown by your review of Modern Women: Women Artists at the Museum of Modern Art (2010). But if we consider photography’s history, we are currently living in an interesting moment that tries to shed light on women photographers — often ignored by traditional histories of the medium. How do you analyse this phenomenon and how do you see it evolving?
It is enormously important to expand the history of photography by the inclusion of a broader field of cultural producers, including women. But it is also important to understand that the history of photography is not just about named image makers, but also about the way in which images are used, how different viewers encounter photographs in varied material contexts, and how these images take on a life of their own. The most interesting and important work in the history of photography is done by writers who work on the cultural use of photography rather than the art historical aspects.
Check out Siona Wilson's writing:
Siona Wilson, Shooting Women: A Feminist History of the Captured Image at War (book manuscript in progress)
Siona Wilson, I Like Feminism and Feminism Likes me (with Oskar Korsár), forthcoming with Ma Bibliothèque, 2021
Siona Wilson, “Opening the Patriarchive: Photography, Feminism and War.” Companion to Feminist Art Practice and Theory. Ed. Maria Elena Buszek and Hilary Robinson. Oxford, UK: Blackwells, 2019): 459-474.
Siona Wilson, “Severed Images: Women, the Algerian War of Independence, and the Mobile Documentary Idea,” The International Journal of Francophone Studies, vol. 21 nos. 3 & 4 (2018): 233-54.
Siona Wilson, “Nightcleaners: The Ambiguities of Activism and the Limits of Production” [excerpt reprinted] in Friederike Sigler (ed.) Work: Documents of Contemporary Art, Whitechapel Gallery and MIT Press, 2017: 189-190
Siona Wilson, Art Labor, Sex Politics: Feminist Effects in 1970s British Art and Performance. Minnesota, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.
Siona Wilson, “’Girls say yes to boys who say no’: Four Artists Refigure the Sex War on Terror.” Oxford Art Journal 31:1 (2009): 121-142.
Siona Wilson, “From Working Women to the Umbilical Lens: Mary Kelly’s Early Films.” Art History 31:1 (2008): 79-102.