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The Enigmas of Plain Fact

by David Campany

The status of the photographic within sociological research remains an open question. We cannot quite accept that there can be no place for photography within sociology, but none of us knows quite what that place should be. Photographs are essentially ambiguous and open to interpretation. They do not work as tools. They do not carry meaning the way a truck carries coal. The most we can hope for is that the gaps, the failures, and the shortcomings tell or at least suggest something about the conditions and conventions of sociology and photography as intersecting practices.

My feeling is that what really fascinates us about sociologically-motivated photographic projects is that we don’t know quite how to take them, how to read them, and what to make of them. A list comes to mind: Marianne Wex’s Let’s Take Back Our Space (1979); Chauncey Hare’s extensive photographs of American citizens in their homes published as Interior America (1978) and later expanded as Protest Photographs (2009); Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead’s book Balinese Character (1942); the photography of the Mass-Observation movement in 1930s England; the American government–sponsored photography of the effects of the Depression (also in the 1930s); or even the famous book and global exhibition The Family of Man (1955). All are “sociological” in different ways, with different approaches and attitudes. (I sense Rydet has most in common with Chauncey Hare, although I can’t be sure about this.) But they continue to fascinate and generate intensive discussion more because of their provocative methods than for any clear evidence or “data” they offer. They can force me to reflect on my assumptions and they are significant precisely because of their irresolvable complexities. I don’t look at any of these projects simply for “information” the way we might turn on a tap to get water, or go to a dictionary for a definition. I go to them because the tension between the brute clarity of the visual information, combined with a poetics of form and the lack of clarity about what we might do with those things, is itself fascinating and challenging. I cannot quite give up on the idea of drawing conclusions but I don’t know what conclusions to draw. Yes, I can see repetitions and differences both in the scenes depicted by Rydet and the methods of depicting them. But repetition is an unreliable basis for realism. (We should be as skeptical about repetition as much in a photographer’s private obsession as in the mass media.)

Of course, there is a very important strand of thought that has tried to address these complications by foregrounding them, and by turning the encounters—between sociologists and their subjects, between audiences and what the sociologist presents to them—into a constitutive part of the whole project. It informs the films of Jean Rouch, Chris Marker, Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Joshua Oppenheimer, Hito Steyerl, and Trinh T. Minh-ha. It informs the photography of Allan Sekula but also, in a different way, the photography of Nan Goldin or LaToya Ruby Frazier. It also informs an important strand of photographic theory that is keen to stress that each and every photograph is the result of an encounter, the terms of which are often obscured and need to be recovered. The writings of Ariella Azoulay on the “civil contract” of photography are a good example. I think I was attracted to those images in which I glimpse, or feel, the complications of Rydet’s encounters with her subjects. But it may be more do with encounters with Rydet’s encounters. In fact it could only be that.

Do any of these approaches help us to make sense of Zofia Rydet’s project? Yes, all of them. They won’t “resolve” anything, but they might help, if only to deepen the mystery.

As it is presented here—as a purely photographic archive without text, notes, editing, or testimony—Rydet’s work is raw. It might be less raw for her, or for people who can measure what they see in her photographs against their own experience. But as documents of experiences that are distant and different from mine (beyond living in a house, having possessions, and being subject to a photographer and their camera) they remain tantalizingly opaque.

Of course, as time passes, Rydet’s images cannot be measured against experience so readily but might become a substitute for it. They may no longer contribute to an understanding of a present and are instead slipped into the role of stand-in for the past. This historical and semantic shift is what Jean-François Lyotard had in mind when he spoke of the construction of the “reality” of the past: “Reality succumbs to this reversal: it was the given described by the phrase, it became the archive from which are drawn documents or examples that validate the description.” 1 We should try to stay alert to this slippage. It happens all the time.

1 Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), p. 41.

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