Matthew Ryan Smith – Abstract

Family Photography and the Documentation of Trauma in Contemporary Art

Studies in Visual Arts and Communication – an international journal / June 2014 1(1)

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English photographer Richard Billingham and Canadian photographer and filmmaker Jaret Belliveau produce unconventional photographs to investigate family dynamics.  The artists are part of a broader movement in contemporary art photography aimed at representing everyday lived experience that include candid documentation of tragedy and loss.  In 1996, Billingham published photographs of his father’s chronic alcoholism and his family’s debilitating poverty in the poignant and politically charged photo book Ray’s a Laugh to much critical acclaim.  Over a decade later, Belliveau exhibited a body of work titled Dominion Street at Gallery TPW in Toronto in 2010.  The exhibition featured old family photographs, sculptural objects, and a narrative series of pictures representing his mother in the years leading up to her cancer diagnosis, her ensuing medical treatment, and subsequent passing.  By making their private lives a public display through art exhibitions and book publications, Billingham and Belliveau use their family’s trauma as a meaningful source of subject matter.  In this regard, these artists are in the contradictory position that many autobiographical photographers encounter: they experience trauma while recording the traumatic experiences of others.  However, as literary theorist Leo Bersani makes clear, it is important that audiences do not reduce trauma to points of aesthetic concern.   To do so suggests a troubling lack of empathy and marginalizes the real life suffering that undercuts their photographs.  Instead, their work allows audiences to reflect upon the possibilities, limitations, and ethics of framing family trauma as art photography.
Billingham and Belliveau’s work also allows audiences to conceptualize how trauma-related art operates on audiences through affect.  The term affect is derived from the Latin affectus or adfectus, which, roughly translated to English, means passion or emotion.  However, Jill Bennett describes affect as an embodied sensation, “a process of seeing feeling where feeling is both imagined and regenerated through an encounter with the artwork.”   For Teresa Brennan, affect is an energetic dimension and social phenomenon that is largely physiological in origin.  In her definition, affect is interactive, intercommunicative and interpersonal; in other words, little differentiation exists between an individual and their environment.   Benedict de Spinoza also connects affect to the emotions and passions that preside over human beings.  He maintains that individuals negotiate emotions and passions using ethical judgements and reasoning in order to achieve freedom, survival, and happiness in their daily lives.   Each of these examples help to illustrate that affect is fundamentally relational, radically subjective, and associated with bodily sensations.

By exploring photography that represents family-related tragedy and loss, I consider the ways that trauma and affect work on the photographer and the audience.  For the photographer, taking photographs of family trauma is bound up in experiencing suffering and loss as a member of that family.  How does the photographer negotiate between the dual roles of family member and photographer in a way that remains creatively beneficial, critical, and ethically responsible?  For the audience, how does the site of the encounter with traumatic imagery operate?  Do responses change when looking at a book publication compared to an exhibition setting?  Because Billingham and Belliveau record everyday traumatic events that some viewers might have experienced or can identify with, how does this change their reading of the work?
Through my analysis of trauma, affect, and the ethics of exhibiting trauma-related art, I consider how viewers relate to images of suffering, what kinds of responses may be produced, and what can be gained from these encounters.  I am particularly concerned with the rhizomatic field of relations enacted between audiences and artwork.  Because everyday, structural trauma is inclusive and recognizable throughout society, I argue that affective responses to artwork representing trauma can offer new ways of bridging cultural differences that may limit our understanding of each other.  Thus, artwork that engages affect connects individuals and groups while producing new social relationships.