on taking pictures
This press operates on the following definition of photography:
︎an encounter in which multiple protagonists are involved in negotiating acts of making-visible;1
︎this encounter may occur at the site of a camera, at the viewing of a photograph, or at any scene within the photograph’s circulation;
︎in this way, photography is a practice through which we inscribe how we share (and do not share) our world that cannot be reduced to the evidentiary, but is sometimes required of it.
cameraAn instrument that temporarily holds, translates, and offers means to circulate what might become legible as data, a target, a trace, an encounter, or a possibility.
extractive captureWhen the ‘taking’ in “taking pictures” transforms photographic encounters into:
︎sites of control.
︎“to take” = “someone else can’t take”
︎contexts that assume unlimited visual access and maintain imperialist knowledge formations.2
︎“to take” = “to assume entitlement to take”
︎exchanges that, unwillingly, extract value from those photographed while simultaneously facilitating the social production of racial inequities. In other words, exchanges that maintain racial capitalism.3
︎“to take” = “to turn whom or what is seen into visual wealth and seize it for the taker”
paper cameras press operates with an understanding that photography’s implication in extractive capture irrevocably facilitates/d ongoing organized violence; paper cameras press practices exiting from extractive capture, while it carries forward practices rooted in loving observation and aspiring towards self-determined documentation.
loving observationWhen the ‘taking’ in “taking pictures” transforms photographic encounters into:
︎sites of desired witnessing, consensual play, or shared watching motivated by an attempt, with no entitlement, to understand each other or the situation photographed.4
︎“to take” = “to take with”
︎exchanges built on requests by the photographed person and sustained by acts of sharing that benefit all participants.5
︎“to take” = “to take for”
In practice, loving observation may look like two friends working up to the trust required to take a portrait for, and not of, each other—finding and missing each other along the way. It may also look like the conversations forged when a group is huddled around a camera deciding how to photograph a tree to learn from its roots. It may look like the piles of photos communities make for themselves, by themselves, compiled in artist books, zines, performances, or dances. An abundance of gestures constitute possibilities for loving observation.
self-determined documentationWhen the ‘taking’ in “taking pictures” transforms photographic encounters into:
︎acts of refusal in sites of control.6 ︎︎︎
︎ “to take” = null—taking has been refused
︎contexts that support the proliferation of autonomous or communally-driven imaging practices.7
︎ “to take” = “so that the taker’s neighbor can also take”
︎exchanges that willingly assign value to the photograph for tracking to a world that is shared.8
︎ “to take” = “to utilize the value generated and seize it for community”
In practice, self-determined documentation may look like stewarding those finding refuge how to hold a camera for themselves, re-circulating photographs stolen, or photographs that might refer to that which was stolen, with captions that claim otherwise, and many other arrangements.
Though these terms are distinct in theory, they are sometimes (if not often) entangled in practice. Someone may take a picture with motivations that resemble loving observation, but with consequences that partly maintain imperial knowledge formations. Though paper cameras press proposes practices as if it were possible to exit from extractive capture, we understand the gravity of extractive forces that affect our world and our capacities to fully disentangle from them.9
group photoA practice of gathering where those involved negotiate the terms of their visibility. At its loudest glare, the group photo recalls the harsh dissonance that resonates after a fake smile.10 At its dimmest, the group photo, quite simply, offers “an excuse to be together.”11
︎︎︎ back to terms
The knowledge that informs these terms is inspired by a range of references: friends, academic scholarship, and actions (minor and major) offered in photographic practice.
1. “Encounter” arrives from scholar, Ariella Aïsha Azoulay’s labors: “In photography—and this is evident in every single photo—there is something that extends beyond the photographer’s action, and no photographer, even the most gifted, can claim ownership of what appears in the photograph. Every photograph of others bears the traces of the meeting between the photographed persons and the photographer, neither of whom can, on their own, determine how this meeting will be inscribed in the resulting image.”—Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography (New York: Zone Books, 2008), 11; to “make-visible” may also mean to trouble it.
2. In her most recent work, Potential History, Azoulay rigorously unpacks the assumptions built into the institutionalization of photography, namely the assumption that photography promised an unlimited window to see any-one person, community, thing, world. Azoulay locates the construction of this assumption in the foundation of imperialist knowledge formations. Put simply: throughout the nineteenth century, cameras continued to advance in precision and speed, and forces of empire understood that this tool offered an opportunity to expedite agendas of expansion and control. In this imperial context, photography’s use proliferated and naturalized the right to unconditional access over a person’s, or community’s, right to refuse that very access. For continued attending: Azoulay, Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism (London/New York: Verso, 2019).
3. For continued attending: Azoulay, “Imagine Going on Strike: Photographers,” in Potential History: UnlearningImperialism; Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “Geographies of Racial Capitalism with Ruth Wilson Gilmore,” Antipode, 16:19, June 1, 2020, https://antipodeonline.org/geographies-of-racial-capitalism/.
4. This framework is indebted to the work of consent educators. For more attending: Mia Schachter builds extensive language and somatic tools for identifying and practicing consent, through an anti-binary, trauma-informed, abolitionist approach, Share the Load, https://sharetheloadinc.com/, 2020.
5. This framework is inspired by photographer Hashem El Madani who built a context of trust in his neighborhood such that residents would ask him to take pictures for them: “Every morning, I would take my camera and walk down the streets of the old city of Saida [ Lebanon ], where people called me to take photographs of them...I walked through the souks of vegetables, shoemakers, carpenters, and textiles, then went down to the sea castle, the beach, and up until the Land castle. I went as far as the orange fields outside the city walls, the new bridge at Ain el Helweh, the Bargout, Nabi Yahya, and even the Kinayat, the Eucalyptus trees by the river. Everywhere on my way, people asked me to come in and take portraits of their families...” in Mapping Sitting: On Portraiture and Photography (Beirut: Arab Image Foundation, 2002), 839.
6. In Listening to Images, scholar, Tina Campt forges an approach that attends to the quiet acts of refusal transmitted by Black sitters in photographic encounters that were not designed by or for them. For example, in a series of ethnographic portraits, Campt prompts us to consider the body language of the sitters in a state of quivering stasis, rather than immobile stillness. This stasis (this tension, this tremble) points to the dense scape of bodily autonomy that will always elude the shutter, Listening to Images (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2017).
7. This framework is inspired by the Armenian photography studios and workshops built post-genocide in now-occupied Palestine, in the first half of the twentieth century, and the ways all of these studios worked together to support each other’s efforts amidst ongoing displacement. For more attending: Azoulay, “The Commons is Never Irremediably Lost: Jaffa St, Jerusalem,” in Potential History.
8. This framework is indebted to many. It is indebted to abolitionist, Sojourner Truth captioning and claiming her photographic image: “I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance.”; It is also indebted to the following words transmitted by a Palestinian person demanding the terms of their picture. When faced with a camera, they refused the shutter’s transformation; Anglophonic subtitles translate their declaration as: "I don’t want you to take my picture here—wait until I return to my land—then you can take my picture.” Filmed in 1975, it will most likely have been around twenty-seven years since they were displaced from their homeland, We are the Palestinian People: Revolution Until Victory, newsreel, 1975.
9. Language on this page is indebted to the labors of readers and advisors Josh Rios, Kristi McGuire, and Matthew Goulish, as well as the editorial support from companions Nicolay Duque, Cole Thompson, and the imaginations yielded by inaugural press co-authors, Mira Dayal and beck haberstroh.
10. This comes from friend Ane Weiseth’s resounding words “A fake smile is our consequence, an accidental impetus of truth, a lack of feeling within ourselves,” offered in “ (((GUTTER LOVE )︎(SelfieISNESS))),” master’s thesis, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 2022, 62.
11. And these words arrive from friend and collaborator, beck haberstroh, co-author of the first paper camera publication. They have made cameras, camera-systems, and imaginings that have foregrounded this excuse, see www.instagram.com/p/CUS6L5TPPHK/.