Vol. 6 No. 1 (2021): Liberation

From the social and political struggles of the nineteenth century Paris Commune to the anticolonial and anti-imperialist liberation movements of the twentieth century, through liberation struggles such as women’s liberation movements and workers’ rights movements, to the contemporary independence and emancipation movements (such as Kurdish and Palestinian), photography has been used for advocacy or mobilization of support for and promotion of the movements or their causes as well as for the historization of the events and struggles. Photography has documented and framed pivotal historical moments, as well as seemingly unimportant trivia, to communicate the drama and complexity of collective action. The photographs of these movements be it that of social class, ethnicity, gender, or others, have always belonged to the idea of subaltern groups struggling against (and through) the currents of the dominant socio-political powers. Throughout the years and circulated across different social and cultural spheres these images have accumulated new meanings and, being constantly in a state of flux, they have been reconceptualized for the construction of an “ever new” reimagined present. From acting as a “silent witness” of the events (past or present) to operating as vocal advocates for a particular socio-political agenda, or for a particular (re)interpretation of reality.

If photography functions as a visual performance of imagined social reality and is transfixed and signifiable only in view of a particular act it needs to perform, then how it establishes new threads of civic relationships, and the ways it enforces or undermines the geopolitical power equilibrium, the dominant social stratification and the distribution of socio-political power are indicators of a photographic agency that is decidedly political. It is precisely the operational nexus of liberation photographs at the time of liberation or independence that is of essential importance. Do we view photographs of those movements as liberating “per se”? Or should these photographs only be evaluated on their impact and on whether and to what extent they have been able to affect change? Citizen emancipation and civic responsibility are certainly prevailing notions in such photography, emphasizing its transformative potential. However, in this age of national populism, post-truth, and actual fake news, when such imagery can be so easily used and misused as a backdrop for any given agenda no matter how corrupt or ill-intentioned, the social power of the photographic medium is put under question. Is the image powerless? Or does photography always in and of itself fight back? How can photography in the contemporary social and communication milieu redeem its claim to emancipatory relevance?

These questions acquire additional urgency and complexity in the larger media environment as it is being transformed by digital technologies and social media practices. The utopian, liberatory promises of these media have already been broken – for example with the global rise of illiberal populisms – and yet the artistic affordances, pervasive democratization of production and circulation, and relationships between communities and networks offer both challenges and resources for liberatory public art. 

Membrana vol. 6, no. 1 (Liberation) presents articles that address photography through the ideas of liberation and independence of various social formations.