What does it mean to listen to images? Why do images seem to be haunted by their contexts of production? How are marginalized communities using the intimacy of images to build new ways of relating to each other and the world?
In episode 63 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach talks with professor Tina Campt about how listening to images reveals their multisensory and embodied nature, the haptic connections we have to photos, why the art/activism/academia braid holds such power for Black communities, and why putting intimacy at the center of all she does is how Tina imagines otherwise.
Guest: Tina Campt
Tina Campt is the Claire Tow and Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Africana and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women, and Chair of the Africana Studies Department at Barnard College.
Originally trained in modern German history at Cornell University, her research explores gender, racial, and diasporic formation in Black communities in Germany, as well as Europe more broadly.
She is the author of three books: Listening to Images (Duke University Press, 2017), Image Matters: Archive, Photography, and the African Diaspora in Europe (Duke University Press, 2012), and Other Germans: Black Germans and the Politics of Race, Gender, and Memory in the Third Reich (University of Michigan Press, 2004).
She has edited special issues of Feminist Review, Callaloo and Small Axe, and together with Paul Gilroy, co-edited Der Black Atlantik (Haus der Kulturen der Welt, 2004), the first German language collection of key texts on the Black Atlantic.
We chatted about
- Tina’s latest book Listening to Images (2:23)
- Thinking beyond a single image (05:47)
- Photography as haptic (11: 26)
- Intimacy and image haptics (14:51)
- Tina’s work on the African diaspora in Germany (20:20)
- Imagining otherwise (23:30)
What it means to listen to images
What does it mean to encounter images and to look beyond what you actually see? That means opening ourselves up as viewers to the other ways that images touch us, make contact with us, and resonate with us.
Thinking beyond a single image
If you background what you see, you develop a relationship to everything that came to produce this image….What is being performed you can’t necessarily see by looking at the image but you apprehend when you look away from the image and you attune yourself to the impression that is left upon you by the person who decided to take this image.
Photography as haptic
Photographs are haptic objects—meaning they’re not just something we’re supposed to see. Photographs are made to be touched, to be handed from one person to the next…Be it a portrait, a daguerreotype, an album, our experiences with those images is really about touching them, leafing through them, giving them to other people, sending them to folks, framing them, displaying them—those are not just encounters of vision or sight.
Intimacy and image haptics
The notion of intimacy is precisely what I’m trying to get at when I’m talking about the haptics of images. It’s about a sense of responsiveness and relation to something that is both active and passive. Sometimes we feel an active response to an image, but more often there is a passive response of connection….Haptics comes from a notion of touch, physical touch. But I also insist that we think about touch as being affective, emotional—it’s about the connection that an object allows us to create to a memory, to an aspiration, to a family member, to each other as social beings—even if we don’t know or don’t have knowledge of the person in an image.
Tina’s work on the African diaspora in Germany
What I found so striking in Germany, where my work was focused on Black communities in the Nazi period, is the way that ordinary Black folks were using photography to claim their place as German citizens and as Germans (not necessarily as Black Germans), even in a moment when Blackness and Germanness were seen as antithetical….The question I was constantly posing is why image yourself? Why create images of yourself in public when your very presence was endangered? And the response is that they needed to do that to claim their space. They were not going to capitulate to being outsiders in their own country. They had the same kinds of relationships of intimacy, friendship, and family that every other German family had and photography was their enduring testimony to being able to do that.
One of the worlds that I’m writing towards is a world where the categories presented to us for being in the world do not limit our possibilities for living unbounded lives. In both books, I talk about what it means to practice refusal, which is to refuse the really static categories of being that Black subjects are limited to. But what I’m also trying to write towards is a world that’s structured by intimacy….What would the world would look like if our basis for our relationship to everyone was intimacy? Where you treated strangers as intimates and you were accountable for their care? There’s an activist here at the Barnard Center for Research on Women who gave me the perfect example of what that would look like….Her name is Mariame Kaba and she says ‘you know what world I’m working towards? A world where when you called 911, the 911 operator didn’t call the police. The 911 operator called your neighbor and your neighbor came by to see what they could do to support or help you. And you knew that your neighbor would come and that if you got that call, you would go to your neighbor and help them address whatever situation they were engaged with or they needed help in.’ So that’s the world I’m working towards, that’s the world I want to live in. I want to live in a world where we don’t have a force that is trying to keep order but we have a world where we are intimately responsible for one another.
More from Tina
Projects and people discussed
- Martina Bacigalupo, Gulu Real Art Studio
- Walter Benjamin
- Benjaminian aura
- Trayvon Martin
- #IfTheyGunnedMeDown Tumblr
- Barnard Center for Research on Women
- Mariame Kaba
About Imagine Otherwise
Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.
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Full episode transcript
Cathy Hannabach [00:03] [upbeat music in background]: Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty gritty work of imagining otherwise.
[00:19]: I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach. [music fadeout]
[00:22]: This is episode 63 and my guest today is Tina Campt. Tina is the Claire Tow and Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Africana and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Barnard College. She’s also the director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women as well as chair of the Africana Studies Department. Originally trained in modern German history at Cornell, her research explores the gender, racial, and diasporic formations in Black communities in Germany in particular, as well as Europe more broadly. She’s the author of three books including Other Germans: Black Germans and the olitics of Race, Gender, and Memory in the Third Reich, which was published in 2004 by the University of Michigan Press, Image Matters: Archived Photography in the African Diaspora in Europe, which was published in 2012 by Duke University Press, and Listening to Images, her most recent book, which came out in 2017, also published by Duke University Press.
[01:21]: Tina has edited special issues of Feminist Review, Callaloo, and Small Axe, and together with Paul Gilroy, co-edited Der Black Atlantik, the first German language collection of key texts on the Black Atlantic. In our interview, Tina and I discuss how listening to images reveals their multisensory and embodied nature, the haptic connections that we have to photos, why the art, activism, academia braid holds such power for Black communities, and why putting intimacy at the center of all that she does is how Tina imagines otherwise.
Cathy Hannabach [01:57]: Thank you so much for being with us today.
Tina Campt [01:59]: You’re very welcome. I’m looking forward to the conversation.
Cathy Hannabach [02:03]: You’re the author of a really fun new book called Listening to Images where you talk about a subject that maybe is not so immediately apparent. You talk about listening to photography, particularly photography about Black subjects that’s ordinarily dismissed or not considered particularly important. So I’m curious what this concept of listening to images means for you.
Tina Campt [02:26]: Part of what the premise of the book is is to actually be able to force us to think in a way that I call “counterintuitively,” which means that I’m asking people to take themselves out of their normal ways of understanding certain terms and certain practices that they participate in an everyday basis. And so when I say listening to images, what does it mean to listen to images? The first thing I’m trying to say is what does it mean to encounter images and to look beyond what you actually see? That means opening ourselves up as viewers to the other ways that images touch us, make contact with us, and resonate with us. And in order to actually be able to explain what it means to listen to images, one of the things that I have to do is, and one of the things I do in the book is, to define what sound is and then to define what listening means differently.
[03:34]: Sound is something we always think of as a sensory quality that impact us through our ears, that we perceive sound through our ears and our ear drums. But at a physical level, what sound actually is is vibration. It’s the vibration of waves and those waves coming into contact with us. For humans that conduit is our ears and our eardrums. What actually happens is that something strikes our eardrums and so it’s a method of contact, it’s a method of making an impression on our ears that then registers as sound. Now sound registers in different frequencies, only some of which human beings can actually hear through our ears. And so there are other frequencies of sound that only other creatures with far better developed sensory capacities can actually apprehend.
[04:40]: One of the examples that I use to make clear that sound doesn’t just register through our ears, that sound registers through physical contact, is to actually talk about how deaf people hear. And deaf people hear through their bodies. They hear through, literally, the vibration on their bodies. For example you can build these sound boxes where they lay on them and they can perceive the rhythms and the vibrations and even do things like dance to music and interact with music. So what I’m saying when I’m saying listening to images is what happens if we don’t necessarily focus only on what we’re looking at, but how an image affects us through other registers of touch, through other registers of impressions? Impressions that images leave upon us when we don’t obsess about the details that we are seeing and we think about how they are moving us.
Cathy Hannabach [05:48]: You have some really great examples in the book. Can you maybe talk us through one of the photographs or photographic series that you found particularly interesting and that kind of illustrates this idea of perceiving images in ways other than just looking?
Tina Campt [06:02]: One of the most captivating series of images that I talk about and that’s something that’s really important in my work is that I’m really interested in series of images. So multiples of images because I think that in engaging in multiples, with the seriality of certain kinds of images, we allow ourselves to open ourselves up to something beyond the individual image itself. So the example that just kind of rocked my world was a series of images called Gulu Cutout Photographs. And these photographs were actually photographic refuse. They were taken in a photography studio in Africa where the photographer essentially was making identification photographs for people who wanted bank loans, for people who wanted to get jobs. What they did because normal ID photographs come in multiples of four, but in the context of this African nation, that was too expensive. So they would take a single photograph and cut out the face. And so he would discard the rest. And so what you would have are these beautiful photographs, color photographs against red backgrounds, usually of just the body without a face. And the photographer, Martina Bacigalupo, came upon the studio and came upon all of these thrown away or discarded photographs with faces cut out. And she assembled them into a gorgeous installation exhibition called the Real Gulu Photography Studio.
[07:56]: And what you see when you look beyond what you see is that the example that I use is to talk about what happens, what kind of interaction can you have when you listen to images of people whose faces are absent? So we’re usually drawn to the face and the face is what tells us a story. A face is what is bringing us into contact with the person. One of the things that I’m trying to argue is that if you background what you see, you develop a relationship to everything that came to produce this image. So in several images you see people in these massive oversized jackets. And you realize that those oversized jackets (when you look beyond what you see), first of all you see are jackets and hands. And then you step back and you think about why is everybody wearing an oversized jacket? And you realize that that jacket must not have been theirs. And then you realize after that that the jacket was signifying something even though it wasn’t seen in the image. The only thing that was seen in the image that they actually used was the collar.
[09:15]: So what is being performed there that you can’t necessarily see by looking at the image, but you can apprehend when you look away from the image and you attune yourself to what is the impression that’s left upon me about this person who decided to take this image because this image was compelled of them in order to advance their particular way of life.
[09:44]: Another striking photograph in that series is one of someone with a young baby or young child laying on their lap. This person as well is wearing one of those oversized suit jackets. And you realize when you step back from the image and not just looking at the child who is the focal point in the image, you start looking sort of…you start backing away from the image and the impression it leaves upon you is really of the different prints and the different textures that you’re seeing contrasting against one another. And at a certain point, once you’ve let yourself think through those different textures, you realize that it’s not a man, it’s a woman. It’s a mother. It’s a mother who has entered into this photo studio attempting to create a particular persona and everything about that persona actually is cut away from who she is and that what she’s putting forward is only the scarcest outline that’s required to identify her. When all around that, everything that was cut away, becomes that which leaves the impression that you no longer get in the identification photograph that she actually went into the studio to make.
Cathy Hannabach [11:13]: It’s such a different way of looking at images or of understanding what visual culture does to us on an embodied level.
Tina Campt [11:22]: Yeah. That’s actually the point of my work—to be able to offer people an embodied encounter with images that is not privileging simply what we see because there’s so many different levels of engagement and there’s so many different kinds of encounter that we can have with photographs. Before I started working with identification photographs, which are the genre of photos that I explore in Listening to Images, I was working with family photographs. And one of the points that I was trying to make that carries forward into Listening to Images is the idea that photographs are haptic objects, meaning that they’re not just taken as something we’re supposed to see, but that photographs are made or have historically been made to be touched, to be handed from one person to the next, to have an embodied encounter with. So that goes both from the individual format of the image, be it a portrait, be it a daguerreotype, be it an album. Our experience with those images is really about touching them, leafing through them, giving them to people, sending them to other folks, framing them, displaying them.
[12:51]: Those are not just encounters of vision or sight. They are physical, embodied encounters and one of the things that happens through those embodied encounters is that it evokes both what you’re seeing, you have to actually have an encounter with that which is within the image, but we also bring an enormous amount to those images. We develop an affective connection to them where we begin to feel with them and where they begin to solicit from us certain emotional, affective responses. But those affective responses are not just about what we see. So for me, there is a way in which the feeling of images is both in your hands and in your heart. Sometimes they smell in a particular way. I talk about an example in my previous book where I came upon a bag of old Super 8 films, videos of my childhood, and the bag that they were contained in smelled just like my grandmother’s house. And so that took me into this other journey of not just what was captured on the films, but who made them, where they were stored, how they got to me, and all the different relationships that go along with these little tiny boxes Super 8 film.
Cathy Hannabach [14:17]: Sounds like a kind of affective, almost Benjaminian aura, this kind of halo if you will around these objects that is deeply affective, that could be nostalgic, that could be intensely emotional, that we only perceive some of sometimes depending on our relationship to those objects. Whether we know any of this back story or whether it’s our own back story, we bring those kind of different relationships to it. It seems like there’s a really intense form of intimacy there.
Tina Campt [14:47]: Right. The notion of intimacy is precisely what I’m trying to get at when I’m talking about the haptics of images. It’s about a sense of responsiveness in relation to something that is both active and passive. Sometimes we feel there’s an active response to an image, but more often there’s a passive response of connection, which is again what we bring to an image as opposed to what we are seeing or taking away from an image. And I like to talk about that as haptics, which comes from a notion of touch, physical touch. But I also insist that we think about touch as being affective, emotional. It’s about the connection between or the connection that an object allows us to create to a memory, to an [inaudible 00:15:54], to a family member, to each other as social being even if you don’t know or don’t have a knowledge of the person in those images.
[16:06]: One of the other things that I find so captivating about identification photography is that in all of the archives that I’ve been looking at, they are found photography and they are anonymous photography for the most part. We don’t know who these people are, but somehow even in that moment, especially in that moment when we are not focused so much on identifying a person in them, we can establish a relationship to them by virtue of the fact that they may look like someone, they remind us of someone, or they remind us of certain genres of images that we have a relationship to. So for example, I talk about mugshots in the book, Listening to Images, and I talk about the way in which mugshots are created and we have come to expect them to on some level signify guilt or criminality.
[17:08]: And that’s become a kind of, I call it “back formation.” It’s something that has been put into our consciousness that in turn shapes how we see them and we can no longer separate them from that actual genre or modality. So that anybody figured in the genre of the mugshot is assumed to be guilty. What happens in the contemporary moment is that which we see that happening on television. We’ve seen that in relationship to people like Trayvon Martin whose images are produced or cropped or publicized as an indication of dangerousness, as an indication of guilt. And it becomes that which is read backward onto the rest of his life. One of the most striking sets of images that I talk about in the book are images from Tumblr that were taken by young African American people under the rubric of #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, what image would they use?
[18:12]: What those individuals did was they posted two photographs of themselves in response to the ways in which Trayvon Martin’s image was being criticized or vilified and turned him into a predator supposedly. And their premise was if my life is likely to be taken away from me by a police shooting or some kind of horrible violent act, if I am more susceptible to premature death, I am also susceptible to having my image defamed in my absence after my death. So what I’m going to do is I’m going to post two images of myself that are both true: one of which you will vilify, the other of which will tell you that I’m more than that vilification.
[19:03]: And so what does it mean to actually use the photograph, even the photograph that is meant to pathologize you, to actually discredit you and discredit your life, what does it mean to actually intervene in the here and now to claim yourself, your sense of yourself as a complex individual in the future when you might be gone? And that that’s an incredibly radical act to me of young people who are actually refusing to be silenced even in death.
Cathy Hannabach [19:34]: So these examples, the examples that you ended on there, are both US examples but I know much of your research specifically focuses on Europe and of course the transnational traffic between these spaces as well. Here’s where we can maybe shift gears a little bit to talk more specifically about how you see these issues of imagery, of visual culture, of that kind of haptic sense of vision and touch, how you see that playing out in your research on the African diaspora in Europe and Germany in particular. I’m curious if there are particular shifts or maybe directions that you’re seeing that field go that you’re super excited about.
Tina Campt [20:15]: I’m most excited about literally the proliferation of work on Europe because when I started, there was very little on, little written about, the Black European communities mostly outside of the UK. And I’m delighted by the younger scholars who are doing really fascinating work not so much on photography, but on a lot on film, a lot on Black artists, visual artists, and the kinds of interventions that they are making through performance as well as through their own creative practices. One of the things that’s been so striking to me in working on family photography of Black Germans and Black Britains is the way that they, like African Americans, have mobilized photography to speak back to the stereotypes of Black communities that were very different in Europe by virtue of its different history in relationship to slavery and the slave trade and its lack of a system of Jim Crow segregation. But all the same, the history of colonization in Britain and in Germany created the same kinds of pathologized, demonized, dangerous tropes of Blackness that we see in the United States.
[21:47]: What I found so striking in Germany for example, where my work was focused on Black communities in the Nazi period, is the way that ordinary Black folks were using photography to actually be able to claim their place as German citizens and as Germans, not necessarily as just Black Germans. Even in a moment when blackness and German-ness were seen as antithetical and even the source of endangerment. So the question that I was constantly posing is why image yourself? Why create images of yourself in public when your very presence was endangered? And the response is they needed to do that to claim their space. They were not going to capitulate to being outsiders in their own country. They had the same kinds of relationships of intimacy, friendship, family that every other German family had and photography was their enduring testimony to being able to do that.
Cathy Hannabach [23:02]: So this brings me to my favorite question and my last question. And I love talking with guests about this. It’s a question that really gets at the heart of why you do what you do. So obviously this podcast is called Imagine Otherwise and your work is a really fantastic example of just that—of imagining and producing a different way of being in the world or indeed different worlds themselves. So I’ll just ask you, what is that world that you’re working towards when you write your books, when you do this kind of research, when you encourage your students and your colleagues and your audiences for your work to listen differently or to see differently? What kind of world do you want?
Tina Campt [23:41]: Big, big question.
Cathy Hannabach [23:43]: It is. It’s huge. I know.
Tina Campt [23:45]: Ginormous question. The world that I want. So in writing the last two books, one of the worlds that I’m writing towards is a world where the categories presented to us for being in the world do not limit our possibilities for living unbounded lives. In both books, I talk about what it means to practice refusal, which is to refuse the really static categories of being that Black subjects are limited to. But what I’m also trying to write towards is a place or a world that’s structured by intimacy. I’ve been actually teaching a class this semester called Practice and Refusal and we’ve been having an ongoing conversation about what would the world would look like if our basis for our relationship to everyone was intimacy? Where you treated strangers as intimates and you were accountable for their care?
[25:06]: There is an activist here at the Barnard Center for Research on Women where I work and direct who gave me the perfect example of what that would look like. And I’ve often mentioned it because it blows my mind. Here name is Mariame Kaba. She said, ‘You know what kind of world we’re working towards? It would be a world where when you called 911, the 911 operator didn’t call the police. The 911 operator called your neighbor and your neighbor came by to see what they could do to support or help you. And that you knew that your neighbor would come and that if you got that call, you would go to your neighbor and help them address whatever situation they were engaged with or they needed help in.” So that’s the world I’m working towards. That’s the world that I want to live in. I want to live in a world where we don’t have a force that is trying to keep order but we have a world in which we are intimately responsible for one another.
Cathy Hannabach [26:18]: I think that sounds pretty fantastic as well.
Tina Campt [26:22]: I hope we get there, right?
Cathy Hannabach [26:23]: We’re trying! Well, thank you so much for being with us and sharing how you imagine otherwise.
Tina Campt [26:31]: Thank you so much for the Imagine Otherwise podcast. It’s a fabulous idea and I’m really grateful that you included me.
Cathy Hannabach [26:42]: [upbeat music in background] Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud, Rebecca Reynolds, Michelle Velasquez-Potts, and myself, Cathy Hannabach.
[26:56]: You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discuss on the show. [music fadeout]