Marcelo Brodsky and David Campany
David Campany talks with Marcelo Brodsky about his project 1968 – The Fire Of Ideas and the current evolution of visual culture.
David Campany: Marcelo, 1968 – The Fire of Ideas is your reconsideration of that landmark year through images of worldwide protests against many interconnected things – colonialism, capitalism, racism, patriarchy. You do this by selecting key photographs from the time and annotating them. What prompted your project and where did you start?
Marcelo Brodsky: In 1968 I was thirteen. I was very much affected by the ideas of the time, by the uprisings in Paris and Mexico, by the young people in the streets. I soon became an activist, as did my younger brother. In 1979 my brother Fernando was kidnapped and became one of the people ‘disappeared’ by the Argentinian dictatorship. In 1996 I produced my first “memorial work”, Buena Memoria (Good Memory) centered on the missing students of my school in Buenos Aires. That led me to work on several projects around our ‘disappeared’. In 2014, a group of 43 high school students from a rural school in Ayotzinapa, Mexico, disappeared when they were riding a bus to a remembrance of the massacre of 1968 in Tlatelolco, in the Square of the Three Cultures. I was very much affected by this new disappearance, and decided to work on it. I got an image of the Tlatelolco marches, and wrote on it: “If Tlatelolco would have been judged, Ayotzinapa wouldn’t have happened”. That brought me to 1968, and I started “looking around” and decided to stay there.
DC: And what did “staying there” mean for you? How do you see 1968? Was it a constellation of moments of hope? A complex symbol of unfulfilled political and social promise? Both?
MB: Staying there meant that I started looking around that moment in time. 1968 was the year of the massacre of students in Mexico, but it was also the year of ‘May 68’ in Paris. I remember a book I read at the time contained the words written on the wall of the streets of Paris: “Imagination to power”, “Be realistic, demand what is impossible”… These ideas were at the core of my development as a citizen, and marked my life profoundly. 1968 was a moment of hope in which we were sure we would change the world for the better, from Europe to Latin America and beyond. The civil rights movement was emerging strongly in the US. The future looked promising, more freedom, more equality, more possibilities for the new generations, more pleasure, more sexual liberty, more open minds… At the time 1968 was not a symbol, but a reality of street uprisings and new ideas all over the world. If we see those ideas from the distance today, whilst some of the objectives were partially achieved, such as more sexual diversity or more political participation of the younger generations, many remain still pending, as the Black Lives Matter and feminist movements clearly demonstrate.
DC: The unfulfilled promise of that revolutionary moment is still a subject of great debate. Some have argued that the shift to single-issue causes, rather than a collective struggle of workers against corporate capitalism was to blame, since it fractured resistance, leaving the political left as a set of conflicting interest groups, none of which seemed to be able to unite against a common enemy. (In his last years Martin Luther King seemed to realise this danger, and fought for a broad coalition of the poor). Is this how you see it?
MB: Let’s start with your reference to Martin Luther King. My piece on Washington 1968 included in The Fire of Ideas shows the moment of the Civil Rights Movement in which King extended his call from African Americans to other groups of society such as Latinos, Mexican Americans, Native Americans, poor Whites… The Poor People’s campaign in Washington was a call to unite multiple social and political groups for social justice and change in the U.S. These wide social and political alliances are proving to be the way in which some goals may be achieved, by putting together different interest groups to fight for equality, human rights and progressive economic measures. In a way this unity may go beyond traditional political boundaries, such as left-right or democrat-republican. This is the alliance that will defeat Donald Trump. The Poor People’s campaign, though, could not be totally fulfilled, since Martin Luther King Junior was murdered a few weeks before the concentration in Washington took place, under the leadership of his activist friend Rev. Ralph Abernathy and his widow Loretta King. The word of order of the march was “Economic Justice for All”, which is totally valid today.
DC: Can you say a little about how you choose the images that you rework with color and annotation?
MB: The Fire of Ideas is the consequence of the development and expansion of the initial idea. I started with Paris and Mexico and went on to Washington and Rio de Janeiro. One step leads to the other. Soon I was receiving suggestions from scholars and friends about other places where there had been street action in 1968. Once I hear or know through research of events that were important, I start my visual investigation. I contact picture agencies, historic files, photographers, museums and universities that help me to find the right images and the right authors, and to contact them to negotiate the image rights. My 30 years of experience leading a picture agency, Latinstock, now closed, has made me be familiar with the process of licensing images for art projects. I know personally some of the picture agency professionals that still remain active, the collections… I also browse the web, search in specific sites, and contact the copyright holders. Each image that reaches the final edit has a long story, and there are 55 of them so far. I need them in high resolution of course, no downloads from the web. Sometimes I cannot find the right images. For example, it is proving difficult to find images of the social mobilizations of 1968 in Tunis and in Egypt. Eventually I will find them. The project remains open.
In each case I research in depth the social and political circumstances of the image to decide what to write. Finally, I print the image in black and white on cotton paper and make my color and text intervention with a common style, handwriting and color palette.
DC: What guides the way you annotate the images? Are you recovering the context lost over time? Are you reimagining these images for the present moment?
MB: There is a tension in photography between past and present, between memory and current thought, between information and secret, between document and speculation, between testimony and imagination. Images are the source of imagination, and in 1968 we wanted imagination to be in power. I saw today images of the popular uprising in Beirut after the blast and they are incredibly similar to the images of the streets of Paris in 1968. They also connect with the image included in my project of a student gathering in the front of the American University in Beirut in 1971. Past and present transit freely in photography, and what I try to do by annotating historic images and recovering their context is to throw arrows into the future. That is our present.
We are now in a time when an elitist, conservative and reactionary minority is clinging to power while the streets boil with great pressure from vast sectors of society for cultural and political change, just like in 1968. The younger generation longs for new social structures and equality, and at the same time, it is part of a major shift in visual culture that connects through and with visual language.
DC: For obvious reasons, there tends to be a structural similarity between all protest photos. The significance is in the details. One of the key differences from 1968 is the advent of the online world as a public space, a public forum, a public arena. Communities are formed online. Strategies are developed online. And yet, protest in public space still carries great importance, at a symbolic level. Plus of course, people are to some extent aware of the history of protest and its iconography. Do you think this changes the nature of protest?
MB: I believe that today more than ever the image has become as important as the fact. Politics is full of photo opportunities, as we saw recently in Washington during the protests. But the events are much more than photo opportunities. They are real. You can share a song, give a hand, smell the gas. That is not the same as watching them on screen. I believe the screen has become central, and certainly important to convene, exchange, opine, talk, manifest, create community, etc. But nothing can replace material reality if the intention is to have a political effect on social and economic structures.
Public space is symbolic and it is a space in dispute, as online space is. Each social revolution and moment of change has its instruments, its music, its battlegrounds, its leaders and its images, from the French revolution to Black Lives Matter. Each space, material or digital, each medium, culture, the future, they are all in dispute. The nature of protest, as the nature of power, changes constantly, and they adapt to the conditions of the time. Images and ideas navigate from one time to another as they do from one generation to another.
DC: 1968 came toward the end of photography’s cultural dominance. Soon after, it was eclipsed by TV and video. LIFE magazine folded in 1972. Photography has continued, and continued to be significant, in the way that secondary mediums often find new roles. Arguably photography’s new significance has come in the form of mass participation. Smart phones. Social media. Everyone attending a protest now has a camera. Very few did in ‘68. Does this make a difference?
MB: The relationship with photography used to be essential to know about ourselves, to recognize different moments in our life and the evolution of our identity through our family photographs. This has given photography a strong subjective and emotional role in our lives. But since everybody became a photographer and a potential producer of images, visual language has become essential. Images flow as narrative, as experience and as dialogue. They are in the center of life. Messages without images are simply ignored by the younger generations. Language is changing towards the visual.
In this context the presence of cameras in resistance movements is making a difference. George Floyd’s murder wouldn´t have had the same effect if it hadn´t been recorded, if it only was the voice of a witness. Images remain faithful to reality, and reality hurts. Images are more accessible and easier to produce, transforming the mobile camera into a weapon. It has become the eye of the victim. An eye that can transmit, that can denounce, a phenomenal tool in the hands of the people.
DC: Photographs show but they cannot explain what they show. Their mute stillness prevents this. It means that photographs are both essential and incomplete. Are your additions to these press photos an attempt to overcome those inevitable failings of the imagery?
MB: Artworks pose questions, and they do not intend to give answers. Artworks cannot explain or resolve the problems, they just put them in discussion. The stillness of photography enables images to have a wide array of possible meanings. They remain open to multiple interpretations. They invite thought. My additions suggest a direction in these interpretations by adding a mixture of relevant information and subjective comments. Texts within the original image are in tension with added text and color that build an alternative form of language, a poetics of resistance.
All my work is centered in the relationship between words and images and how they can reinforce each other to deliver a powerful message. From Buena Memoria (1996) when I wrote over the archival image of my class pointing out my classmates disappeared by the Argentinian dictatorship, to my visual correspondences and essays on 1968, on migration or on Human Rights, it all combines words and images. Each piece looks for an emotional reaction, for a process of identification and reflection that may connect with the personal experience of the viewer.
DC: You touch here on the essential ambiguity of photography, that whatever its claims to fact or reality, whatever its potential as a ‘weapon’, there is always so much that is missing. Is this the source of society’s continued attraction to photography, here in the 21st century? Do we want photographs because they cannot resist our will to interpret them as we wish, as we need?
MB: Silence. Silence is essential in music, since only in relationship with silence can we hear sound. In the combination of notes and emptiness the music becomes what it is. In photography there is a permanent tension between what can be seen and what cannot. What is visible in the image is a cut in reality, and it is not an ingenuous cut. It frames what it wants to show and it leaves out what it doesn´t. The opposites attract each other in photography: what is and what is not, truth and fiction, reality and construction, narration and document, light and shadow, empty and full, detail and blow up, presence and absence, imagination and fact.
Another element in the interpretation of the image is the experience of the viewer, who will subjectively relate to it through his/her own experience. This frees photography from the constrictions of predetermined meaning. Everyone is free to interpret a photograph as he/she wishes. Photography requires freedom to be made and also to be read.
In my work, I can change the ‘punctum’ of the image, the focus of attention, and drive the viewer towards details that may remain unseen with a just a quick look. I can make visible with my intervention what is initially invisible. Such is the case of the stones in the hands of the demonstrators. Seen in black and white they are obscure, but once highlighted, they change the meaning of the image.
DC: Do you feel the original images were made with such acceptance of ambiguity and instability of meaning? Or do they come from an era of greater certainty about the communicative power of photography?
MB: The press pictures I licence to do my work were made following the patterns and the principles of press photography. These principles shape a deontology and follow the ethic of journalistic photographs, which mandates no retouching, and no modification of the original for it to be published as information in newspapers and magazines. Whilst there is always ambiguity in every photograph, the central role of press images is to inform, and to convey meaning within the context and the ideology of the media for which they are shot.
Images are read within different contexts. Each context determines the way in which meaning is associated with an image. Certainty varies across different contexts. A photograph published in a newspaper is not the same as one hanging on a museum wall or stick into a vernacular photo album. There are many fields within photography, and each one has its own rules. In the case of the artworld, the rules are flexible and they are established by the artist. There is total freedom to create in art, and as long as the media and strategy of the artist are coherent with his message and his trajectory, the only certainty the artist looks for is to create powerful, good quality work.
As we know, photography has come to play a central role in the arts of the twentieth century, by posing the question about what is and what is not art. That is the uncertainty that the irruption or photography provoked in the arts, liberating them from their portraiture and landscape obligations and helping to open up the era of surrealism, abstraction and conceptual art. As Joan Fontcuberta writes, photography is a subjective interpretation of reality, but the ambiguity of this subjectivity does not limit its communicative power. It simply is not reality, but an approach to it. As photography questioned what art is, photography within the context of art questions its own limits. An artwork that questions the limits of the medium in which it was created, expanding its borders and its potential, plays a positive role within the medium. It may also help to develop alternative ways of seeing.
DC: Photojournalism’s self-imposed regulations about retouching are fairly recent and have proved difficult to reinforce. Moreover, the history of photojournalism is, in some ways, a history of retouching. I have quite a few press prints of the well-known 1968 protest images, bought on eBay, and many of them are retouched, to bring out details, to obscure unwanted details, or to make atmospheres more dramatic. Such retouching – literally, painting carefully on the photograph’s surface – was a very common practice. Almost no news image was published unretouched. So, quite counterintuitively, it was the era of the digital that, in making the practice so much easier, actually had the effect of prompting the tightening up of regulations around retouching. There is less of it now than there used to be. On one level I see your own interventions – bold, colorful and unhidden – as an implicit but emphatic reminder of this long and complicated history.
MB: I was one of the Jurors of the World Press Photo Award in 2018. All images presented to the jury would go through a validation process that verified that they were not retouched by any means. Images with color corrections or other changes were automatically eliminated, and a group of technical experts would review the original memory cards when there was any doubt.
I recall the corrected press prints from the picture agency times: cropping, writing on the image and other manipulations were certainly usual. But as you say the digital era made this so easy that this practice is no longer accepted by the media or the awards. The deontology of sticking to the visual facts remains an ethical principle of visual information in the media today.
I like the idea of considering my intervention as a way of retouching the original image, although my retouching is sometimes very heavy and it can change the original picture very much. I can orient the eyes of the viewer to the points of the image that I consider relevant, add texts and comments, change color…. I consider the photograph as a point of departure for a discourse that includes other elements, both within the piece and in relationship to the other ones that form the complete essay. There are connections within each piece and there are dialogues between the pieces, the different uprisings, the youth movements, the spirit of the times.
My work circulates in the world of exhibitions, galleries, collections, the artworld, which is free of the ethical restrictions associated with journalism. The images are open for artistic and conceptual action. Here my own ethical principles come into play. As an activist, I am a supporter of just rebellions for justice, for Human Rights and for Equality: the historical ones in 1968 and the contemporary ones in 2020.