Challenges of the archive

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Andrea Pócsik

The photo archive of unlearning

André Raatzsch's thought-provoking videos, which he made for the interpretation of the RomArchive's photographic materials, give Roma scholars the opportunity to perform decolonizing speech acts. They create a platform for individuals with different points of view to express and (with the help of editing) combine shared statements.

Meanwhile they (visually) create both the system of references and the interpretative framework in which, and according to the rules of which, this photographic material can and should be used. The author uses the poetic tool of allegory to create the realm of thought described above: we observe a few selected archival images, within a frame which is created by the shadow of hands slowly passing across them. The special relationship of form and content, poetics and politics opens a range of interpretative possibilities. The position of the hands' owner is identical to that of the photographer and the viewer, and this immediately raises the question of power. Moreover, it brings the original meaning of photograph, the association of “writing with light” into play, although the cinematic tool of “writing with shadow” does not bring the moment captured in the image back to life, rather it turns passive reception into an active process.

Among the concepts in Roland Barthes' oft-cited text on the nature of photography, most consider “studium”, “a field of cultural interest” and the “punctum”, “that unexpected flash which sometimes crosses it” to be useful and more broadly applicable (Kovács 2009, Azoulay 2011), but in this case, the third concept of “stigma” deserves our attention.

I am of the opinion that a photo archive can lend itself to making the stigma, the moment of intensity (“The pure representation [of the that-has-been]”) equal to the “studium” and the “punctum” in the process of reception. The poetics of the images thus attempts to restore something, it evokes moments that are good to remember.

Almost every interviewee emphasizes the fact that the greatest lack in the visual representation of Roma concerns private photos, films, and through them, the presentation of special moments in “normal” everyday life. Although this gets mentioned increasingly, it is nevertheless not at all self-evident in the press and in illustrations. – quite the opposite. An archive, (particularly if it uses artistic tools in the editing process as seen in the video) is able to promote such cultural practice.1 Moreover, as strange as it may sound, it does so using the tool of unlearning, which I consider the politics of this archive.

Edward Said quoted one of the foundational ideas of post-colonial theory, by Raymond Williams, in Orientalism (Said 1979). The term used is “unlearning” [of the “inherent dominative mode”] rather than “forgetting”, which I find noteworthy.

The fabric of these power relations are condensed in one particular archival picture which André Raatzsch brings to life by means of the hand shadows: It portrays a police raid. A traveling Roma man stands in front of his tent with a disciplined look. There is a little child next to him, and behind him we see the good citizens, the “witnesses” on one side, the gendarmes doing their job on the other. They all look into the camera.2

It was collected by the museologist and ethnographer Péter Szuhay; he “discovered” and was the first to analyze this picture (Szuhay 1998). Later, the sociologist Csaba Dupcsik highlighted it in his book on the history of Roma research. He mentioned his predecessor, and avoided discussing the issue with regards to power, if not without giving a reason (Dupcsik 2009). Much later, I myself used it in my study on media and the criminalization of Roma (Pócsik 2017).

Péter Szuhay's role is definitive and remains an eternal reference point in the analysis of the photographic representation of Roma. In Hungarian Roma research, he was the first to call for talking back and to analyze its significance (Szuhay 2010). Raatzsch's solution with the shadowy image reflects on all of these modes of speaking, and simultaneously teaches us to forget.

It does so while also teaching us to remember by seeing, using the poetics of the images.

The other day, I had a conversation with a young Hungarian Roma painter, Norbert Oláh. We analyzed his new works, images of firewalls and rooftops of an impoverished district in Budapest which has a large Roma population. A new way of seeing can be found in his marker drawings made using a special technique, with which Norbert Oláh – according to his creative credo – teaches us to dismantle the social context while preserving it.

I believe this photo archive is meant to, and is able to, create narratives which, in the spirit of Walter Benjamin's documentarist stories and Roma paramichis (narrative culture), can convey not facts and information but – in line with the curator's goals and ideals – wisdom which can help us understand and experience all forms of oppression and thus – fulfilling what many of us long for – contribute to dismantling them.