Artists Presentation
Susan Meiselas and Lorie Novak
Creating Collective Memory on the Web

Synopsis by Elizabeth Cohen

 

 

During the presentation Creating Collective Memory on the Web Susan Meiselas and Lorie Novak talked about history, memory and photography as it relates to their respective websites.

The presentation began with Lorie Novak's web site, Collected Visions (http://cvisions.cat.nyu.edu). Novak started her talk by saying that the web offers an opportunity to show a piece that cannot exist in any other form. She then began a demonstration of Collected Visions. As she demonstrated the website she told the audience that in 1996 she received an opportunity to begin her web project from the Center for Advanced Technology. She mentioned that in the three years that the site has been available she has had no problem to her knowledge with people taking pictures off the site.

The name Collected Visions comes from a piece Novak completed in 1993. Although the pieces carry the same title, their subject matter differs. The 1993 piece consisted of snapshots collected from 100 women and took the form of a slide and music installation. The website, Collected Visions, consists of an online database of snapshots and photographic essays. Visitors are invited to add snapshots to the database and construct a photographic essay with pictures from the database (their own or those of others). The resulting photographic essays often consist of snapshots taken by someone other than the person writing the accompanying story. Through these juxtapositions fictive, memories are attached to the photographs, but it does not necessarily mean the memories are not real.

As Novak continued to demonstrate the site, she voiced her concern about a lack of submissions to the website. She suggested making the site available at a dedicated public space or conducting workshops about it. She warned that community interactive ideas on the web do not always work. Most people passively surf the web.

After the demonstration of the website she showed a video also called Collected Visions that she completed in 1998 as a sample for a large-scale projected installation she is currently creating. The video showed snapshots dissolving in and out of each other with a voice-over about snapshots and memory.

After Novak's video, Meiselas took the stage with the comment, I'm going to take you to an emotionally far away place. She told the audience about her interest in news and history and began to show slides. The first slide on the screen was a Time magazine cover from April 1991. She credited the image on this cover, taken during the Persian Gulf War, with inspiring her to go to Kurdistan.

Meiselas mentioned that she was not interested in taking combat war photographs. She was interested in documenting the systematic destruction of Kurdistan. Most Kurds had fled for Turkey. She decided not to photograph there, but rather in Iran and Northern Iraq, areas that the Kurds consider their homeland. After her first trip, Meiselas returned with Human Rights Watch to document the uncovering of mass graves by forensic anthropologists. She collected testimonies from people in the hope of finding out why these mass graves exist. During what Meiselas called the first stage of the work, she documented the destruction of Koreme for Middle East Watch. The evidence provided by these photographs would form part of the charge of genocide against Saddam Hussein.

Meiselas contrasted her work to daily news by stating that daily news uses images that evoke immediacy. Her images of Kurdistan document the past. It took one year for any of her photographs to appear in the media.

Meiselas then began to explain phase two. As she came and went from Kurdistan, Meiselas passed through Istanbul. In Istanbul she searched the flea market for photographs of Kurds. She found an image she estimates was taken between 1890 and 1895. While at the flea market, she felt that people were suspicious of her because of her interest in this image. She wanted to know why this postcard was made? For whom?

As her presentation continued, Meiselas explained that she saw herself within a timeline of image makers that had photographed Kurdistan. She became interested in photographs that had been taken from Kurdistan. She became aware of the photographs made in the early 1900s by the Arabist (or anti British) Gertrude Bell.

Meiselas then began to talk of her efforts to reconstitute fragments of a Kurdish history. Without a country, Kurds had been left without a safe place for an archive of artifacts from their experience. In 1992, Meiselas embarked on a project to reproduce photographs held by Kurds who had returned to Kurdistan with Polaroid positive/negative film. The ritual of rephotographing led her to Kurdish photographers. As she talked to people about the images she had collected, they shared specific stories about each person in the photograph. The stories were connected in direct ways to the images.

After Meiselas explained the six and a half year process by which she began to collect images and stories she talked about putting together the book she compiled as a collection of images and primary materials portraying the Kurds. The book brings together fragments of a history and chronicles how these photographs have changed over a hundred years. This book, Meiselas stated, preserves the material history of these Kurdish images. The book was designed in-house with Quark software.

Meiselas then told the audience that she felt a need at some point to fight against the authoritative feeling of the book. She thought of making a CD-ROM, but she could not find anyone to help her with the project. At this point she realized that the web was not only more exciting, but provided a good solution. She had created relationships with a community of Kurds who continued to want to contribute photographs to her efforts. A website would create a way for people to continue contributing to a current and past history. It would be a continued opportunity to be seen. Her ultimate goal became to have the book, a CD-ROM, and the website.

After giving the audience the aforementioned background, Meiselas gave a demonstration of the website, aka KURDISTAN (http://www.akakurdistan.com). She explained the site as having two dimensions: geographic and time linear. She designed the site with Picture Projects. Together they developed a submission procedure for photographs and text. They wanted to make it possible for new images to come in and new information about images already on the site to come in. This would be very important because Kurdish history has traditionally been transmitted orally.

Meiselas continued by explaining that she sees the net as a research tool. When she exhibits the images of Kurdistan from her book there is always a computer and scanner present. The presence of this equipment makes it possible for members of the exiled Kurdish community who visit the show to contribute to the archive.

Meiselas pointed to the problems of maintaining the site. It takes a huge amount of work. The site does not contain advertisements so it does not bring in the money that would be necessary to hire a team to constantly and indefinitely maintain the site. Two questions arise. How long do you support a site? What expectations do the viewers of the site have?

Meiselas ended her portion of the presentation by suggesting that for peoples like the Kurds who may put themselves in danger by sharing their stories, cyberspace is a safe place to explore history.

At this point in the presentation Meiselas and Novak sat down for a panel discussion during which they accepted questions from the audience.

An audience member asked, How do you fund a project? Meiselas answered that her book began from going out in the field and shooting. After photographing for two years, she received a MacArthur grant which enabled her to continue the work.

What is the difference in content between the sites? To this question, Novak responded that the difference becomes clear with the question, Who needs a voice? In her site, she said, those who speak do so without urgency. Meiselas continued the conversation by expressing that the Kurdistan site is not as interactive as she would have expected. She also mentioned that more than 50% of the people who visit the site are from outside the United States.

Novak's website contains categories such as pet pictures or funerals. An audience member asked her how Kodak's marketing tools had influenced her website. Novak shared that she has collected snapshots of women from the 40s to the present. The photographs that she collects from women now are not so different from the older ones. The social revolution that has occurred in this country does not show in photographs.

An audience member posed the following statement and question. The website can be seen as a response to people's feeling of being disconnected. Snapshots provide connections to people. Do the disjunctive combinations between stories and photographs that occur on the site cause a lack of connection? Could this feeling of disconnect be the reason why more people do not contribute to the site? To these statements and questions Novak offered the possibility that people do not want their names or pictures on the web. When visitors add to the site, they have the option to tell the real story. At the same time, many people have a desire for anonymity. Meiselas joined the conversation by saying that on the Kurdistan site many of the visitors do not want others to know what they think, know or say. Many submissions are given under an alias. The contributors fear being traced. Novak added that the web can act as ‘Big Brother.’ It is a place by which one can be found.

Another audience member began by saying that on Novak's site people are given the option to write stories about other people’s images. These stories may be based on their experiences or made up in response to the photographs. The stories on Meiselas' site may or may not be true. The process of trying to remember is a creative act. Does losing physicality and specificity by putting photographs on the web change the photographs themselves? Meiselas responded that she likes seeing the images on the computer. They come back to the object or artifact. The book is beautiful. The photographic artifacts she has collected are frail. When exhibited, they are very powerful. She said that she is interested in going back and forth between all of these manifestations of the images. For her own photographs she prefers emulsion over a digitized print.

The last questions were directed toward Meiselas What goes through your mind when you photograph a tragedy? Are you worried about subjectivity? She said that she acknowledges her subjectivity. She does not use the single frame. Multiple photographs provide a context for themselves. She creates a context by making books and having exhibitions. She did not take the picture of a man burning himself in protest. Instead, she took six years to research her subject matter in order to provide an historical context. She didn't deny her subjectivity with these photographs, but she did not want the connections between them to be about herself. To her, ‘capturing’ is key, not constructing or reenacting. With this comment, the discussion ended.

 

 

Analysis by Soon-Mi Yoo

 

 

Lorie Novak's web site, Collected Visions presents itself as a site to explore the relationship between family photographs and memory. One can submit family photographs; browse through the archive of over 1,500 photographs and write short essays about any one, or group, of images.

In her lecture, Lorie Novak said she is trying to create a site of many voices, a site that is neutral. She also said that she is more interested in what people say about the photographs than the actual (banal) family snapshots. Collected Vision, therefore, is a site for projection of narratives, fictional or otherwise, onto ‘real,’ as in, ‘actual’ photographs. What does limit the narratives, however, is the questionable assumption behind the universality of ‘family,’ which in Collected Visions means predominately white, middle class, heterosexual. There is no system for feedback or dialogue with any of the essays or photographs. What is collected in Collected Visions remains largely unexamined outside of the framework of an emotional nostalgia.

On the other hand, Susan Meiselas's aka KURDISTAN site focuses on the Kurds who have no national archive, and thus no ‘official’ history. One can go into the site and identify the anonymous images or contribute stories as part of (re)constructing Kurdish history and identity. aka KURDISTAN site is very active because of its specificity. Most of the people who join in the site have a definite agenda about Kurdish identity, culture, etc. Meiselas does not exercise editorial control over the site, but advises that comments should not be provocative or profane.

Meiselas's site escapes the danger of ‘giving them (the Other) history’ they lack by using the existing photographs and inviting people to write their claims, or speculations about the stories based on the photographs. Most interestingly the site becomes the battleground where Kurdish history has a chance to shape itself amongst passion and hatred, suffering and bigotry, and loss and remembrance.

The aka KURDISTAN site poses an interesting dilemma in that the collective Kurdistan memory takes form around these photographs. Since most of the historical photographs were taken by Westerners as part of a series of political/imperial or cold war agendas, their rhetoric necessarily complicates their use as historical documents. What does it mean to have a substantial part of your visual history written by another culture?

 

 

Response by Lorie Novak

 

The images in the Collected Visions archive are racially, socially, and geographycally diverse. The site reflects U.S. demographics. I question whether Soo Mi-Yoo spent time with the site. In addition to the diversity of images, the interactivity is designed around responding to the photographs. There are approximately 150 essays submitted from around the world, and there is quite a range in the questions that posed to the nostalgia often attached to family photographs.