One gift of the photograph is the ease with which it translates information into knowledge. Some things may be understood just by looking, such as the appearance of the landscape, the physical bearing of the subject, the contents in the foreground and background. Other details, such as the relationship between the photographer and the subject, the reality of everyday life, are obscured to a viewer lacking the implicit details. To critically engage with and learn from a photograph is to question and suspend judgement of what seems apparent. In this there is a personal exchange between the photographer, who imagines and recreates the scene, and the viewer, whose gaze scans, interprets and debates how creative meaning has been presented.
In the university, a space where photographic and visual materials have always been important for sharing research, the presence of a photograph raises another critical question; how does the conceptual shift between different realities impact how research findings are treated when they return home? How might critical engagement occur with primarily perspectival material, when the intention and sometimes even the need, is to expand knowledge of the subjects portrayed?Part of the answer lies in social science research, where plenty of care goes into understanding research participants. Lara Rosenoff Gauvin, a Banting Post-Doctoral Fellow in Anthropology proposes a space in which to contemplate these questions, through the transformation of university space. In Presence, a 13-part exhibit that incorporates anthropological research, fieldwork, and art, traditional ways of sharing relational-based research are turned around by Gauvin’s ability to ask pointed questions about their purpose and contribution. “How can the University create spaces that make these issues and the research that it supports more present and engaging?”
Until last week, the lobby of Peterson Hall greeted its visitors with Presence, a showcase of photographs and other visual materials collected from her colleagues in the anthropology department. The exhibit was meant to provoke different ways of encountering various issues researchers at McGill are pursuing, but Gauvin was also inspired by the need for a space that fosters a communal approach to sharing research.
“You can be individualized in your research, but for me, having community and being able to talk to other people about your ideas is very important. Placing art in a public, common space is a very simple way to start these conversations, and to provide a place for them to happen”.
Gauvin, also a professional photographer, included only one of her own original pieces in the exhibit – a LED-backed picture from 2012, taken while on doctoral research trip in northern Uganda. Her research focused on communities in the Padibe subcounties of northern Uganda and their ways of ‘moving on’ from two decades of conflict and internal displacement, intimately tied to their relationship to their land. The portrait is of her host parents, who requested to be photographed on their ancestral land for their 25th wedding anniversary. The community requested more photos on their land, and upon returning to the University of British Columbia, this led to a curatorial project of its own titled ‘The Land Grows People’. Gauvin’s experiences in Uganda began over a decade ago, at the impetus of a documentary team’s project, and has since shaped her largely as an academic who encourages colleagues to “think about what happens when researchers come back to the university from the field, whatever your field may be”.In both exhibits, Gauvin points out that in North America, the tendency to hold on to grand narratives remains. The most important thing to remember, Gauvin insists in her own work, is to represent the subjects of her study with respect, which means “disseminating research in a way that has meaning for the interlocutors too”. The impetus is not to ignore what is harsh or difficult about their realities, especially in cases where conflict and displacement has harmed communities, but rather the opposite: to acknowledge, reckon with, and especially learn from how people can re-establish order after chaos and displacement breaks down their ways of living.
Narratives and representation are extremely important for sharing and learning from academic research, Gauvin says, as is the power of human relationships. Challenging the victim narratives once popular in post-colonial rhetoric, leading to its replacement with “survivor” in these conversations on political and social adversity, is perhaps a start.
Interrogating the ways university spaces can be put to better use is significant. Without that, the norm of expecting to learn by bearing witness, while protecting the privilege of one’s cultural, emotional, and intellectual distance from the information won’t change. The university has a greater role to play in how we engage with these issues while maintaining a model of respect in the approaches taken. Presence makes a strong call for dedicated public spaces where our communities (academic and otherwise) can collectively engage with the pressing issues of our times.
“We are all responsible for making change, but the worst thing is feeling pity or guilt. Without respect of others, you will never get to change anything."