4. Our Others
Published: 11.05.2018
in the series Photographic Futures
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"Such is the straying and secret I am of the photo. Thus it does not say, 'I is an other'; rather, it proffers the wholly other 'I am' whose text consists in 'we others.'" Jean-Luc Nancy 1Jean-Luc Nancy, "Nous Autres," in The Ground of the Image, trans. Jeff Fort (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005), 106.

We are interested in how temporal and subjective asynchronies enter into relationships.

A photograph says I am in a mysterious way. There is an I that we usually regard as the first I of a photograph. A photographer presses the shutter release and leaves a photographic trace. He is invisible in the image. Someone or something other is in the image. The picture may have been developed much later, may have been seen much later. But at some earlier point, the shutter release was pressed, and the machine can maintain this contact in a state of latency a long way into the future.

There is a second I in the image, and although not all photos are portraits—many show other things instead—there is good reason for conceiving of the subjectivity of photography by starting with the portrait. Things in photos have a face. But the photo does not say: I am the other. Nor does it say: I am what is seen. And it does not say: I am the face of things, either. It really does not say anything. It is a silent call to recognize oneself in the other, to mirror oneself in what is seen, to find oneself among the things. If photos remind us of anything, it is this: this alienation of the self in the other and in things not only represents an alienation rightly criticized as the result of exploitation; it also contains a utopian moment.

What does this utopia consist in? A subject that sees its humanity only in itself is condemned to narcissist navel-gazing and to dogmatically anthropomorphizing the world. Its knowledge will never go beyond the correlationism criticized by the speculative materialist, Quentin Meillassoux. According to correlationist theories, we only know what falls within our faculties, i.e. ourselves. The promise of an othering that is structurally embedded in photography, by contrast, goes beyond the human faculties. Othering is a speculation that can, unfortunately, be exploited. Alienation is an exploited othering, but like every utopia, it opens up a horizon that goes beyond the context of exploitation from which it arises.

A third I looks at the photo or swipes its fingers across the screen. In the past, this third I was at a great temporal remove from the two others. It was separated from them at least by the time it took to develop the photo, often by years or decades. What it saw was something it was holding in its hands, usually a rather small piece of (photographic) paper. This third I did not have a machine when it was looking at a photo. Digital photography has radically changed that. We know that in the digital age, the documentary ontology of the photograph has yielded to an ontology of experience or existential phenomenology of seeing that has left the evidence of the photographic trace, founded on the chemistry of photosensitive metals, behind it. Like the impression of light, transferred chemically from film to paper, the evidence of the photographed has disappeared as well. This also makes the foundation of photography on the first I—the I of the photographer—a thing of the past.

Since the advent of digital photography, the third I has been tied to a machine as much as the two that precede it. It swipes through images on a tablet or smartphone. It holds before its eyes the same kind of screen the photographer used to frame the image. In principle, it can perform the same operations of color filtering, magnification, and reduction (albeit in a less professional way and more dependent on preprogrammed formats). From now on, it is tied into the circulation of what Hito Steyerl calls "poor images" as tightly as never before and comes into immediate contact with an acceleration of the fragile ethics of the image. The digital image does not say: I am. Nor does it content itself with the silent call for me to estrange myself, to open up to the other and to a change. The digital image circulates by being shared. The other is only a tap away. The utopia of "us others" has moved much closer in time.

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