Half-lives: Photography, history, memorialisation


© Anne Ferran, 30 from the series 1-38, 2003. Image courtesy of the artist and Stills Gallery, Sydney.

On 17 March 2014 I spoke at a symposium, SHADOW LAND: MEMORY AND COLONIALISM, at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, UWA. This event was a campus partnership between the Gallery and UWA departments of History and Archaeology, tied to Shadow Land, a survey exhibition of photo-media artist Anne Ferran’s most significant projects and series, spanning more than 30 years. It runs 8 February – 19 April 2014. Here is my paper – we also heard from Alistair Paterson, Alison Atkinson-Phillips, Tracy Ireland, Jessica Neath and Sandra Bowdler.

In 2008 Anne Ferran wrote that ‘Australia’s past is full of unacknowledged ghosts; by waking them up we can hope to wake ourselves as well.’ She was talking about the forgotten past and its implications for us now, in the present. She was reflecting on the relationship between past and present, like historian Greg Dening, who once wrote ‘The dead need history for the voice it gives them. The living need history, not to be made to feel guilty for a past they are not responsible for or cannot change. The living need a history disturbing enough to change the present.’

Ferran’s work intersects with that of historians and archaeologists who aim to recover forgotten or absent aspects of the past, and the experience of those considered marginal or less important than the white, male, elite members of society. This is often called history from below- in other words, exploring the experience of the forgotten and uneducated from a grass-roots perspective.

Today I want to talk about some of the strategies Ferran has used to evoke the vanished lives of women and children in Australian history, in part by producing memorials. I want to reflect on the power of the tangible to bring the past into memory – and in doing so discuss new ideas about photography. Photo historian Geoffrey Batchen suggests that Ferran’s work raises a central photographic issue: how can photography bring the past into the present? He reviews the strategies she has used to transform Australian history ‘into a kind of séance, into a direct communion of past and present’, in creating ‘history brought back to life not as the truth of the past but as a ghostly presence that still haunts and entrances us today’.

In her 2008 series Lost to Worlds, Ferran records the site of the former Ross Female Factory that operated in Tasmania between 1847-54. It was one of four female factories established in Tasmania as part of the probation system (that replaced assignment to settlers). Through a regime ordered by authority, work and surveillance, these women were supposedly transformed and reformed. Their lives were circumscribed and even cut short: their babies were removed not long after birth and historical records testify to shockingly high infant mortality- the focus of another of Ferran’s series.

Nothing now remains of this place but an undulating grassy sward, that Ferran recorded over a decade. Ferran’s dispassionate, semi-scientific recordings remind me of many photographs I have taken over the years on archaeological sites. We’re not quite sure what it is we’re recording sometimes, but something once happened here so we are going to make sure it is preserved. We subject our ‘data’ to later analysis, looking for patterns that are latent – at first sight invisible. Like a crime scene, such sites witness or evoke the aftermath of passion and feeling.

This sense of detachment and distance is enhanced by Ferran’s application of the images to metal: like headstones these images are now literally solid objects, or more accurately, memorials: objects that serve as a focus for memory. The emotions they evoke are very much present-day feelings, of shame, or sorrow, or outrage at the wasted lives of these convict women and their babies.

Anne Ferran’s practice grapples with and challenges the medium of photography even as she exploits it for her own purposes. Since the 1970s photo theorists have pointed out the limitations of photography, arguing that the medium appropriates the experience of those it portrays, without explaining their situation, or challenging injustice; some theorists in fact suggest that images of the marginal or the suffering simply act to shore up the status quo.

Anne Ferran avoids this approach. She herself has commented of her ‘aftermath’ series that while they ‘Don’t capture time or bear witness’, nonetheless, ‘they possess a formal assurance that says they are sure of something. Initiates into their own inadequacy is how I like to think of them, fully aware of their limitations.’ Here I think she exploits the medium’s tension between its indexical authority- that is, its status as evidence or proof – and its tremendous undecideability.

Again, her series ‘Soft caps’ alludes to the ‘unprotected’ immigrant women housed at Hyde Park Barracks, in Sydney, built as a convict barracks.

Inspired by a historical photograph, she created a series of ghostly cloth cowls, seemingly empty, that nonetheless conjure up the presence of these long disappeared, little-known women. Through Ferran’s images, these soft, shadowy objects assume a symbolic resonance that as Batchen suggests, ‘restores women to a ‘speculative half-life’, creating a space to be filled with our own imagined stories.

Again, the 2003 series, 1-38, focuses on details of photos of female inmates of Gladesville Mental Asylum, in Sydney, avoiding intrusion upon these pitiable women’s already scrutinised and circumscribed lives by averting our gaze from their poor exposed faces, glancing instead at their nervously clasped hands, the straitjacket that physically contains them, or the restraining clutch of their warders. These decontextualised photographic fragments evoke the oppression and sadness of these marginalised women’s lives.

Yet I return to Ferran’s comment that these photos have a ‘historical distance from us, a distance we can survey endlessly without it diminishing; if anything we can only watch it widen. … They know there is no living memory there to reach for and – subdued by this knowledge – they don’t try.’ In other words, they picture absence or loss.

In this sense they also act like memorials: like a memorial, they prompt memory where none existed before. They are objects that provide a coat-hanger for our histories to hang off. Their very existence signifies an absence. One of the criticisms of monuments is their sluggishness, their stolid inability to hold our attention in the active, ever-moving present. Austrian writer Robert Musil famously drew attention to the paradox between their ostensible function, to attract notice, and their impregnation ‘with something that repels attention, causing the glance to roll right off, like water droplets off an oilcloth, without even pausing for a moment.’ Sometimes they remain self-contained and detached from our lives, absolving us personally of the need to remember, simultaneously reminding but also boring us.

Yet as many have noted, the ever-swifter transformations of modernity have generated materialist forms of memory that fetishise tangible relics. As Andreas Huyssen argued, the spread of amnesia is matched by a relentless fascination with memory and the past: the museum, the monument and the memorial have taken on new life in part because they offer materiality. Their permanence and weight is reassuring.

In recent years many scholars working under the label of ‘posthumanism’ have argued for a world view that de-centres humans, exploring the agency of the material and non-human. Archaeologists have long argued for the power of the material to shape human life- often below the level of consciousness. The irony of material culture is that its very inertia lends it an objectivity and autonomy that appears to evade ideology, seemingly reflecting the natural state of things, yet its meaning is mutable, altering according to circumstance. Its very durability allows its meanings to be interpreted and re-interpreted over long periods of time, in processes of revaluation and re-inscription.

Ferran’s work serves as a series of memorials to the forgotten dead, in part by turning images into objects. Where scholars such as anthropologist Bruno Latour, for example argue that objects may acquire agency within performative social relations, assuming fresh meanings as they circulate through ever-changing contexts, we can see photographs act in the same way. Rather than ‘reading’ them for their discursive meaning, we can examine their social uses. As historian Elizabeth Edwards has argued, this sense of the images as objects too is enhanced by the indexicality of photographs — their physical relationship as a trace of the real. Ferran’s symbolic objects stand in for artefacts, actively creating and expressing human relations and emotions.

So drawing on the power of photo to make real, she successfully calls forth these ghosts of the past through their material remains. Through what I would call an ‘archaeological aesthetic’, she works with fragments and overlooked details, transforming them from rubbish or wasteland into solid, important, memorials. This aspect of the medium of photography – its reification of the material, its status not just as sign or representation but as object with social uses and agency- brings the marginal lives of women and children into the present.

For me, reflecting upon the lives of the women and especially their babies, removed as a result of nineteenth-century ideas about gender and morality, I am reminded that such attitudes remain in our own time. I am aware that women are still judged as unfit mothers on the basis of their marital status or class, and that their control over their reproductive choices is still limited and contested. To take just two examples of views that continue to belittle and circumscribe women’s role in our society: As recently as March 2004 our current Prime Minister Tony Abbott notoriously stated that ‘abortion is the easy way out’, expressing a view that certain categories of women are incapable of making choices about their own bodies. In February 2011, Abbott again used the language of nineteenth century reform in stating that ‘I think if the Prime Minister [Julia Gillard] wants to make, politically speaking, an honest woman of herself, she needs to seek a mandate for a carbon tax.’ Australian women’s choices continue to be governed by inherited attitudes about women’s proper place and behaviour. I’m not suggesting that Ferran’s work explicitly sets out to argue for women’s rights now- but she draws attention to these very telling absences in our historical and contemporary landscape, defining historical blind-spots that map present-day concerns. For those of us concerned with women’s experience in the past- and now – in this oblique way, we can perhaps see the moving and insistent ‘half-lives’ Ferran’s work evokes not merely as traces of the past, but as gentle ghosts still haunting the present.

Published by janelydon

I am a historian at the University of Western Australia, interested in visual history, colonialism and heritage.

3 thoughts on “Half-lives: Photography, history, memorialisation

    1. No worries- there is a lot going on at the moment with visiting speakers, events of various kinds… the exhibition is up until April 19.

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