Out of the Shadows: medical photography and the located poetics of colonial scientific vision (Abstract)

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(c) Utes Kilter

This paper was presented at by Dr Branwyn Poleykett at The Contemporary Art Centre, Lithuania, during their conference “Shadowing the Scene: Negativity in Affects, Politics, Aesthetics“, 26-27 September 2014.

This paper draws upon two archives: medical photography in North Africa and the archives and published work of Charles Nicolle, the director of the Pasteur Institute in Tunis in the 1920s and 1930s. By drawing out the points of connection, aesthetic and political, between this material I examine the découpage that medical photographs perform on the bodies of the subjects they depict in the context of the idiosyncratic account of scientific vision, genius and myopia in Nicolle’s scientific publications, private correspondence and in his fiction. While the two archives are organised along very different lines – medical photography proceeds along the line of the case and the series while the biographical and imaginative writing stresses the quirky, idiosyncratic and the expressive; the juxtaposition of these two archives – the strenuously objective, bleached-out aesthetic of medical photography and the rich imaginative world of Nicolle – tell us much about the submerging and making visible of the negative in colonial science and medicine.

Colonial medical photography is the product of a highly attenuated, circumscribed form of vision, a form of scientific objectivity that it also helped to bring into being, and a vision which is located in a particular set of perceptual, social, technical and power relations. Seeing from North Africa we can see that medical photography was a practice which organised the unseen as much as it offered up its subjects to the implacable and objectifying gaze of the camera. Medical photography and the personal accounts and private visual archives of colonial scientists both suppressed and controlled the visualisation of death and dying and the ordinary chaos of the body. These archives illustrate the ways in which ‘race’ is implicated – both in its suppression and its selective inclusion – not only in the making of colonial knowledge but at every scene of scientific vision.

If you would like more information about this abstract, please contact plague@crassh.cam.ac.uk

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