First a caveat, if “the past is a foreign country” as the title of historian’s David Lowenthal’s remarkable study of the modern cult of nostalgia suggests, then I would argue that the future might as well be another galaxy. Outside of the invention of the elusive time machine—perhaps Hollywood wunderkind David Cameron’s multimedia conglomerate is busily developing one for the eventual Avatar 9—turning our cultural gaze toward the future will always be directed through a prismatic lens that starts at the fleeting present moment, then refracts through our hazy recollections of the past. Thus, any effort to cast a forward glance into the future will resonate with the ethos of our current post-postmodern condition. One has only to revisit the photographs of designer Norma Bel Geddes’ epic vision for GM’s “Futurama” at the Century of Progress 1939 worlds fair, for example, a brilliantly crafted propaganda that planted in the popular imagination the financially lucrative scheme for the U.S.’s eventual suburbanization facilitated by auto-mobility, to comprehend the futility of “future-casting.” Or one has simply to tune into a cable rerun of the 70s sci-fi flick Soylent Green, with its dystopic message cautioning the consequences of unchecked population explosion and resource exhaustion, to confirm that the sightlines that triangulate futurity are always taken from the position of where we are now. With this sound observation in mind, at this particular moment, I want to consider five contemporary points of reference that might forecast future visual studies methods and practices.

Point 1 – 1021

Akin to Ed Ruscha’s sinister suburban landscapes or Dan Graham’s banal New Jersey tract houses, the tan colored villas dominating the background of photograph “1021” align in a tight phalanx as far as the eye can see. The muddy ground and construction detritus in the foreground tell us that this place is currently under construction and that the houses, large one and two family domiciles, await occupation. Dominating the center of the frame, appears a middle-aged man, stance wide, hand firmly on his hip, talking authoritatively on his cell phone. He looks directly into the camera. His sartorial inclinations exemplify the field uniform of the transnational corporate elite:  a black polo, grey cargo shorts (harkening back to colonialist attire,) work boots to navigate the muck, a cap to keep the sun from occluding his vision, and lastly, the pouch on his belt cradling the standard issue apparatus for global capitalists, his cell phone—a device that connects him at anytime-to any market-anywhere in the world. So far this has proven to be a rather unremarkable image; indeed it seems to be a photograph that could have been taken in Sacramento or Sao Paolo or Shanghai. Almost anywhere, save for clues offered by the other man who also inhabits the right side of the portrait, a uniformed guard—either police, military or private security. Charged with protecting the businessman from inclement weather or the blistering rays of the sun, the guard holds in his right hand a jumbo yellow and green umbrella. Charged with protecting the businessman from threat, his other hand grasps an intimidating semi automatic rifle.  Harkening back to the relationship of Manet’s black servant Laura to her white mistress the reclining nude Olympia, the guard’s pose, sideways in profile and glancing away from the camera attentive to his “master,” fortifies his rank of servitude. But there is clearly more to discern from this image. And therefore to fully analyze this image it might prove useful to inquire as to who took the photograph, where was it taken, who and what does it show, and lastly, where I first encountered it.

Point 2 – Media-scapes

Photograph 1021 forms part of the Chinafrica series by photojournalist Paolo Woods. Woods’ biography charts his multi-national pedigree: born to Dutch and Canadian parents, he grew up in Italy and now finds his home base in Paris. His work has appeared in galleries and museums, as well as in print—books, newspapers, and magazines like Newsweek, Time, and Aperture, Paris’ Le Monde, and Holland’s M magazine, to name a few. As a result of this exposure, Woods’ fascinating work reaches a worldwide audience. In the spirit of photojournalists of previous eras – Matthew Brady, Dorothea Lange, Frank Capa, Bernice Abbot, Walker Evans and Ernest Withers, his subject matter captures the fates of everyday lives caught in the turbulent currents of world events. Woods’ compelling portfolio narrates life in a globalized age. His primary genre is portraiture. Recent topics of exploration were the so-called “new tribes,” the emerging social and class spheres wrought by the urbanization Senegal’s capital Dakar and life in the ghettoized Parisian suburb of Bondy following the recent bloody uprisings protesting economic and racist oppression. He has documented the nouveau riche “post Soviet jet set,” “crude world” of oil production, the American chaos of Iraq, and Chinafrica – a two-year project that examines China’s growing presence and impact on the African continent. Digital camera in hand, Woods tracks the paths of transnational migrant workers, urban denizens, and refugees fleeing war; he follows the vapor trails of globe trotting capitalists and studies the insatiable appetite of global consumer culture. As visual cultural artifacts, his photographs travel along those same spatial and temporal trajectories. Woods, as well as his subjects and his portraits, circulates through what cultural theorist Arjun Appardurai has dubbed “media-scapes.” These are “image centered, narrative based accounts of strips of reality,” that make up our “landscapes of images.”(Appadurai 35) As we view Wood’s photographs in their multiple incarnations as virtual/print/artistic images, what makes them particularly compelling is their status as portraits. Our gaze alights upon these artfully rendered snapshots of the impact of transnational migrations, capitalism and culture, and the brute force of 21st century conflict upon fragile, but none the less resilient, human relations. We are transfixed, I think, by what they tell us about global mash-ups, cultural clashes, and our shared fears and desires.

Point 3 – Chinafrica

In a remarkable project that lasted over two years, Woods, in collaboration with writers Serge Michel and Michel Beuret, travelled through out the African continent studying “Chinafrica” the uneven alliance between China and 53 African countries. Woods’ caption of photograph 1021 hints at these complex historical and current web of transnational connections:

Nigeria, Lagos, 2007 – Mr. Wood [no relation to the photographer] was born in Shanghai in 1948 and arrived in Nigeria at the end of the 70’s where he started an industrial empire that includes today about 15 factories with more than 1600 workers, construction companies, hotels and restaurants. He is an official adviser to the president and has obtained the title of African chief and the authorization to use police cars as his own which helps in the monstrous Lagos traffic jams. He uses as well the police as private bodyguards, like here on the construction site of 544 villas built at record speed on the Lekki peninsula near the headquarters of the Chevron oil company.

As the Chinafrica series narrates, Chinese representatives have negotiated new trade pacts, laid new rail and road ways, and erected new buildings, towns, and dams in exchange for access to oil, minerals, land and burgeoning consumer markets. Cities like Lagos, which emerged from the violent colonial partitioning of the continent set in to motion by the Berlin conference of 1884, are experiencing unbridled growth due to monies generated by its prominence as an oil producers (the U.S. for example is Nigeria’s largest importer.) We must keep in mind, however, that for over five hundred years, Africa’s vast resources attracted waves of Western colonialists, foreign governments, and private companies eager to extract its resources and harness its labor to fuel Europe and the New World’s engines of industrialization. Once arrived European powers built efficiently planned colonial towns to govern the region and facilitate the extraction and distribution of their spoils. This network of ports, castles, waterways, trade routes, railroads, highways, and pipelines transferred raw materials, peoples, and finished goods from various regions of Africa to the rest of the world and eventually back. The ongoing importance of these hubs for channeling the flows of minerals, commodities and capital fuels the rapid expansion and social transformations documented in Woods’ photos. Foreign investment in the African continent, which according to recent UN estimates outpaces aid, is nearing $110 billion dollars. Finland’s Nokia, South Africa’s MTN, and of course, the ubiquitous Google are busily planning the next generation of new media devices and services for the vast untapped continental market. Access to the internet, will amend already existing satellite services, inundating residents with even more images of events, trends, culture and products from around the world. While the U.S. gazes west toward China, the Chinese and others look south towards Africa. And as Wood’s Chinafrica series documents, so continues the quest to extract the continent’s valuable resources.

Point 4 –

I first encountered Woods’ photograph on the website: Bag News Notes, whose banner describes its mission as one “dedicated to visual politics, the analysis of news images, and the support of unfiltered photojournalism.” Woods’ photos featured commentary by Steve Banos, a regular blogger on photography at Reciprocity Fail. “Below the fold,” so to speak, Banos perceptively characterizes the pose of the unidentified guard in photograph 1021 as embodying “the look of subservience.” Recognizing the history of race and racism as they are rendered visible, he proceeds to make the case that “mistrust and isolation is blatantly apparent in so many of the indigenous faces, just as they were a hundred years ago. The body language, posture and physical proximity are also eerily resonant of the classic photos of Segregationist South or Apartheid South Africa. And although native and foreigner often work side by side, rarely do they do so together-and certainly not as equals.” He juxtaposes the contemporary photo with an older one from the Age of Empire to emphasize the replication of older tropes of master-servant power relations. In the sepia photograph, perhaps a souvenir of a journey through the Dark Continent, the black bodies (unidentified) are at the beck and call of their masters. This colonial choreography of rank illustrates what scholar Donna Haraway astutely observes as how “Euro-Americans in the field depended upon the knowledge, good sense, and hard work, and enforced subordination of a people the white folk insisted on seeing as perpetual children or even as wildlife.” (Haraway 49) While I agree with Bana that there is a duplication of such postures of subservience in Woods’ telling image, the ambitions of the Chinese government, however, are not those of a conquering colonial power arrived to subdue the “natives” with Judeo-Christian platitudes, backed up by the brut force guns to steal their land. Instead they are embarking upon a different tact, a modus operandi one that must be studied through images such as these. The Chinese government and its companies preach the virtues of the neoliberal gospels – the privatization of public resources, the importation consumer products for one and all, and establishment of minimal trade barriers to maximize corporate profit (or in the curious case of Chinese economic policy – State profit.) Overall, as the Chinafrica series show us, their transaction, along with those of other countries and transnational corporations like Chevron, are raising new concerns about environmental degradation, exploitation of workers rights, and the exacerbation of longstanding regional conflicts.

Point 5 – Visual Literacy

As my concluding point, I want to suggest that even though Bag News Notes makes a valiant effort to analyze these and other images circulating in the digital ether, as do other websites like the academic journal Vectors, and old media forums such as books, magazines, and journals, more critical visual analysis needs to be undertaken. As the editors of Bag News Notes observed in a November 2009 post: “with the staggering investment that goes into advertising and advocacy images in this country, it is any wonder nobody’s teaching, let alone preaching visual literacy.” Fundamentally we need to teach, especially to youth, critical visual literacy – teach them how to unpack, critique, and question the vast amounts of stuff that infiltrate our collective cones of vision on a daily basis. As many of us recall ten years ago CCA’s Visual and Critical Studies began as “Visual Criticism.” And I still think that critical turn is still imperative, if not more so in the era of social network feeds. Back in the 1980s philosopher Gilles Deleuze embarked on a curious project to craft a philosophy of images, demonstrated in his two volumes Cinema studies. He shows us that the “image” is neither a representation in the ideal or the thing in the real, but rather it is situated somewhere between the two, involving things and the mind in a dance of perception/recognition/attention/thought. Western philosophy after all “thinks” through language, but perhaps it is even more crucial at this moment to understand how we think through images, through of our sensory perception/conception of color, texture, movement and duration; we need to form a new global philosophy of the image. In response visual studies must take on the complex ways that visual culture is produced, circulated, and seen. And what better context in which develop new modes and methods of critical visual analysis, than amongst the active creation of visual material – video, films, illustrations, drawings, paintings, constructions and so forth, that sprout within this educational creative hot house. So here’s to ten more fruitful years of Visual and Critical Studies at CCA(C.)

For Paolo Woods’ photographs see:

Appadurai, Arjun. Modernity at Large. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.
Bergson, Henri. Matter and Memory. New York: Zone Books, 1988.
Haraway, Donna. “Teddy Bear Patriarchy.” In Primate Visions – Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science. New York: Routledge, 1989.