Towards a Political History of Photography

Social Movements and Photographic Practices

Tuesday, 3 and Wednesday, 4 December 2019
Eugene Atget. Cheminée, hôtel de Matignon (Hôtel du maréchal de Montmorency, ancienne ambassade d'Autriche ) 57 rue de Varenne, 7eme arrondissement, Paris, 1905. Musee Carnavalet, Paris/Roger-Viollet
Eugene Atget. Cheminée, hôtel de Matignon (Hôtel du maréchal de Montmorency, ancienne ambassade d'Autriche ) 57 rue de Varenne, 7eme arrondissement, Paris, 1905. Musee Carnavalet, Paris/Roger-Viollet
With the support of:

The University of Liverpool

Force line:

Avant-garde movements

Academic committee:

Jordana Blejmar, Jorge Moreno Andrés, Inés Plasencia and Jorge Ribalta


English with simultaneous interpretation

Education programme developed with the sponsorship of Fundación Banco Santander

Organized by
Museo Reina Sofía

The Museo Reina Sofía Study Centre inaugurates a study area on photography, coordinated by Jorge Ribalta, that aims to encourage photographic studies by following a social and cultural focus. This programme, developed through a broad array of activities — seminars, lectures, guided tours, encounters— also seeks to put in place a network between different focal points of research, with national and international scope, to work towards shaping a discursive public sphere on photography and its theories, practices and history. 

The programme begins its journey from the context of Western modern art, characterised by the distinctiveness and regard for the specific nature of each artform. At the end of the 19th century, however, photography burst away into a hybrid form owing to the dozens of uses and social practices it triggered. Charles Baudelaire’s famous condemnation of photography in The Salon of 1859, ruling that its role must be as the “humble servant” to science and the arts, would form a long-lasting categorisation. The field of photography has thereafter been constituting different aesthetic, communicative and epistemic impulses and demands — as a hybrid, multifarious and lesser art, photography opened up a disruptive space, a space of otherness, within art’s modernity. A new history of photography should begin precisely from such alterity.

The international seminar Towards a Political History of Photography, which gets this new area off the ground, is organised into three round-tables of debate, each one pivoting around a case study, with a view to bringing together a range of research focal points and methods. The first table, Counter-Narratives, sets forth a re-examination of the figure of French photographer Eugène Atget based on an analysis of the ideological affiliations in his work, both implicit and explicit. The second, Uses of Photography, presents different experiences of resignifying archive photographs linked to dictatorships and wars. The third table, Collective Photographic Practices, places photography at the centre of the struggles for representation and political engagement, underscoring how the circulation of images enables faraway struggles to connect.     


Jordana Blejmar is a lecturer in Visual Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Liverpool (UK). She is the author of Playful Memories: The Autofictional Turn in Post-Dictatorship Argentina (2016) and has co-edited a number of books, including Instantáneas de la memoria. Fotografía y dictadura en Argentina y América Latina (with Natalia Fortuny and Luís García, 2013).

Lee Douglas is a visual anthropologist, documentary film-maker, cultural manager and lecturer at Madrid’s New York University and at UCEAP. She is director of the cultural programme at the International Institute and is a producer on the digital re-publishing of the photobook Chile from Within with photographer Susan Meiselas.

Steve Edwards is a professor of History and Theory of Photography at Birkbeck College, University of London (UK). He is the author of The Making of English Photography (2006) and editor of the book series Historical Materialism.

Jorge Moreno Andrés is a social anthropologist and film-maker. He is author of the book El duelo revelado. La vida social de las fotografías familiares de las víctimas del franquismo (2019).

Molly Nesbit es profesora de arte en el Vassar College (EE. UU.). Autora de Atget’s Seven Albums (1994) y Their Common Sense (2000). En 2013 publicó The Pragmatism in the History of Art, el primer volumen de una serie que recopila sus ensayos y conferencias. El segundo volumen, Midnight: The Tempest Essays, apareció en 2017.

Darren Newbury es profesor de historia de la fotografía en la Universidad de Brighton (Reino Unido).  Autor de Defiant Images. Photography and Apartheid South Africa (2009) y People Apart: 1950s Cape Town Revisited (2013). Coeditor de The African Photographic Archive: Research and Curatorial Strategies (2015) y del número especial de Visual Studies, “Photography and African Futures” (2018).

Inés Plasencia is a researcher, independent cultural manager and teacher. She is a lecturer in the Department of History and Art Theory at the Autonomous University of Madrid (UAM) and a professor at Madrid’s Duke University. She has worked with cultural institutions that include the Museo Reina Sofía, Institut Valencià d'Art Moderne (IVAM) and Tabakalera-Donostia Centre for Contemporary Culture, among others.

Jorge Ribalta is an artist and independent curator. His projects as a curator most notably include the exhibitions A Hard, Merciless Light. The Worker Photography Movement, 1926–1939 and Not Yet. On the Reinvention of Documentary and the Critique of Modernism, both in the Museo Reina Sofía (2011 in 2015, respectively).

Ileana Selejan is an art historian, researcher and a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at University College London. She is currently working on the project ‘Citizens of Photography: The Camera and the Political Imagination’, funded by the European Research Council.

Susana de Sousa Dias is a film-maker and lecturer at the University of Lisbon. She was previously director of Doclisboa and is the author of works such as 48 (2009) and Luz Obscura (2016).

Rocío Trigoso is a researcher and visual anthropologist. She lectures at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, Lima, and is co-editor of La Calle es el Cielo. La Lima de Daniel Pajuelo (2014).

Education programmed developed with the sponsorship of  Santander Fundación


Actividad pasada Tuesday, 3 December 2019 – From 6:15pm to 9pm
Table 1. Counter-Narratives
Overture: For a Political Reading of Atget as a founding Figure of Modernity in Photography

This first round-table discussion puts forward an interpretation of photographer Eugène Atget based on the study of the ideological affiliations in his work, both implicit and explicit. This side is often overlooked in accounts of modernity in photography, which focus on Surrealism and the “new vision” as the overriding paradigms in the interpretation of the avant-garde in the 1920s, with Atget seen as its great precursor. Precisely as Molly Nesbit expounds in her seminal work on the photographer, part of the archival logic of his work is determined, ideologically, by his link to the worker movement. Thus, his album of Paris interiors offers a comparative analysis of society and class divisions at the turn of the century. Such a historical-social observation, referring to the breadth of Atget’s work from the start of the 1890s, anticipates the materialist focal points and photography projects that would not emerge until the 1920s, such as the Weimar social landscape archive embarked upon by August Sander, or the documentary movement of workers’ photo-correspondents.    

Molly NesbitExhibition Value
Steve EdwardsLa Populaire: Atget (with Zille)

Conducted by: Jorge Ribalta

Actividad pasada Wednesday, 4 December 2019 – From 11am to 2pm
Table 2. Uses of Photography
Photographic Archives and Political Violence. Appropriations and Resignifications

Photography is at once emancipatory and disciplinary. Halfway through the 19th century it surfaced with democratic promise, simultaneously contributing, since its inception, to apparatuses of social control and the auto-reproductive logic of state power. Photographic archives were part of the disciplinary apparatus, at least since the industrialisation of photographic technology in the final decades of the 19th century. The police archive of Alphonse Bertillon, implemented in the 1880s, is a paradigmatic example. Setting out from that genealogy whilst also questioning it, this table introduces different experiences of the resignification of archive photographs linked to dictatorships and wars. Such resignfications, including that distinctive form of archive, the family album, are proof of the traumatic experiences that offer models of resistance to archives’ repressive impulse, demonstrating that the social meaning of photographs and archives is not determined or limited by such disciplinary logic. Rather, it can subvert insofar as such meaning is produced with the uses and the forms of dissemination of photographs.

Jordana BlejmarThe Surviving Image: Photography and Disappearance in Argentina
Susana de Sousa DiasImagens fortes, memórias fracas: o outro lado de uma imagem
Lee Douglas. The Forensic Archive: Photography, Evidence and Knowledge in Twenty-First-Century Spain

Conducted by: Jorge Moreno Andrés

Actividad pasada Wednesday, 4 December 2019 – From 6pm to 9pm
Table 3. Collective Photographic Practices
Power, Anti-Imperialism and Representation

Thinking about the relationship between photography and politics entails stopping at the intersections between representation and circulation to analyse their place in social struggles and transformations. Photography, analysed not solely from the possible uses of the image, but more specifically from its consideration as a social practice able to articulate collective organisation and build networks of resistance and solidarity, opens up a new space to question historical anti-imperialist processes in the 20th century. Therefore, on one side, there is a need to address the right to representation and the dissemination of images, traditionally linked to state and institutional powers. On the other, to address how the photographic practice carried out and circulated outside these colonial and restrictive logics inherently possesses a dimension of politics and resistance. This table situates photography at the centre of struggles of representation and political engagement, whilst understanding its dissemination as a crucial moment, in which far-flung struggles connect through images, but with a possible subversion of their meaning.  

Rocío Trigoso. Why Are You Looking at Me? A Vision of Peru from the Experience of TAFOS
Ileana Selejan. The Insurrect Archive
Darren Newbury. From ‘Sweetness and Light’ to ‘Race and Revolution’ in US Photographic Diplomacy: Picturing the Civil Rights Movement for Africa

Conducted by: Inés Plasencia