The most popular destination in the library installation was undoubtedly the photo-booth. As one part of the project’s means of exchange, every photographic session generated a set of four photographs that were immediately printed out in duplicate. Visitors took one set away with them, and left the other set on the photo-wall together with a note, in the knowledge that both would be scanned and uploaded to the website.
There’s a wonderful text that the late great American photographer Richard Avedon wrote in the late 1980’s, called Borrowed Dogs, where he talks about his own family photograph albums. He says that his family took very great and detailed care with their snapshots. They dressed up; they posed in front of expensive cars, and homes that did not belong to them. They borrowed dogs. He recounts how in one year of family photographs he counted eleven completely different dogs. His family never in fact owned a dog! He talks about the fact that in his family albums, all the photographs revealed a lie about who the Avedons really were, but a truth about who they really wanted to be. This inherent paradox, and the many questions around what kind of evidence domestic snaps actually supply, has always intrigued me.
With so many millions of people globally now armed with camera-equipped cell phones and instantly uploading their photographs to social media platforms, the commonplace snapshot is more than ever the genre of our times. And, with these images almost entirely framed by screens and social media platforms, they are integral to the way in which we socialise and participate in public life, and one of the primary ways in which we perform (and form) our fleeting, transmittable and mobile selves.
In the context of a group of people who are often living below the radar, the project offered ways to participate safely by taking charge of your own representation within the framework created. You could be as frank or elusive, as visible or invisible as you chose to be. The upbeat performative images people made in the photo and video booths demonstrated this most keenly. While this offline and online exhibitionism runs the risk of being criticised as narcissistic display, it is possible that, in this particular context, these images end up affirming the unique condition of the photograph – but, not in the usual, well-honed sense given to it by seminal theorists like Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag, of the photograph as a trace or sign of something or someone that is no longer there. Rather, in this context, the ‘picture’ serves to testify that this particular person is here in the present tense, claiming space, asserting identity, and possibly, even citizenship.
In her groundbreaking book, The Civil Contract of Photography, Ariella Azoulay theorizes what she considers to be the innate relationship between photography and citizenship in situations where human rights are infringed and suffering is politically induced. She argues, in this context, for photographs as a space of political relations, and for a civil contract enacted between all the participants in the act of photography: the photographer, the photographic subject, and all the users of photography, including and especially, spectators and displayers. She pays particular attention to the importance of the subject’s agency in the photograph, as well as the need for spectators to ask themselves what the subject in the photograph is asking of them. ‘Why are these men, women, children and families looking at me?’ asks Azoulay of the photographs of Palestinians exposed to the rule of Israeli occupation that she sees in her daily Israeli newspapers. We might very well ask this question of all of those who took photos of themselves in the photobooth of Hotel Yeoville. At whom were they looking? And whom are they looking at now? Do they see a civil space in which the makers of the project, other photographed subjects and the viewers of these share an interest? Recognition of their personhood, their presence, their identity? Well … perhaps.
While the subjects are definitely addressing an imagined viewer, they are also addressing themselves. Performing their best selves for the platform of the project but also for the familiar platform of the social media networks onto which they will be uploading their images. The photographed person assumes the existence of a viewer and knows, within the frame of the art project, that there is an actual and a virtual community exchanging glances out there too.
Hotel Yeoville engaged contingent communities of desire – many private desires that congregated, recognised and for the most part complied with each other. And, photography was not an end in itself, but the necessary pretext for something else to occur: the camera was a trigger; a facilitator for a most particular interaction; a protagonist whose presence is one of the main subjects of the photograph itself. This is best expressed by a message, one of so many hundreds, left behind in bold black permanent marker, with a series of photographs, posted to our physical and virtual walls. It reads:
‘Hello People! I AM HERE! I am Jean-Pierre from DRC and they call me JP! This is me, or something I can tell YOU about ME, at any rate! JP a.k.a Lover Boy x x x.’
Excerpted from “Public Art/Private Lives A.K.A. Hotel Yeoville,” Terry Kurgan, Hotel Yeoville, Published by Fourthwall Books 2013.