Incorporating Photography Exhibits in the Anthropology Classroom: A Review of Elena Geroska's Traces

If you're anything like me, you secretly enjoy when people leave the curtains of their living room windows open, allowing you to gain a two-second-long glance into their lives and personal decoration preferences. Photographer Elena Geroska's recent project, Traces, not only lets us indulge in the aesthetic pleasure described above, but also forces us to engage in a conversation about the conceptual implications of these encounters and of the broader anthropological encounter of “self” with “other”.

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Elena Geroska, "Traces Series." May 24, 2013.

Geroska met strangers in parks in Sofia, Bulgaria, and went door to door, asking for access to their homes and to photograph them in their domestic surroundings. In a brief interview with VICE magazine she notes that she was curious about personal space and thus wanted to capture images of people in their most sacred personal space—the home. These encounters were, at times, awkward and uncomfortable, and both the project and the general discomfort of herself and her subjects highlights the intersections that occur in the anthropological encounter in general. 

Anthropologist James Siegel writes about the use of the camera as a technology for the mediation of the unknown. He illustrates that in particular historical and cultural contexts, the camera becomes an "instrument used to mediate what [has] never before been seen" because it often is employed as a tool that reassures us of our own reconsolidated identity after an encounter with the other (Siegel 2011:85). However, it is not just the blurry border between known and unknown, between self and other, that we are left attempting to mediate in these encounters, but we are confronted with multiple messy intersections. Perhaps Geroska's project can also be seen as a blending of the public and private sphere; something that is normally felt as intensely private is suddenly transformed into a format for not only the scrutiny and consumption of a stranger but for the public at large. At the same time, the viewer is placed at an intersection—and perhaps we can even call it an overlap—between the sacred and the mundane. Geroska notes that she chose the home because it is understood as one of the “most sacred personal spaces” (Geroska, Vice Interview). However, it is through her project that we not only are being let in to view something sacred, but as we examine photo after photo of the sacred spaces of different people, they also become understood as mundane, everyday surroundings—a banal collection of the material culture of daily life. 

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Elena Geroska, "Traces Series." May 24, 2013.

Geroska notes that some of her subjects would take out valuables and put them on display, or they would dress up for their photos. This originally upset her, until she came to realize that the way a person presented themselves and what they chose to attempt to present in fact said a lot. Here, we face another intersection that anthropologists (and their subjects) must navigate and negotiate during the anthropological encounter—that between the authentic and inauthentic. In Geroska's photos and commentary—just as in the anthropological encounter in general—we are left to evaluate not only their intersection but also the very usefulness of these concepts themselves. 

While transgressing these blurry borders, we are also forced to consider the role that power plays in such a project, and in the anthropological encounter itself. Transgressing these borders requires power, and can, at times, be understood as a form of violence. The violence toward the subject involved in an ethnographic representation of any sort is a form of violence in that it "use[s] as it must some degree of reduction, decontextualization, and miniaturization" (Behar 2003 [1993]:271, following Edward Said). The project, as a photographic display, is also a visual reminder that the photographs have been chosen and curated by Geroska, who, with editorial power, is able to decide which photos will be seen by her audience and consequently holds an amount of power over how the people in her project are perceived and understood by a larger audience.  There are power relations that are inherent to any similar encounter; the subject is vulnerable in Geroska's encounter as she opens her home to Geroska and allows Geroska to transform her sacred space into a more mundane visual commodity.  However, Geroska also notes that as a woman venturing solo into her subjects’ homes, she was also often confronted with a more gendered power and found herself fending off the occasional sexual assault. Thus, while the project makes us contemplate the power relations that are often involved in the anthropological encounter—relations in which the anthropologist holds much of the power—it also forces us to think about other power relations that are present in such encounters.              

Traces is thus a project that can be viewed in multiple ways. The pieces of material surroundings can be understood as “traces” that lead us to piece together a broader—and, at the same time, more intimate—picture of the life of another human, but these photographs also act as documents with sinews that can be traced into the messy intersections between self and other, known and unknown, sacred and mundane, and authentic and inauthentic. These photographs can be understood as traces of the power relations inherent within these encounters. With Traces, Geroska forces us to talk about the blurry boundary crossings that occur within the anthropological encounter solely through the visual medium and her experience as photographer. 

You can see Elena Geroska's project here and her brief VICE interview here: http://www.vice.com/en_ca/read/elena-geroska-interview-traces

Miranda Dahlin has just finished her MA in Socio-Cultural Anthropology at the University of Toronto and is beginning her Ph.D. at McGill University this fall. Her research focuses on the semiotics of drug trafficking violence in Mexico

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Elena Geroska, "Traces Series." May 29, 2013

References Cited

Behar, Ruth. 2003 [1993]. Translated Woman: Crossing the Border with Esperanza's Story. Boston: Beacon Press.

Siegel, James, T. 2011. "The Curse of the Photograph: Atjeh 1901," in Objects and Objections of Ethnography. New York: Fordham University Press, pp.76-96.