Ben Altman - 2015 HCP Fellowship Recipient: Site/Sight

  May 8 - July 5

On View: May 8 - July 5, 2015
Opening Reception: May 8th
Juror remarks begin at 6:00pm

During the past two years I have visited twenty-four sites, memorials, and museums related to genocide, atrocity and war. At these places, emblematic of the violent histories that underlie our world, it is almost automatic for visitors to raise their smart-phones and cameras. I explore this very contemporary action and its implications for seeing and empathy. My subjects rarely know that I am photographing them, even though I handhold a 1940’s 4x5 press-camera; vintage equipment that fits well with looking at the present in terms of the past. The work is cumulative, becoming a catalog of atrocities; each title
includes the name of the site and country. I plan to make more visits.

I use an undersized lens that does not quite cover the large-format film, giving good resolution but very shallow focus and dark corners. This allows me to make big, detailed, archival inkjet prints, rendering hands at life size and revealing camera icons, skin textures, jewelry, and scars.

I was born and raised in England with mixed Anglican and Jewish heritages. Although only collateral members of my father's family were caught up in the Holocaust, for me histories of genocide speak to the radically contingent nature of our contemporary world – and seem foundational to both its tensions and its comforts. SITE/SIGHT is one of several projects in which I reflect on memorials and on bearing witness to the intractable past.

Atrocity memorials attempt multiple functions: to preserve memory, to educate and exhort, to provide records, burial, mourning, solemnity, and closure. But in practice they may elicit prurient interest in the suffering of others and in some cases clueless disrespect. The monuments are often dull, their accounts of history suspect or missing, and sometimes there’s a gift shop. Photographs contain many similar intentions and difficulties; working at these sites offers provocative crosscurrents.

For a tourist, whose privilege may be colliding with his or her formative past, the effect is an odd combination of presence and distance. Although I find myself sympathetic with the impulse to take photographs as a distraction – these are hard places to see – I find that examining this action opens many questions. Why do we visit these sites, and how is it different if one has a personal connection? What are appropriate responses and behaviors? Which atrocities are memorialized, which are not, and why? What are the power relations built into such tourism? Is there any valid equivalence between one site and its history and another? And, of course, what does it mean more broadly to compress experience into something the size of your hand, and have those images largely become your memories – does this validate or debase the time and money one has spent to visit a place (or both)?

It speaks to the imaginative and emotional power of the awful history such places commemorate that some of it comes through even in my photographs of photographs of memorials – effectively third-hand. Perhaps this work can help viewers engage with and inhabit – and allow themselves to be a little vulnerable to – these difficult passages in our human heritage.

Related Programming:
Juror talk with Paul Kopeikin