Appropriation: a matter of intimacy, not authorship

The other day, while being guided through an exhibition by its own curator, I asked him why a particular work was being showcased as a slideshow when the author in question is exceptional at photographic printing processes. The answer was clear: “I really don’t care about the materiality of the work”. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, for what interests the curator is the photographic discourse, not the authenticity of the works. For me, both as viewer as well as an image-maker, I care about the materiality and the sensuous tone of the work.

The popularity of the photographic discourse is not new and the digital era is not to blame for its success. It may be true that the virtual nature of the images helps promote its lack of material appreciation, but the reasons for the cult of the discourse run deeper, and they affect all the realms of the art.

I found myself thinking about this today because of a particular event that has to do with appropriation. So let me explain: a while back I wrote a post about a project that had won a photographic competition here in Portugal. Today I find myself surprisingly going back to that same competition, but because of another author, who at the time won an honorable mention with a project named Atlas. The author is Flávio Nuno Joaquim. We did our undergraduate course at the same school, though in different years. When the awards came out I didn’t pay much attention to his work, for it doesn’t really interest me, but for chance today I came across a link to his newest book featuring that project and I decided to take a peek.

For my surprise, I found some photographs of me, naked, full frontal, in his book. I did know that Atlas was a collection of images found in the trash in the labs, at the school where we once studied and I now teach. The panels I had seen had scraps from different processual origins, but they mainly alluded to the repetition and methodology at work, when dealing with photographic printing processes.

So when, in the middle of those scraps, I saw these images of an old work of mine I couldn’t help but wonder what the hell where they doing there, and how the hell did he have them. In the presentation text to his work, we can read that his gathering of works started in 2010, something which is not true in the case relating to my work, for I left school earlier than that.

I asked Flávio how he got hold of them and he explained that he found them in the garbage. And, I confess, I am really bothered by this. Not because I “shot” the photographs (I couldn’t care less about proprietary issues), but because my naked self is portrayed in those images. At some point I thought I had the right to decide whether or not I still want to show these images, and I don’t.

The fact that he allegedly found these proofs in the garbage raises another issue, for I wasn’t the one throwing them out. That wouldn’t happen. Whether I’m throwing mine or someone else’s work out, first I tear it apart. I hope this gesture prevents the appropriation of some intimate space one wants to keep to oneself. So apparently (I can’t see how it can be any different) my former teachers were the ones throwing these photographs into the garbage, and Flávio did nothing more that grab them.

Then what goes thru a person’s mind when he/she decides to include an image of someone’s naked body in his/her book without approaching the “owner” of the body herself? Is it that hard to understand that the performer and the person are not two different universes? Is it that hard to understand that a self-portrait is, in fact, a portrait of the self? Has the self lost the right to preserve the interior space that’s his/hers?

Let me repeat: I really don’t give a damn about copyrights and authorship, but I believe in dialogue and in respecting the other. Some time ago an author I had showcased here at Nihilsentimentalgia emailed me asking if I could take down her work, for she no longer recognized herself in that particular series. It really doesn’t matter what I think of her request, what matters is that she reached out to me and the right thing to do is to respect her wishes.

The funny thing about those images Flávio appropriated from me is that they were themselves appropriated. I titled them “After Saudek”, for they were inspired by Jan Saudek’s work. But not only were they born out of this referentiality, they were also a turning point in the way I photograph my body. In those days, I used to tell myself that the body in the picture was not really mine, but a general body, a referent. Having to look at the images for quite some time, for I had to prepare them for an exhibition, I started to see myself in them. In therapy, those images became an issue. I ended up burning the negatives. So, you see, they are part of my interior space, my intimacy and the history of my affections and it’s hard to see them included in a catalogue of repetitions, a catalogue deeply rooted into the photographic discourse, not the work.

The author and the work are not two different things. True it happens when only the artistic discourse it at play. It’s not that in “authentic art” the work mirrors the author or is in some way autobiographical. What happens is that the work of art takes the place of the author. The problem here is Flávio’s ethos, or lack thereof. Because Flávio decided to omit to me that my undressed body would be on display in his Atlas (not for lack of opportunity, one should stress), I am now, once again confronted with those photographs traveling the space of internet, exhibitions and so on.

Fortunately, this is no fatality. Authorship is one question, but privacy is another and it doesn’t really matter who took those photographs of my naked body or if they have copyrights or not, I do have the right to defend my privacy and no one should have the right to appropriate it and turn it into a public object without my consent.

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