What happens when the theory of translation is not restricted to the translation of cultural representations and symbolic forms, but is extended to include the translation of real people/active subjects, their present life situations? How does the photo-documentary translation of migrants’ lives reshape and diversify our understanding of “cultures of translation”?
“In the open see don’t have border.” This slightly mistranslated English comment by an Arab migrant in Athens provided the title for the photo book series Open See (2003–2011) by the American photographer Jim Goldberg. The photographic work documents the personal migration histories, anxieties, dreams, and visions of refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants to Europe. Indicating a lapse, the title points out that translation is not merely a linguistic, cultural, and spatial issue of border-crossing, but that it is also significant as a visual practice.
Visual translation of the experience of migration has developed as a domain of social documentary and humanitarian photography. Since Susan Sontag’s reflections in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), a debate has revolved around the question of whether it is legitimate to aestheticize human suffering. How can othering, including the voyeuristic desensibilization of the viewer by the spectacularization of misery and inhumanity, be avoided in documentary photography on migration with its claim to authenticity and truth? This question will be answered from the perspective of participatory approaches in Goldberg’s Open See and the migrant participatory photo project Fotohistorias conducted by Ricardo Gomez and Sara Vannini on the U.S.-Mexican border.
Birgit Mersmann is associated Research Professor at the NCCR “Iconic Criticism” at the University of Basel, Switzerland and currently Stadt Wien/IFK_Fellow.