Monday, 31 January 2011


The module is documentary photography. We were divided into 4 groups to discuss what is documentary. It is such an open and ambiguous genre with so many dimensions of forms and meanings. The literal journalism photography is just one tiny part. According to Eileen and Ulrike, documentary could be:





Lives of people


Story telling














Everyday life




Life cycle



Critical eye








Human presence




Selective Viewpoint













One image might not be effective in meaning but a body of images could articulate very loud. A photo in a gallery could deliver different perception to the same image in a magazine or in other context. Documentary photography is a medium representing another ‘reality’. Fact, meaning and point of view could get blurred, transformed, and developed via documentary photography. My documentary photography will be something meaningful to myself, something moving me, or something bothering me. It will be something interested to me in a range of aspects such as cultural, social, personal, etc.

Monday, 17 January 2011


Every One # 14

by Sophie Ristelhueber.

In 1435, Leon Battista Alberti constructed the perspective model. He visually involved the scene but physically withdrew from it. It transformed the world into a linear, mathematic and homogeneous vision. In 1619, René Descartes declared: “I think therefore I am”. He philosophically distanced the self from the world. The disembodied self was formed as the Cartesian theatre. With the selves detached from the rationality and the world, our vision and knowledge were acquired via the mediations of representations secondarily rather than our immersions in the external world. It was not until late 19th and early 20th century that we began to see the return of the body in philosophy, culture and art theories.

Human perception and understanding can never be formed solely of perspective vision and rational thought. Our minds and bodies form an inseparable unity interacting with the external world. In the last decade, affect theory has been developed and brought emotional and visceral concerns into the conventional discourses of cultural and art studies. This affect turn challenged previous disembodied methodologies and emphasizing somatic power. This essay discusses affect theories and includes two parts. The first part will firstly discuss the background and definition of affect as well as simulation, empathy and embodied perception; and I will then go on to finally explore what affect theory can bring to the analysis of works of visual art through consideration of an image made by artist Sophie Ristelhueber: Every One # 14.

Affect is a complex word and is an interdisciplinary subject. While affect literally refers to emotion and feeling, many scholars have explained affect differently. Some consider affect as a post-cognitive phenomenon and a product of stimulation processes. Affective reaction is based on a prior cognitive process. Some considers affect an instinctual reaction to stimulation before cognitive process and complex emotion formation. They think that affective reactions can occur without cognitive encoding and can be made sooner than normal cognitive judgements. In psychology, Sigmund Freud started the studies of affect and subconscious a century ago; at the same time, in philosophy, Henri Bergerson developed Baruch Spinoza’s affect thoughts. I would like to discuss affect from both the psychological and philosophical point of view by introducing Silvan Tomkins’ and Gilles Deleuze’s thoughts; then I would like to discuss Brian Massumi’s recent studies from an interdisciplinary perspective.

Tomkins (1962) considered as affect post-cognitive as the “biological portion of emotion”. He proposed nine affects (enjoyment/joy, interest/excitement, surprise/startle, anger/rage, disgust, dismell, distress/anguish, fear/terror, and shame/humiliation) and organised them into three categories (positive, neutral, and negative). Tomkins suggested that affects have a complex and organic life through our relations with others and ourselves. Externally, affect can be contagious and be transferred to others and back increasing the original intensity. Internally, we adjust affect intensity according to the traces of our affective experiences to date. We tend to punish negative affect and maximise rewarding positive affect.

Deleuze and Guattari (1994) considered affect the state of life preceding natural differentiation among formed beings, where all beings are not subjective. Affect is the creation of a zero degree of the world. It is a “bloc of sensations” (Deleuze, 1994, p.164), rather than Tomkins’ distinctive categories, waiting to be reactivated by a spectator or participant. We cannot read affects and we can only experience them, however, it is not a return to the primitive stage, rather it is a re-creation and restarting of the world.

While Tomkin’s definition is clear, it limits philosophical thinking. Deleuze’s version is thought provoking, but vague in some ways. It is Massumi who clarified the affect definition in his essay “The Autonomy of Affect”.

Massumi (2002) equated affect with intensity, with no specific cultural-theoretical vocabulary that might resonate with linguistic, cultural and social expression. He argued that affect is not exactly emotions. They “follow different logics and pertain to different orders” (Massume, 2002, p.16). Emotions are subjectively shaped and formed by sociolinguistic personal experiences. He asserted,

“Emotion is a qualified intensity, the conventional, consensual point of insertion of intensity into semantically and semantically formed progressions, into narrative visable action-reaction circuits, into function and meaning.” (p.27)

Emotion is incorporated in but not all of affect. Affect is pure and raw, free from any sociolinguistic structure and discourse. It is not logical, narrative, linguistic, ideological, or symbolic. It is unqualified. It is the corporeal intensity with multisensory synaesthetic perception. There is no vocabulary of affect. To invent a language for affect is to bring the intensity backward to representation. It is a paradox and a problem but we have to move beyond it.

Massumi’s definition is useful in rethinking the relationship between mind and body, the event – intensity and experience. On the basis of this, I would like to discuss embodied perception by examining some philosophical background of embodiment first.

Merleau-Ponty asserted that our consciousness is inherent in our body and the body is the primary locus of all our intentionality. He proposed “carnal thought”, (Merleau-Ponty, I, 1963, p.188) which means we become aware of the world in a pre-reflective encounter. He then proposed the carnal subjectivity - our subjective consciousness should not be regarded as either mental activity or physical movement, rather it is pre-reflective knowledge in nature with our unity not broken into mental and physical substance. In his last work “The Visible and The Invisible”, he introduced the notion of flesh. He asserted our body “is made of the same flesh as the world and our flesh is shared by the world.” (Merleau-Ponty, II, 1968, p.188) Therefore in order to perceive the world, we require our body to be engaged in the world as if the world was our own body. He also explained the idea of reversibility, which raises the ambiguity between self and others, reality and imagination and subject and object.

This philosophical thought can be explained by our common sense and some biological and neurophysiology principles. For example, when we see others feel pain, we also feel the pain affectively. This scenario is studied in cognitive neuroscience and simulation theory is one of the wide-accepted hypotheses. It is a theory of how we understand others by way of empathetic response through mirror-neurons. “A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another”. (Rizzolatti, & Craighero, 2004, p.169) It is also found in human brains. This explains our mirroring the behaviour of others as though we ourselves are acting. An image, a painting or a movie can also activate mirror neurons and hence produce such an empathetic embodied simulation.

I have discussed what affect is and how we perceive the world via affect and our body from philosophical, scientific, and interdisciplinary aspects. How could affect theory help to analyse works of visual art? Art and visual cultural theory study has relied heavily on representation through social, semiotic and ideological way of analysis such as Marxism and deconstructionism. They resort social, semiotic and ideological way of analysis. Affect analysis brings a breath of fresh air into the studies, as affect is autonomous, immanent, and outside the traditional social signification.

We see the “affect turn” in the last decade. As affect is “inassimilable” (Massumi, 2002, p.3), our traditional art and cultural theorists will have to have an open mind and approach to study this unknowable from a non-representational perspective. We have to impoverish our mind and open to the “it happens” rather than “what happens”. While affect is immanent in a body, it is not independent from our culture but embedded. It is an ambiguous process before signification and coding but it does produce meaning. Massumi (2002, p.9) suggested that we do not accept any categorical separation between “social and pre-social”, between culture and “raw nature or experience”. He believed that this becoming social or cultural determinates forms of culture and sociability as a result. By the same token, when we see an artwork, we feel the intensity before meaning is made and this forms one part of the meaning at the same time. The study of the process – the becoming of meaning via affect as a medium will re-shape the meaning as a result. “The concealing and revealing, exposing and masking process which belongs to affect is structurally tied to the possibility of meaning.” (Armstrong 2000, p.123) To make meaning out of affect in corporal, personal, cultural and social contexts, we need to evaluate the affective dynamics of an image and pay attention to the movement of our skin, viscera and body. Artwork and the body relate organically to each other through “the destruction of representation, opening up an abyss in consciousness by violently breaking the barrier of repression and appropriating, thieving, representation.” (Armstrong 2000, p.123) It is like what Green (1999, p.178) asserted, based on Merleau-ponty’s notion of flesh, “affect is the flesh of the signifier and the signifier of the flesh.” He connected pre-personal affect and unqualified sensations with the symbolic realm. This reflexive relationship allows affect to register the corporeal foundation of meaning and to be back formed, culturally embedded and historically specific.

Now that we have discussed the definition of affect and how it works to better our embodied perception, I would like to use affect theory to analyse Every One # 14 by Sophie Ristelhueber.

I saw Ristelhueber’s Every One #14 at “Skin”, an exhibition at the Welcome Collection this summer. As soon as I entered into the exhibition hall, the image overwhelmingly attracted me. It is a black and white portrait of a woman’s evenly buxom back with dimensions of 270x180cm. The dark hair is swept to the left front and two arms are folded in the front as well. There is an obvious long scar from the top vertebrae to the buttock level. I see cramped stitches and hundreds of wrinkles along the scar from the top to the bottom. I felt my heart beating faster and I felt uneasy. I had to look away from the scar instinctively and instantly. The background is plain grey and the torso is lit evenly with some subtle shades around the underarm and the inner scapula area. There seems a medium light source from the right side possibly parallel to the body. This makes the bulged long stitched scar distinctively apparent, as the lighting created tiny shadows along the spine. My skin of the whole body was contracted and I felt extremely disturbed and upset from inside. I had to look away from the scar again. I wanted to behold the image a bit more, but not the scar subconsciously. It has a high contrast, a darker colour than the rest of the body. I just cannot behold the image without noticing the scar and so I walked away. It was around twenty minutes later that I decided to come back after strolling around the gallery viewing other works. This beautiful back portrait with the stitched scar had been occupying my mind in the twenty minutes. I knew that my visceral inside would get upset nevertheless I walked back. I felt the reaction in my body intensify. My breadth was heavy, my heart was pounding, and my whole body was in a state of contraction. For a while I could not look at the scar again, instead I was staring at the right buttock, which was the highest key area in the image. I kept thinking of the scar wondering what happened to this beautiful woman. I looked back the spine again. I felt sad and sympathetic. I stepped back and realised that the female torso image is quite like one of Jeanloup Sieff’s fashion images. There is some darkness inside me forcing me to look at the scar again resulting in my upset inside my body. I do not know what that is but decided to find out what the image is about.

My affective reaction to this image was built on the intensity I experienced at the sight of the scar, which stands out against the beautifully composed and painterly-lighted nude image. Before any perception is created, narrative is developed and meaning is made, the affective reaction already resulted in my skin hair standing, viscera twisting, and my body instinctively squirming. I then turned my sight away my sight from the scar. This can be explained by Massumi’s explanation of the half-second lapse from the beginning of a bodily event to its completion in an outwardly directed, active expression based on scientific experiment and analysis. (Masummi, 2002, p.29) My body responded to the sight of the scar before my conscious mind did in the form of automatic and biological reflexes. My cognitive perception that the thing is a scar was probably formed after this affect reaction. My mirror neuron was activated mentally and an embodied simulation of my own scar was probably created. Then my sense memory registered the scar memory as it is directly experienced. If I were a newborn baby, I probably would not have had the same affect reaction at the sight of the image. This would be due to the fact that I would not have developed sense memory or affective memory as such. My own experience, parental guidance and cultural influence registered and shaped my sense and affective memory. In this case, I have personal experience of getting a scar through a painful process when I was a child. This explained my disturbing reactions to the image. My body entered into a virtual world. I felt and experienced while seeing at the same time. This virtual can be understood as “the realm of affects”. (O’sullivan, 2001, p.129) Rather than asking what this image means in a rational disembodied way, my body resisted the interpretation but traced the condition and enabled myself incarnate. Isobel Armstrong defined this process as the “prosody of the body”, which is the process of projecting the soma into the experience of viewing and the “prosody of the gap”, which is the moments when the somatic disturbance and ambiguity was formed and the intentional body is signalled. (Armstrong, 2000, p.124)

This affect process produces such a powerful disturbing sensation that I had to cut off my body engagement with the image and so I looked away twice. Tomkins explained that people tend to adjust to look for positive emotion. However, I was inexplicably attracted to look at the image again. No doubt, looking at the beautiful nude with such a scar created sensations and feelings that are impossible to distinguish from one another and attached to the image as layered affects. It is uncanny and enigmatic, which makes this artwork powerful. This is the affective aesthetics. Rather than analysing the artwork using art theory such as Greenburg, Marxism, semiotics to name a few, affected perception enables us to communicate the artwork. We communicate with the artwork corporeally, the photographer engages with the sitter and the world corporeally, the sitter interacts with the photographer and the world corporeally, and we involve our body communicating with the photographer, the sitter and the world as exactly suggested by Merleau-Ponty’s notion of flesh. Thinking about artwork from an affective context beyond representation and meaning makes artwork and us more engaging, which amplify, intensify and motivate aesthetic experience and meaning. The affective process overwhelmed me. I decided to find out the background of the photo. After a few hours of research, I found out that most of Sophie Ristelhueber’s works concern the human impact of war. “Everyone” is a series with 14 black and white photographs and is Ristelhueber’s metaphor for the 1991 Yugoslavian conflicts between Serbs and Croats. She wrote:

“For the last six months, I have been working on the idea of scarred bodies. The link with Yugoslavia seems clears. In this war, incredible violence is directed at the body….By evoking a sense of suffering that will exist forever. That is how I envisage a form of creation linked to the existing world.” (Ristelhueber, 2009, p.290)

It is clear that this series is Ristelhueber’s embodied perception of the Yugoslavian civil war in 1991. She used bodily responses that lie outside verbal-semantic-linguistic representation to creat meaning. She registered the suffering of that war as a physical imprint. She translated her affective perception of the war into the image. Rather than let us see the war, she created an image that incites our affective response to touch and feel the war, which takes us “outside the confines of our character and habitual modes of perception”. (Bennett, 2005, p.44) This affective perception of the image plus my research on the background of the image yielded a narrative and meaning, in a stronger and “unconventional” representation-meaning way.

To conclude, I would like to re-quote Greens’ affect-flesh-signifier aphorism: “affect is the flesh of the signifier and the signifier of the flesh.” (1999, p178) Although affect arises from inner body without the help of representation and representation is always secondary, affect could invoke the expansion of meaning to include bodily process to complicate the traditional semiotic way of meaning making in visual art. Affect signifies the prepersonal field of embodiment, and in turn this prepersonal domain is incorporated into the signification. Each year I go to see the annual World Press Photo Prize show with its many stunning, compelling and disturbing images. After affect theory studies, I found that the impact on me of viewing the images is much stronger than that from previous shows. I think after the study I came to liberate my body and self more, and understand affect and its place in images and meaning making in the world.


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Bennett, J. (2005). Empathic Vision: Affect, Trauma, and Contemporary Art. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

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