Peace can be shown vicariously by documenting activities accompanying, reflecting and following from a given individual’s or group’s perception and experience of peace. Simply put, if a sense of peace prevails, individuals and groups of people tend to do things they would not do in the absence of a sense of peace. Such activities can be recorded visually.
In the context of 1960s Soviet Conceptualism, Andrei Monastyrsky conceived of documentation “as a representation of what accompanies an artistic experience”¹ because neither this experience itself nor its internal processes can be directly represented. According to Claire Bishop, these lines of thought are “highly suggestive of a documentary approach ripe for re-exploration today.”² It can be re-explored, today, with peace as its referent by visualizing activities which would not be possible in the absence of perceptions and experiences of peace.
It has been shown in many violent contexts including ones as extreme as the sieges of Leningrad and Sarajevo that people exposed to violence often try to continue everyday activities, including cultural activities such as organizing and attending concerts or writing and reading poetry.³ They might do so precisely in order to prevent their lives from being dominated entirely by violence, wishing to give them a semblance of normality and to preserve some degree of human dignity. What Roger Mac Ginty calls a “minimalist understanding of peace”⁴ is a strategy of resistance to violence but not always a reliable indicator of the existence of peace perceptions. Yet, “rest[ing] on considerable agency at the individual and group levels,” it often “involves considerable innovation, creativity and improvisation.”⁵ A minimalist understanding of peace and its translation into everyday activities can be visualized, given considerable innovation and creativity on the part of the image-maker.
Senses of peace may evolve in parallel with social and political conditions: from the absence of peace perceptions to a minimalist understanding of peace; and from such a minimalist understanding to more ambitious ones. Such evolution is not irreversible. What kind of sense of peace prevails exactly at a given point is difficult to establish by visual means only. Visual documentation does not tell us this; it does not give us assurance. Regarding the relationship between a photograph and that which it depicts, Monastyrsky spoke of “positive indeterminacy” and this is a useful term in our context as well: we see that some sense of peace prevails but what we see exactly remains opaque.
Visual documentation does give us a sense of the complexity of the scene depicted – any scene, even a seemingly simple and obvious one. This complexity implies that different people may interpret the same scene radically differently. Thus, while some observers may stress that, to them, a certain sense of peace prevailed during the scene depicted, others may disagree. Even the individuals involved in the image-making either as image-makers or as subjects of image-making may disagree with one another; and what they believe to see may be fundamentally different from what outside observers see – yet this does not render their perceptions more relevant or correct than those of others.
Photo elicitation interviews help us understand not only what people see in a given image but also why they see different things in the same image. As such, their point is not to establish the correct interpretation of an image but, rather, to understand how different interpretations came into being, from what politics they are derived and what politics they envision.
¹ See Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (London and New York: Verso, 2012), p. 157 (italics in original). For the original text, see Andrei Monastyrsky, “Seven Photographs,” at http://conceptualism.letov.ru/MONASTYRSKY-7-PHOTOGRAPHS.htm.
² Bishop, Artificial Hells, p. 157.
³ See, for example, Ian MacDonald, The New Shostakovich (London: Pimlico, 2006), pp. 180–181; Ales Adamowitsch and Daniil Granin, Blockadebuch: Leningrad 1941–1944 (Berlin: Aufbau Verlag, 2018), pp. 620–635; Silvija Jestrovic, Performance, Space, Utopia: Cities of War, Cities of Exile (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), pp. 115–128; Mirjana Ristic, Architecture, Urban Space and War: The Destruction and Reconstruction of Sarajevo (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), pp. 118–119.
⁴ Roger Mac Ginty, “Everyday Peace: Bottom-up and Local Agency in Conflict-affected Societies,” Security Dialogue 45 (2014): 6, p. 555.