36, 37, 38     TRAUMA IMAGES, AGAIN

The past few years have been nothing short of traumatic: mass death from COVID-19; mass shootings in schools, grocery stores, and public events; mass police killings of black and brown people; the oppressive displays of mechanistic violence and terror around the world as part of new and continuing global conflicts; the rise of fascism and the stochastic terrorism that comes with it. At the start of this project for PROPS PAPER, it seemed impossible to escape the images of George Floyd’s death, the piling up of bodies lost to COVID-19, and the urban destruction unfolding in Palestine looping across the screens many of us interface with daily—televisions, computers, smartphones. Since then, these daily images have only been added to or supplanted by new or repeated traumatic acts: the war in Ukraine; the mass shootings at Tops Supermarket (Buffalo, New York), Robb Elementary School (Uvalde, Texas), and the Highland Park Parade (Lake County, Illinois); the desperate attempts of Afghans to leave their country as the United States extracted its military presence; assaults against queer, trans, and drag performing communities; the developing situation of Monkeypox.

While not always explicitly graphic, these images carry with them the psychic scarring of those captured within their frames and ask their creators or viewers to grapple with bearing witness, whether in the moment or at a distance. While public discourse about these traumas is often mediated through indifferent statistics, it is the images that become indelible, stand in for the event, and get repeated over and over. At the same time, we have seen that it is through the circulation of traumatic images that public attention is captured, and around which action is mobilized, with a history in America going back at least as far as early abolitionist art.

As these images unveil the latent necropolitics that subtends the more polite politics of the everyday, they raise questions for journalists and bystanders with recording devices, as well as for artists who utilize such images in their practice and research: What makes an image traumatic? What is the distinction between images that depict scenes of trauma (content) and images that are traumatic in their own right (context)? How are both mobilized within contemporary artistic, academic, and activist practices as a means of engaging in politics? What is at stake in the reliance on traumatic images as a means of engaging in politics? And lastly, what are the limits to the efficacy of these images (compassion fade), and how are these images explored in various settings and ethical manners?

These questions, of course, are not new—thus the “again” in the title of the issue. Artists, photojournalists, and media editors have repeatedly received criticism about their ethical involvement in capturing, selling, circulating, or reappropriating traumatic images: Theresa Frare’s “Face of AIDS” for Life magazine (1990), reappropriated by United Colors of Benetton under the creative direction of Oliviero Toscani; Kevin Cater’s “The Struggling Girl” for the New York Times (1993);  Nilüfer Demir’s photograph of deceased three-year-old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi (2015) later reenacted by Ai Weiwei (2016); Lynsey Addario’s photograph of the death of a Ukrainian family for the New York Times (2022). Yet rather than rehearse the well-worn discourse around the uses and abuses of photojournalism and art, this edition of PROPS PAPER explores the topic of traumatic images in indirect ways. While traumatic images have the potential to open the space for political action, the works addressed in this issue turn away from the immediate impact of trauma to understand and unpack its constitutive role in temporary consciousness and how we live with trauma.

Writer and scholar, Nada Ayad, explores the topic of traumatic images through her passion for translation. Working in comparison with Margot Badran’s well-accepted English translation Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist, 1879-1924, Ayad offers a new translation excerpt from the memories of one of the leading elite women of the 1919 Egyptian Revolution against British occupation, Hoda Sha’rawi. One of the most notable features of Badran’s English version of Sha’rawi’s memories is its inclusion of private photographs that do not appear in the Arabic version. For Ayad, the inclusion of these intimate photographs presents as traumatic in a particular way as they attempt to arrest in time one of the leading elite women of the 1919 Egyptian Revolution against British occupation. In her own words, “Her reclining inserts her in a familiar position of the languid odalisque. It’s shocking and new to see the revolutionary exposed in such an intimate way, but it is a timeless trope.” In an interview with Iranian American multimedia artist, activist, and professor Sheida Soleimani, whose art practice often includes sourcing images of violated, mutilated, and murdered women from the Dark Web, the editor and artist explore the a/effects working with traumatic images may have on artists and their processes. With concept work by Solemani published for the first time, she discusses her decision to create work about the assassination of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi and the reasons why she left this work. Pakistani multidisciplinary artist and art writer, Omer Wasim, offers a Proposal for a Cross Border Collection of Seeds that seeks to challenge the militarized, necropolitical, hegemonic, heteronormative, ultra-nationalistic, and untraversable border between India and Pakistan. Wasim explores the subject of traumatic images through portraits of these border landscapes which carry with them the inscriptions of incomprehensible suffering, violence, and death. For Omer, the generative resilience of plants provides metaphors for thinking about Partition and its associative trauma. Together, these three creatives attempt to think beyond the literal trauma captured in an image to map out the networks of a/effect these images produce. With so much traumatic imagery circulating our media platforms on a daily basis, these creators offer ways to think and work through trauma without over-sensationalizing it or becoming numb to it.

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MALCOLM J. RIO︎︎︎is a graphic and architectural designer and thinker living in Providence, Rhode Island. Rio is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) as well as a Ph.D. student at Columbia University in the Department of Architectural History and Theory. Rio’s primary research focuses on the intersections of race, sexuality, kinship, and the terraqueous in the 18th and 19th centuries.