Project Space: Margot Herster
by Dan Boehl
Margot Herster is less interested in making pictures than in the social role photographs and video play in modern society. Her change in attitude was simple: there are too many pictures in the world, so why make more? Instead she focuses on the way images reveal the social and physiological patterns of our lives, the places where media starts to blend with community and self-identity.
In 2005, around the time Herster was becoming disenchanted with pictures, defense lawyers were granted access to detainees in at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba. These lawyers were faced with a very big problem: their clients didn’t trust them. The detainees, from countries like Yemen, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain, thought the lawyers were spies sent to trick them into confessing crimes. In order to prove to their clients that they were in fact there to defend them, the lawyers traveled to their clients’ homelands. They met their clients’ mothers and fathers, brothers, wives, and children.
The lawyers made pictures and videos of themselves standing with the family members as, in the videos, the family explained to their sons that the lawyers could be trusted. The lawyers, in an effort to drum up public support and interest for the plight of the detainees, (they are just like us after all: they have kids, miss their wives, and want to see pictures of the fields they knew as teenagers) released the pictures and videos to the press. The news outlets mostly ignored the lawyers’ efforts. But the images and videos did serve their primary function. Like letters of introduction, they created a bond of trust between the detainees and lawyers. It’s these pictures and videos that Herster uses in her work.
During a recent residency at the Gottesman Libraries at Columbia University, Herster adapted her series of Guantanamo images after you’ve been burned by hot soup you blow in your yogurt (2005-2009) so that it could be displayed in the library’s catalogue and archive spaces. To do so she used a section of wall over an ornate exit to display a loop of a large family huddled for a portrait. She converted the building directory listings into an exhibition catalogue. The library catalogue computers were loaded with archived images for visitors to browse. Four digital picture frames were put in the library stacks, where the screens showed images from the detainees’ homelands and text quoting the fears of their families.
In the classic sense, the images in the Gottman Library catalogue function as portraiture, marking the gatherings of families. In one picture, a detainee’s young son is wearing a New Jersey Nets jersey. Nothing could be more American. But for an American viewer, these simple portraits take on a heavy political context simply because most of the family members are dressed in burkas. This is perhaps why the media largely ignored the images. Media, especially the visual, moving-picture based media, are not in the business of humanizing foreign prisoners of war.
The media reports news, but news outlets have only one part in writing history. In effect, Herster uses her installation at the Gottesman Library to speed up the interpretation process by exposing the images to a live, thinking, and learning audience. Placed in a functioning library in a renowned university, the library loans the plight of the detainees an aura of academic truth, becoming an instant part of the library collection. History, collected and cataloged by the archivist, is written by the academy. With an air of erudite distance Herster treats the images as artifacts, rigorously cataloging them for posterity like a museum registrar. But at the same time, the images are humanizing, shown with the photographer’s eye for narrative connection. And in this way Herster walks a fine line between art and artifact, exhibition and archive.
Dan Boehl lives in Austin, where he is working on a post-petroleum children's novel.