Helen Charman: I’d like to ask you about where the idea for the book came from: the dedication, ‘For those who want to be seen otherwise’, suggests that the project is rooted more in a political attempt to redress an imbalance than in art history or aesthetic theory as we might traditionally think of it, and although you draw on familiar thinkers—Susan Sontag, Julia Kristeva, Michel Foucault—it isn’t a text that advances a particular theoretical world view in and of itself; it feels more responsive than assertive, perhaps.
Hatty Nestor: The title Ethical Portraits is both quite literal and a portmanteau of the two fundamental conceptual underpinnings for the book. Ethical draws primarily on a philosophical history of the face as the site of morality, where ethics are learned and enacted: I’m thinking here of Emmanuel Levinas, who was utilised by both Maggie Nelson and Judith Butler to speak about urgent political issues (arts relation to violence, indefinite detention etc). Portraits derive from an aesthetic history of power; traditionally, those who had their portrait created would be in positions of prestige, in the highest echelons of society. The image was created to aggrandise, or venerate, the sitter. This history beckons the question of who is allowed to be represented, and why––why are they worthy of recognition, and others not? What is the power dynamic between the artist and the sitter?
For example, one of the primary images we think of in relation to the justice system is the mugshot. The mugshot is a portrait, solely for the purposes of identification, and strips the subject of any personality or agency. The subject of the mugshot is not there to be celebrated but to be processed and categorised. In this manner of image making, the justice and carceral systems inflame these representational problems by both purposefully making inmates invisible. Through this invisibility––or absence of representation––the system depicts them in a way in which they may not want to be seen.
All of the above is the basis for the conceptual underpinnings of the work, but I would say that the book doesn’t declare its own conceptual contribution to this philosophical or aesthetic critical lineage, because ultimately its methodology is rooted in the practice or archiving, and the weaving of oral histories. In this way it is responsive. By documenting the process of inquiry I went through––witnessing, interviewing and field research––my hope was that the book might activate this same critical response in the reader. It’s like a domino effect!
Many of the portraits discussed in the book are created in response to an unethical portrait or the absence of any representation entirely, so the dedication ‘For those who want to be seen otherwise’ speaks to these wider ethical and political problems within the representational field. It is a dedication to anyone—particularly in relation to the criminal justice system—who has been misrepresented by it.
HC: Your research methods seem important here: you spent time at the Old Bailey observing courtroom sketch artists, you conducted interviews, you visited former prisons. How important was this methodology (that of oral history) to the development of the project?
HN: Oral histories have a long tradition of acting as a form of political activism that provides an alternative to traditional archives. Saidiya Hartman writes at the beginning of Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (2019) in ‘A Note on Method’ that historians and writers have to grapple with ‘the power and authority of the archive and the limits it sets on what can be known, whose perspective matters, and who is endowed with the gravity and authority of the historical actor’. Through interviewing them, I hope the voices of artists and their pursuits can be made visible.
The book experiments with how writing can become a form of portrait-making through interviewing, while also being explicitly honest about how I am implicated in the act of portrayal. To challenge this, I am also interested in modes of collective writing and history-making, how different voices can dwell within a text. This is partly to ensure the author isn’t the dominant or singular voice, but, by extension, it’s also about challenging the power and authority of the archive, as a feminist methodology.
HC: I was interested that you chose to end the book itself with an interview with Heather Dewey-Hagborg about Probably Chelsea, the series of 30 different portraits of Manning created from DNA analysis in 2017. This method of representation is—to put it clumsily—interior, rather than exterior: it comes from within Manning, and with her, rather than a gaze projected onto her. You describe this as a mode of solidarity: why does it feel so radical? Is it an example of an ethical portrait?
Probably Chelsea (2017) and Radical Love (2015) feel so radical because of the technology used to produce the work itself, and because it gave Manning the ability to affirm her own identity, through subverting outmoded understandings of biological sex as both binary and immutable. Manning sent Dewey-Hagborg hair clippings and two cheek swabs in the post from prison. Her DNA was then used to algorithmically generate thirty gender neutral portraits, to demonstrate how subjective readings of DNA can be. This technology is usually employed by law enforcement agencies to identify suspects, but Manning and Dewey-Hagborg subverted it: it was no longer a tool of oppressive profiling, but rather a way to queer gender visibility. To me, this seemed like a big middle finger to transphobia in both the media and the justice system. Manning was granted some representational agency, even from within prison, through the secretive exchange of a small part of her own body.
As to whether it is an ethical portrait: of course, I suppose the work is ethical in the sense that it aligned with Manning’s lived experience, and functions to subvert the racist and transphobic biopolitics of the state. However, I don’t think the book sets out to define what an ethical portrait is or could constitute: it is more an inquiry into how the act of portraying and representing is inherently bound to a fraught ethics of accountability and recognition.
HC: Recuperation feels like a central concept in the book, particularly in the Chelsea Manning chapters, where her agency over images of herself is figured as a way of ameliorating the transphobia inherent in the prison system itself, as well a specific remedy to the circulation of her earlier military headshot. I wonder what kind of relationship these totemic images—high profile cases, you could say—bear to the prison population in general? I suppose the images of Manning are positioned in an interesting relation to Alyse Emdur’s Prison Landscapes photographs: the backdrops that most incarcerated people are photographed in front of.
HN: Your use of the phrase totemic here is so perceptive. Alicia Neal’s portrait of Manning certainly became representative of a wider political urgency around national security and trans rights through the high-profile nature of her case. Manning’s very real invisibility–– her ordeal in solitary confinement for example––was made visible through the circulation of Neal’s portrait. Manning could only be recognised as fully herself when a ‘true’ image of her own visage was produced. Beyond Manning’s personal desire for a different representation, the portrait took on a life beyond its first individual purpose, where its function was no longer just for her. For instance, the portrait was used in the Occupy protests on placards.
Whereas, in the Prison Landscapes, the opposite is true: by standing in front of these backdrops which depict utopian scenes, beaches, sci-fi worlds, the subjects are––for a short while––no longer inmates. Only through an image that changes their environment, can they be represented fully as who they see themselves to be. The circulation of these photographs is predominantly amongst loved ones, allowing them to see someone who is close to them as anything other than a person in an orange jumpsuit. It overwrites their categorisation, and depiction, as criminal. And by extension Emdur, in collecting the prison landscapes in a book, circulated them among a wider, implicitly non-incarcerated, audience.
Both instances imbue the original image with a meaning which exceeds the person being captured. So recuperation of selfhood does prevail in both instances, but the methods by which this happens are vastly different.
HC: Surveillance is a recurring concept in both the book and in Jackie Wang’s introduction: the non-consensual images of us that the state and private companies accrue as we move through the world. In Carceral Capitalism, Wang notes that the collection of this kind of visual data is directly related to how heavily policed a population is: the more powerful you are, the more privacy you are allowed, the more you can afford. How does this relate to the total lack of agency that incarcerated people have over the distribution of their images, their mugshots and courtroom sketches?
We are all subjected to surveillance, whether through phones, internet usage, or police cameras. The prospect of vaccine passports is another timely example. The idea that we have to purchase privacy is a chilling prospect, but one which is very true. Just as Mark Fisher said it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, I think this is true of policing and surveillance too.
When well-known figures are placed on trial, like Amy Winehouse or Charles Manson, the process of debating their innocence is not private, but public, because the press can capitalise on the drama of their trial as a soap opera of criminal celebrity behaviour. What’s interesting about courtroom sketches is they tie into the notion that those on trial are ‘innocent until proven guilty’, yet whilst the trial is going on people are already subjected to degrees of representation they might not have invited otherwise. These perceptions work to construct perceptions of the defendant’s innocence and guilt. That being said, courtroom sketches are often of famous individuals, because those are the lives society cares about, and thus they are the images the media will purchase. These sketches are created very quickly and then sold to media outlets, so the cycle of capital is inherent to this form of representation, misrepresentation and economies of visibility. In stark contrast, the vast majority of the incarcerated population––most of whom are Black or from other marginalised communities—are rendered invisible to the outside world, yet are subject to heavy surveillance through the panopticon architectural design of prisons. Yet their mugshots, which are solely for identification purposes, usually only appear in the media if there is a prison scandal. They are often distributed in the news usually to further an aura of guilt, as opposed to the liberatory potential of, for example, Manning’s portrait.
HC: A recurring theme of Ethical Portraits is the ‘grievability’ of life: you write that ‘When a life is grieved, it’s because that life has, in some regard, been deemed worthy of representation and remembering’, with visual representation inherent to this idea of a visible loss, a loss that is seen. I wonder how this relates to the circulation of images that objectify or exploit rather than represent: the ‘liberal politics of recognition, where a privileged subject confers humanity on a degraded subject by bearing witness to their suffering’, as Wang writes in the introduction. I’m thinking too of Mariame Kaba’s 2016 essay ‘Imagining Freedom’ in which she positions poetry as an alternative form of representation, a way of mourning whilst resisting the traumatic and, in her words ‘to some degree mind- and soul-numbing’ circulation of images of the deaths of black people at the hands of police.
HN: What a great question! Judith Butler uses the word grievability (and precarity) in Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? (2009) to talk about grieving and mourning. Butler describes how ‘there is a life that will never have been lived’, given no regard, no testimony, and is ungrieved when lost. In opposition to those who are mourned, grief points to lives that have never been seen to live at all. If we can give visibility and recognition to people who are not mourned, such as those in prison, indefinite detention, refugees, we start to allow these lost or ungrieved lives to be recognised. These hierarchies of grief are constitutive of the precarious nature of living under capitalism we are all, to some degree, subjected to and defined by. This also relates to documentation and representation too. If you are archived or represented, this is because your life has been deemed worthy of representing. This was a foundational place to start writing and thinking from: what does visibility create for prisoners, and is it always beneficial? Ethical Portraits attempts to stretch this question further, to explore how representation can also be indicative of an unethical agenda, which is often true of the media. Being transparent about the complicated ethics that informs (mis)representation might act as the precondition for a different trajectory of visibility altogether.
In relation to the white supremacist murder of Black people at the hands of the police, often the only representation they receive is through the mass-media circulation of their death. The only image which is circulated is of their murder, as a victim of, usually, police violence not of them as a living person. Often, the distribution of these violent images is the first instance where mourning takes place. There is also an irony to this too, because the circulation of these videos and images on the internet captured by bystanders go viral due to public outrage. As with the trial of Derek Chauvin, the circulation of footage from George Floyd’s murder facilitated his conviction. Also, the images of George Floyd have taken on a new life in many instances, through murals and artwork circulated on social media, in a pursuit of representational justice. This is also true of misrecognition of course, where individuals are framed as the supposed aggressor through images of violence being acted upon them; Duanna Johnson is an example of this, where CCTV footage was used in court to frame her. In the case of Eric Garner, too, which I discuss in chapter four, his representation demonstrates that although he is gone, the videotape remains. If the afterlife of the footage is solely discussed in terms of its horror, it becomes stuck in a discursive loop of no relief. The tape reminds us that for so many black people and other marginalised communities of colour, the only representation which they are given is one of violence.
I think this is why Kaba’s idea that poetry might harness the potential to break this repetitive cycle is so alluring and politically rich. I am unsure if this is more ethical, but it certainly permits a realm to imagine differently, which is a powerful tool when institutions, such as the media, compulsively trap us in a cycle of dissociation, particularly in the case of murder and loss. I hope the book demonstrates that this unfolding asks us to yearn for a better politics of representation, even if alternatives, such as poetry, are just glimpses of what is yet to come.
Hatty Nestor is a cultural critic and writer, published in Frieze, The Times Literary Supplement, The White Review and many other publications. Ethical Portraits (2021) is forthcoming with with Zero Books.