Photo-translation: Collaborative practice in migration image research

Birgit Mersmann

This article introduces the concept of ‘photo-translation’ for studying documentary photography as a collaborative practice of visual translation. The visual-translational approach to photo documentation is applied in a novel way to the emerging field of contemporary migration photography, thus relating recent theoretical connections between translation and migration studies to explorations in visual studies. The study discusses how participatory and collaborative practices are increasingly used in contemporary photo documentation to challenge, if not remove, the relational ‘othering’ effect inherent in the photo-documentary representation of refugees, migrants and displaced peoples. The potential of translaboration as a mode of translational collaboration is explored through an in-depth analysis of two photo projects: (1) the participatory photo project Fotohistorias (Gomez and Vannini 2015), conducted by social and information scientists Ricardo Gomez and Sara Vannini in cooperation with migrants at the US–Mexico border; and (2) the collaborative photo–graphic novel project Lampedusa: Image Stories from the Edge of Europe (Migrant Image Research Group 2017), carried out by the Migrant Image Research Group under the guidance of Armin Linke. Demanding agency in visual translation proves to be essential for these participatory photo projects, since they aim to challenge dominant visual representations of how migration is narrated and represented in the media and academic discourse. For this reason, the investigation draws on new sociological approaches in Translation Studies in order to frame photo-translation as a social practice and as a form of (activist) engagement involving various agents and institutions.

Publication history
Table of contents

Translation research in visual studies is an underrepresented field of investigation, even though “visual translation has a particular explosive force arising from the all-encompassing transcultural worlds of media and images” (Bachmann-Medick 2012, 36–37). In this article, I argue that translaboration (Alfer 2017; Zwischenberger 2017) serves as a model of joint research between Translation Studies and areas of visual culture or image research. I aim to implement the ‘iconic’/‘pictorial turn’ in Translation Studies (Mersmann 2008; Fernández-Ocampo and Wolf 2014; Bachmann-Medick 2016, 245–278) and link it to major cultural (Bassnett and Lefevere 1990; Bachmann-Medick 2016, 178–185) and sociological reorientations (Angelelli 2014; Wolf and Fukari 2007; Wolf 2010) within translation theory. The specific perspective from which I intend to pursue this objective is that of ‘photo-translation’ – a new term that I introduce in this article for approaching documentary photography as a translational practice. The primary definition of photo-translation, as applied in this study for the purpose of migration image research, relates to the visual transmittance of migrants’ living-world experiences by means of photography. The concept of translation, traditionally restricted to the translation of symbolic forms and objects of cultural representation, is extended to the translation of human subjects and their realities in situations of mobility and transition, shedding light on how lived experiences of migration are translated into photo documents (i.e., visual representations). Since documentary photography has to follow the principle of fidelity to capture a story of real people and original events, documentary photo-translation shares common ground with translation-theoretical concepts that valorize equivalence and fidelity as key principles. With regard to the intricate negotiations between fidelity to reality and artistic freedom in photo-aesthetic rendering, the task of the documentary photographer can be equated to that of the translator. The second layer of meaning of photo-translation, which is at the center of the investigation in this study, concerns the study of documentary photography beyond its mere representational function. It relates to photo documentation as a visual, cultural and social practice, method and process of translation, and thus involves the inclusion of more recent actor-, agency- and collaboration-oriented approaches in translation theory. In this broader mediation context, documentary photo-translation is not confined to a purely visual practice of representation; it is embedded in the interpersonal and intercultural, oral and written communication contexts required for the decoding and mediation of migrant experiences as visually captured in the photograph. It is not restricted to a single-authored translation activity (that of the single photographer documenting human migrant realities), since it involves collaborative practice for fully-fledged performance. This aspect will be highlighted in the analysis of participatory photo-documentation projects with migrants.

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