Though often situated at the centre of grandiose political and activist projects, tasked time and again with capturing visible evidence of exploitation, violence, deprivation, and inequality, documentary, as both a genre and a practice, rests on a fundamental paradox: that of being perpetually too early and too late. If, as T.J. Demos writes near the end of The Migrant Image: The Art and Politics of Documentary during Global Crisis (2013, Duke University Press, 368 pages), the thrust of the “classical documentary project” has conventionally been “to engender a compassion for the struggling and disadvantaged” through film, video, and photography, this project has always met its limit in the odd temporality of violence itself.
For obvious reasons, the documentarian who arrives ahead of the violent event fails to produce any legible evidence of it, and only rarely does documentary avail itself to the kind of low-grade, day-to-day violence that quietly (un)structures the lives of so many precarious populations (though there are exceptions here: Judy Price’s White Oil  and Ursula Biemann’s Deep Weather  come to mind). The documentarian who arrives even a moment too late, similarly but inversely, finds representational possibility horribly reduced, their camera seemingly incapable of doing anything more than adding to a “familiar spectacle of misery.” This closure, which relentlessly announces itself today in viral videos of mass killings, police executions, and the ruinous remains of military violence, is what the documentary photographer and artist Alfredo Jaar mournfully calls “the futility of a gaze that arrives too late.”
Given the persistence of this paradox in the face of ever more abusive forms of exploitation and deprivation, is it possible, or even worth it, to imagine a different present and perhaps a different future for documentary? What would it take, theoretically and aesthetically, to rebuild the relationship between the documentary image and the political imperative to bear witness to, memorialize, and ultimately resist violence?
With The Migrant Image, T.J. Demos unpacks these stubborn, seemingly intransigent challenges in ways that render them once again vital, volatile, illuminating, and above all, timely. Generously illustrated (16 full colour glossy plates, 76 grey scale) and, like much of Demos’s other work, elegantly and incisively argued, The Migrant Image deftly elaborates the tensions between politics and aesthetics, truth and fiction, and transparency and opacity in the contemporary moment.
Throughout, Demos refuses to abide the terms of a now well-worn approach to the politics of documentary, wherein the filmmaker figures as a kind of pseudo-journalistic activist-ethnographer who sanctimoniously ‘extends visibility’ to the invisible, the silenced, and the dispossessed. In place of this figure, he develops a novel, nuanced, and productively tenuous account of what is at stake in the work of representation, asking not simply how ‘the visible’ can be expanded, but also how we might fundamentally restructure the very conditions of visibility; how we might represent not only more or better, but differently, striving for a “just distribution of appearance” that overgrows the spectacular re-presentation of death, deprivation, and destruction endemic to the documentary and photojournalistic traditions.
Offered in the midst of a so-called “documentary turn” in the contemporary art world (for which Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta 11 serves as frequent ambassador), The Migrant Image puts into conversation a diverse ensemble of artists whose practices, though thematically linked by a shared investment in questions of globalization, (im)migration, colonialism, displacement, and diaspora, routinely transgress the generic and formal limits between documentary, still photography, installation, archive, and essay. Drawing on such practitioners as Emily Jacir, the Otolith Group, Hito Steyerl, and Steve McQueen, and tracing both the lines of connection and points of disjuncture between India, Palestine, Sub-Saharan Africa, the United States, and elsewhere, Demos pursues “a new modelling of documentary form, one incredulous about the objective or unmediated representation of a truthful event or experience, even while it refuses to dispense with the ethical imperative to pose relationships of proximity – if troubled and complex – to those typically excluded or marginalized from the global order.”
Where in a classical documentary milieu, the political is typically thought to obtain in the moment of “exposé” – in the sudden and disarming making-visible of that which was previously obscured – for Demos, it is precisely the exposé that threatens to foreclose political thought and action. “If mainstream reporting refers primarily to its own set of codes rather than to reality itself,” Demos asks (citing media theorist Niklas Luhmann), and if these codes are today overwhelmingly dominated by images of desecrated corpses and devastated landscapes, “then what hope can the documentary exposé have in challenging public perception?”
Undoubtedly committed to retaining documentary’s ethical imperative to witness, yet equally firm in his refusal of this ‘piling on,’ which aside from being crude, also threatens to present as utterly intractable those systems of organized violence that precarize and kill in such astonishing numbers, Demos examines work that effects what he calls a “derealization of representation.” These are works that strain to render sensible “the terrible nearness of distant places” precisely by eschewing the “pretense of transparency,” works that “confront geopolitical conflicts by…throwing documentary conventions into crisis.”
Entwining Rancière’s claim that “art becomes political…not simply by communicating a political message” but rather by “[intervening] in the very organization of communicable form” with Giorgio Agamben’s twin concepts of “bare life” and the “state of exception,” which designate the ways in which human subjects are systematically split off from political representation and reduced to mere biological existence, The Migrant Image is in turn populated by works that traffic in obscurity, indeterminacy, ambivalence, disorientation, and uncertainty. Writing of the 2007 film Gravesend, for instance, Demos notes that director Steve McQueen takes a remarkably “oblique approach” to the issue of Coltan mining in the Congo, effectively “[disavowing] the clarity of photojournalistic exposure” and pursuing instead a “geopoetics” that “allegorizes geopolitics.” This is hardly the language one expects to find in discussions of socially-engaged documentary.
But if this allegorical approach no longer fulfills a desire for spectacular images that record the the putative ‘truth’ of exploitation, it does so in order to implicate the viewer in new ways, to unsettle us, to shift not simply what is and what is not sensed, but indeed (following Rancière) what can and cannot be sensed. Films like Gravesend, Demos suggests, demand that we feel our way into a new and decidedly more complex relationship with contemporary distributions of violence, experiencing their wretched closeness, even absent the perverse, voyeuristic pleasures of visible evidence.
Demos repeats and elaborates upon this analysis throughout The Migrant Image, his words slowly accreting into what, at times, feels like an altogether new theory of documentary aesthetics. Counter-intuitively, this proto-theory is staked on what Demos variably terms a strategic “refusal to represent,” or, citing the work of Caribbean poet and literary critic Édouard Glissant, “opacity.” Deployed within the documentary frame, an aesthetics of opacity and refusal would resist the demands of visuality, exposure, and transparency, expressing instead a “political demand” for response and accountability precisely by “[preventing] the viewer from producing knowledge from images.”
Without cancelling the possibility of knowledge altogether, this resistance to meaning would allow for images of migrant bodies to be disarticulated from the knowledge systems that so swiftly render them criminal, terroristic, disposable, killable. An aesthetics of opacity, for Demos, breaks apart the regimes of apprehension that enframe the phenomenon of migration as such, making it possible to think that phenomenon anew and otherwise.
It doesn’t take much, of course, to detect the gamble inherent in such a proposal. At one point, Demos even asks rhetorically: “Might the embrace of opacity as a strategy of resistance against oppressive identifications…end up unintentionally silencing the other, as the unforeseen mimicry of political erasure reenacts the very effect of colonization?” Opacity, though, is not the same as outright erasure. “Glissant is clear on this account: ‘the opaque is not the obscure’; instead, it is ‘that which cannot be reduced,” saving one from ‘unequivocal courses and irreversible choices.”
The heavily pixelated, low-res images that drift and slide through Hito Steyerl’s fragmentary documentary works, then, for Demos, are not to be read as an outright abdication of the political. Rather, through the analytic of opacity, they become legible as part of a different order of politics and representation; a way of interrupting the immediate passage from the image of the migrant to the meaning of the category “migrant” itself. They begin, in other words, to re-open the recursive closures of documentary representation.
Writing of Ursula Biemann’s pseudo-ethographic, multi-channel video works, Demos similarly argues that such images stage “a confrontation with the limits of the documentary approach,” developing “a new mode of address that replaces the stultifying conventions of traditional documentary filmmaking and sensationalist media with the transformative capacity of representation to shift perspectives and invite collaborative and creative interpretation.” To practice opacity is thus not to evacuate politics, but rather to “reconstruct the terms of politics” such that the act of migration can emerge as “a political demand for equality and participation that challenges the global system of social inequality and geographic exclusion in which migration takes place.”
Here, we are once again in risky territory. Demos’s attempt to develop an account of migration as a political demand rather than a coerced and often abusive condition, after all, is symptomatic of his book’s broader political intervention, which might cause some to rankle. This is the work of “universalizing the migrant as the condition of being human, and determining a politics of equality on that basis.” “According to this conceptualization,” Demos continues, “migration identifies something uncapturable and unmeasurable, something ever mobile and unfamiliar…This approach sees migration taking on a certain agency, an autonomy.”
Of course, given that migrants today are in fact increasingly subject to both capture and measurement within heavily militarized and pervasively biometric border zones, such a position might strike us as naively utopian. But in working so carefully to free documentary from the troublesome tendency toward exposé, and by insisting in turn on both the semiotic and political indeterminacy of migration as such, I think what Demos might be holding on to – and what he might be challenging us to hold on to, as well – is the possibility of (pre)figuring, modelling, and proliferating alternative visions of how we might live with, live through, and render liveable the inescapable fact of migration.
While this may not be everything, surely it is more than the desperately impoverished and ultimately false choice we so routinely confront today between the virulent and xenophobic vilification of the migrant body – manifest in so many state-sponsored and corporate media regimes – and its sensational over-representation in documentary as corpse, martyr, or victim.
At the very least, Demos’ admittedly fraught thesis offers avenues toward vital new forms of thought, critique, and cinematic practice in a moment when the gesture of ‘giving visibility’ has proven itself not only utterly insufficient to the task of enacting migrant justice (that thousands of migrants can vanish or die in some of the most heavily-surveilled border zones on the planet is grim proof of visibility’s limits as a strategy of critique), but also, in its dominant configurations, constitutive and reiterative of the very violence it would denounce.