Patricia Silva interviews Sina Haghani

Sina Haghani, Glimmers of Contingency, Installation view, 2012.

Sina Haghani takes a moment after Norouz, the Persian New Year to talk about the creative process, and his MFA Thesis Exhibition, Glimmers of Contingency, which opened on March 15th, 2012.

Patricia: The basis for your thesis show, how long has it been in development?
Sina: It was around the beginning of spring last year that some sketchy ideas started to form in my mind. Initially, I wanted to make work about my own preconceptions and prejudgments about people whom I regularly saw in my daily life but had a very limited social interaction with, if ever: a Chipotle employee; a friend of a friend I hadn’t got to know deeply; or someone at school whose interactions with others were the only source for my perception of her. Later on, these merely first impressions evolved into more complex interpersonal thoughts, which came through shared experience with those people.

Patricia: When you and I met to talk about your work, we also talked about emotional distance between people, and situations of uncertainty. Do you think one is the cause of the other?
Sina: I think inaccessibility leads to uncertainty, which eventually reinforces discomfort in encounters. Because every encounter is kind of fraught, as it presents itself as a kind of demand as well as exposure. At times when uncertainty creates distance, difficult emotional states arise.

Patricia: So, how do you describe your work?
Sina: My work is both a critique and an acceptance of distance that results from uncertainty. I am fascinated by situations in which a variety of possibilities can be triggered in different people. Whether they are real characters or personnas that are perceived by others, these situations allow me to experience this sort of social manifestation of relativism. Our perception of signifiers and how we consciously/unconsciously lead ourselves to conclusions depends, to a great extent, on the specificities of our past experiences. My work looks at contextual influences on people and their subsequent judgments.

Patricia: How did you come up with the statements? What do they add to the emotional terrain you are exploring with the video portraits?
Sina: The statements are the presumptions I have had about people at some points in my life. However, the relation between the audio and the visuals does not conform to reality. That is to say what is being spoken does not necessarily match my speculations about any of the subjects on display. The interplay between the installation and the voice-over narration is supposed to challenge individual’s impressions about each other. The indexical language used in the narrated statements is in service of this function.


Sina Haghani, Glimmers of Contingency, Installation view, 2012.

Patricia: What has surprised you the most about working on these portraits? What does human stillness reveal when captured on video?
Sina: Because they come closer to being still, the tension between a still and a moving image enhances our sense of what we are looking at. I am exploring where doubts come into play: that strange place between our preconception and deeply knowing of someone. I look into this grey area by another intermediate state where a moving image mimics a still one. The stretched time in the video portraits avoids a brief representation of someone.

During the confrontation with the camera, composure breaks down after a while and reveals something about each subject. While the extended eye contact with the subjects is expected to make them easier to read, it might also induce an equivocal impression, which would make it further complicated to form a judgment. This idiosyncrasy of video portraiture is very engaging to me. For example, the sense of embarrassment a subject experiences in comparison to that of another who securely occupies the space in front of my lens creates an ongoing dialogue around power relations, privilege and any other political discussion that stems from social constructions within our culture.

I want my work to function as an interactive platform to expose the individual differences both among my subjects and the audience where they eventually come up with opinions while they are still aware of their own personal typecasts or shadowy prejudices.

20 Interrogations about Barbara DeGenevieve’s Panhandler Project

Barbara DeGenevieve’s signature is engaging taboo topics to promote public discussion, and The Panhandler Project is no exception. Begun in 2004 and completed in 2006, The Panhandler Project includes photographs of homeless men posing nude and a 50-minute DVD documenting those photo-shoots. The photographer compensated each of the five men involved in the project with $100, new clothing, meals, and a one-night stay in the hotel room which had served as the shooting location.

Description from MoCP. Read more here.

1)How does the work talk about issues such as class, race, nudity and sexuality of the subject matters?

2)Is this work regarded as collaboration with panhandlers or exploitation and objectification of a cultural group the artist does not belong?

3)What does seeing these fleshy, naked, scarred dudes in such languorous poses mean to us?

4)Do we see indignity or do we see guys who are pleased as punch to be in a posh room, hamming it up for the camera?

5)What ethical concerns does the work raise beside the ones it extinguishes?

6)Regarding the fact that all the panhandlers that have been photographed are African-American, whether the artist has selected them with this intention or not, how does this project make statements about race?

7)What does this project imply to us by its direct confrontation with the contentious issue of nudity of African-American men?

8)Does the artist have the power because she has the money to pay the panhandlers? Or do they have the power because without them there wouldn’t be such a project?

9)Does the project critique the free market of capitalism: the economic exchange of money and goods for services?

10)What political concerns does the creation of this sexually charged situation raise?

11)What does sexualization of the bodies of male panhandlers-who have rarely if ever been seen as sexual objects of desire-mean to us?

12)Why do we, or don’t we call this project pornographic? And in general where do we draw the line between fine art photography and pornography?

13)Is this segment of the population incapable of giving informed consent about the use of their images?

14)Does this new representation of marginalized population lead to social change?

15)To what extent is photography-as the byproduct of such a bizarre experience-capable of reflecting its levels of criticality?

16)In terms of a hundred dollars as the compensation, where do we draw the line in this unpleasant transaction?

17)Artists have been representing the nude marginalized female figure for generations. Picasso painted prostitutes he slept with. So did Manet. With this notion, is it more disturbing because the subjects are male, or they are African-American?

18)Is it because they are presented in photographic form and that is more “real”?

19)What statements do the accompanying videos make about the panhandler’s viewpoint regarding this experience?

20)If we see the project as an exchange of equality since the artist is giving the homeless the opportunity to live like a simple human being for a day, how does participation of their naked body as the humanity factor rather than their persona violate this equality?

Why Make Pictures

Susan Sontag mentions that photographs give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal. In the act of  taking a photograph or making an image, something—a moment or a set of meanings—is eternalized. A photographic image is a translation of of the thoughts and imagination of its creator into a universal language; it can be a direct or indirect means to communicate to others.

Our perception of any phenomenon, to a great extent, is based on our pre-conceived notions and pre-experienced views; we constantly refer to visual memory. As a result, our relationship to the essence and meaning of people, objects and experiences are always in flux and fleeting. Image making is an attempt to explore this process deliberately. Image makers provoke a collision of facades that are conventionally recognized as separate. This friction allows us to see the world from a new angle, to explore new meanings, questions and create advanced contexts for critical thinking.

I am interested in the images in which the choices of connotation prevail over denotation in the picture. I am fascinated with images that raise questions in addition to the statements they make. Questions lead to  further discussion and often to uncertainty, discourse that fits into multiple contexts and answers that can reflect diverse points of views. All these perspectives are subject to change over time as culture is being resurfaced everyday. Consequently, images themselves  change over time, because they  are manifestations of culture.

In recent months, I have found image-making to be a kind of therapy, a way to exhaust my psychological discomforts, a different approach to analyze my frustrations, dissatisfaction and anger with the world I am part of. By addressing these issues in my practice, it is more likely for me to engage with them more thoroughly. Because of my  obsession with photography, I often prefer communication through images rather than words. Not everything can be expressed best by words.

Reaction-A Film Unfinished

Extremely thought provoking Director Yael Hersonski’s A Film Unfinished analyzes Das Ghetto, an abandoned propaganda movie made by the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942. It exposes the movie’s hidden internal assumptions and contradictions in order to subvert its apparent significance.

A summary of the Holocaust in the opening segment contextualizes the film: the Nazis imprisoned Jews in overcrowded city blocks called the Ghetto. Later, the movie shows shocking scenes of well-fed Jews living a rather luxurious life in the Ghetto, while surrounded by emaciated corpses in the streets. Much effort was made in Das Ghetto to show the contrasts between rich and poor. Perhaps this was to demonstrate the perfidy of the Jews that the rich Jews were unconcerned about the poverty around them.

The discovery of an outtake reel in the late ‘90s reveals the truth about the process of making this film. It demonstrated just how much this “reality” was shaped by the SS officers supervising the cameramen. The unedited footage proves that the scenes were elaborately staged, sometimes with actors, and often filmed in multiple takes. Also, the filmmakers are caught by the lens on occasion, seen giving direction to the people in the film. In addition, Hersonski features a re-enactment of testimony from Willy Wist, one of the cameramen but she refrains from any comment about him implicating individuals for their conduct is definitely not the point.

Considering the fitting title, A Film Unfinished reveals the substantial problem confronting the Nazi propaganda machine and its artificially manufactured truth. The Nazis needed to justify their actions by portraying their victims as wicked and threatening, but why did they not ever manage to finish the film or use it for its intended propaganda value? The movie might have engendered hatred for the despised upper-class Jews, but its depiction of the horror of Ghetto suffering definitely sparks sympathy for its victims. In other words, the movie’s lies were insufficient to cover up its truth. Therefore, it is plausible that they preferred to bury the record and lose the opportunity to disgrace the concept of Jewish compassion.

There is a clear conflict in A Film Unfinished as a documentary based on the notion that movies always embody lies and truth at the same time: the dominant stylistic device of the movie is also the most controversial one, as when footage of Das Ghetto is put up on a screen in front of the survivors and their reactions are recorded. Not only does the inclusion of these parts feel exploitive, but also the use of the same filmmaking methods from the footage does not seem to be a persuasive choice. Watching bodies piled into a mass grave is just too powerful to be accompanied by overwhelming close-ups of survivor’s emotional reactions.