Tina Campt: When I talk about listening to images, one of the things that I'm trying to say with that is that I'm asking people to allow themselves to encounter images as if they were sound. For sound to actually resonate, for us to hear it, it has to make physical contact with us.
Helga Davis: There's a difference between having a job and having a practice. The former is something with very definitive bounds and something that you may one day leave behind. A practice, however, stays with you as long as you let it. I'm Helga Davis. I sat down to speak with academic and author, Tina Campt. As we settled into our conversation on this day, Tina shared her relationship to her practice and to her family. This is my conversation with Tina Campt.
Tina: Hi, Helga.
Helga: [sighs] Good morning. Good morning. How loud do I sound in your headphones? Loud enough? Not loud enough? Hi, Crystal.
Tina: You sound perfect because you have such a sonorous voice. [laughs] You're just inhabiting my mind rather than speaking to me.
Helga: This is going to be fun.
Tina: It is. It's very strange when you just said good morning, Crystal, because my sister's name is Crystal. Having a Crystal and a Tina in a conversation makes me feel like I'm at home.
Helga: Is she an older sister or a younger sister?
Tina: She is two years older than me. The funny thing is that my father, like many parents, they confuse daughters because they're saying one name, and they're thinking about the other. At a certain point, he just abbreviated it. He would just randomly call Christina, and we knew he was speaking to one of us, but both of us would respond to Christina.
Helga: I have five brothers, and my mother calls us all by, it doesn't matter if it's me or sometimes my brothers get my name, sometimes I get their names, but it's a funny thing. What do you think it is?
Tina: For my dad, I think is the fact that those names were so familiar to him. Calling those names was almost like a reflex. It started when he would correct himself. He would say, Chri- Tina, or he would say, Crystal, and he knew who he meant. He was so used to calling both of those names that they would just trip off the tongue. It wasn't an intentional thing. It just became shorthand.
I think that my sister and I just responded to it because it really didn't matter when you called my sister's name or you are called my name, you had both of our attention if we were anywhere nearby. It didn't feel like misrecognition and it didn't feel like a slight, it just felt like my dad wanted our attention, and he got it with those three syllables. It didn't matter if that request was being made of one person, the other person was attending to what that request was.
My sister and I are two years apart. We occupied the same space most of the time when we were in the house, although we had different rooms. I really do feel that we were in lockstep even though we were very different kids. By that point, my mother had already died. He was the focal point of our attention. He was our sole parent for a long time. There was a gravitational force that he had on us when he was at home. We were always rotating around him, orbiting him. It wasn't a bother. It wasn't a distraction. It felt like there was an interaction, an encounter that was happening, that even if the one person wasn't invited directly into it, the other person wanted to be a part of it.
Helga: It's funny when you are telling this story about him, I feel like I can see him somehow or feel him, at the very least in your description. Having not had that presence in my life, it's very powerful to understand the space that that figure occupies or can occupy in a young life.
Tina: Well, my father passed away about a month ago, so the presence and the spirit that you feel is very present for me. I was talking to a friend recently, and I had told her that I just recently lost my dad, and she wrote back to me, she said, "Oh, my dear, I know what a titan he was in your life." I just love that word because that was, is truly what he represented to me. Not simply because of the very special relationship that I had with him, and continue to have, I would say, but also because of exactly what you say.
I've always believed that very strongly, about the relationships between fathers and daughters are incredibly powerful that they shape us, and they shape our relationship to the world, and to ourselves as gendered beings in profoundly constructive and profoundly destructive ways. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have had the father that I had, who was somebody who told me, I could be or do anything I wanted to do. I grew up in that or with that confidence of I am entitled to do or be anybody I want to be.
Helga: Thank you for that.
Tina: You are welcome.
Helga: First, orient us a little bit inside what it is that you think about what you do, what you practice. Because of this statement that you've made about your father, I'm very interested to hear how he responded to the way you think about the world and your view.
Tina: Well, to begin with, I like the way you asked me or invited me to orient people in relationship to my practice, what I do as a practice because that's a very specific and extremely accurate word. I don't think of what I do as research, I don't think of what I do as necessarily teaching. I think of what I do as a practice. It is a practice that is pedagogical, meaning that I hope that people learn from it. It's a practice that's about writing as a form of expression. It's a practice that's about reflection, in terms of provoking people to think differently about things that they take for granted.
One of the ways in which I describe my practice is as a practice of counterintuition, which is, I invite people to think counterintuitively, meaning to put things together that don't seem to make sense. In bringing those two things together, we learn to think about their relationship differently, and our relationship to them differently. To be more specific, the practice of counterintuition that I've been writing about for quite some time is the practice of listening to images. It seems counter intuitive to use a different sense to engage or respond to images, which we think about as primarily something that we see.
In making that challenge and issuing that invitation, one of the things that I'm asking people to do is to open themselves up to the multiplicity of responses that images solicit from us. That happened beyond the thing that we think that we are seeing, that we're responding to an enormous number of stimuli memories.
When I talk about listening to images, one of the things that I'm trying to say with that is that I'm asking people to allow themselves to encounter images as if they were sound. If you think about how do we encounter sound, for sound to actually resonate, for it to act for us to hear it, it has to make physical contact with us, it has to make physical contact with your eardrums or it has to make physical contact with your body as vibrations. It has different frequencies, and different sounds register in different ways at different levels.
My invitation to listen to images is precisely that, to allow ourselves, to open ourselves up to what it means to physically encounter the things that we see and allow them to penetrate us, to resonate in us, to vibrate with us. That's a description of my practice. To go back to my dad, on the one hand, he's always been or I made him into my primary audience. I wanted my dad to be able to pick up any of my works and be able to read it and understand it. While he couldn't always understand everything I wrote, I captivated his curiosity enough to take him through it.
On the one hand, he was my interlocutor. On the other hand, he responded with joy and pride, [chuckles] just about the fact that his daughter wrote books and his daughter writes articles. At his funeral, many people including his pastor, who gave tributes to him said, "Tina, every time you wrote something, we heard about it. He would pass it on." On the one hand, I was really humbled and on the other hand, astonished by the fact that he took great interest, pride, credit for-
Helga: If you will--
Tina: -creating a person who thinks creatively and expansively. He wanted his friends, colleagues, relatives, to partake of that and he valued it. It's an incredible resource to have someone in your life with whom you could share any positive thing and they would partake of that joy. That's what I miss most. Any time, something good happens, I would pick up the phone, and his delight was so affirming to me in a way that just motivated me to go out and do more. I have him inside with me. That's where it's coming from.
Helga: Listening to images, we have so much visual information now. What do you suppose the role of the selfie is inside this kind of listening? What's the role of the selfie do you think inside your practice and inside the invitation that you're bringing to your students?
Tina: There's not just the proliferation, there's not simply the mass production of images, it's also the fact that we are inundated with them. The selfie is a curious thing to me. I can tell you, quite honestly, I have never taken a selfie. That's about my relationship to cameras, [chuckles] which is complicated. I am really fascinated by what that means when you think about it. It means A, there's a device that has made it possible for us to almost as a reflex, use our hand to create a picture of ourselves instantaneously to document any given thing, place, thought that we have and that instantaneous satisfaction of producing a tangible trace of self is--
Helga: Proof that we exist.
Tina: The one thing we know in looking at an image is that that person stood in front of this camera at one point in time and that's a fact. What happens now is that's not even verifiable. All we know is that that person took a photograph of themselves, but it's a very powerful extension of a fundamental desire, human desire which is to create their own identity, to create their own sense of who they are, and that the photograph has always been a vehicle, a powerful vehicle for that.
The history of the portrait when it began is that it was about the creation of an elevated self, all of the ways in which you were opposing, all the things which we're wearing, they were supposed to elevate you and distinguish you from a lower class, by virtue of the fact that you could have this portrait made either in photography or in painting. The selfie is the democratization of our ability to fashion ourselves to be anybody we want to be, to project an image of ourself that is self-authored.
That authorship is an extraordinary intervention in the ways in which people are defined against themselves or defined as a group or denigrated as a group. The selfie is that extraordinary redistribution of the power of creating self. I think that is why it is so magnetic and why people have grasped it, embraced it with such enthusiasm and zeal because it allows us to make ourselves in a way that we've never been able to make ourselves instantaneously. It's an incredible power.
Helga: Why do you think you've never taken a selfie?
Tina: Because I hate images of myself. [laughs] I have great difficulty. I'm the first one who--
Helga: Tina, I need something much more philosophical.
Tina: I wish I could give that to you. What we get is the person who is the perfectionism and says, "Oh, that's not good enough." Even when a friend says, "Oh, I take great photographs of you." I think, "Yes, but my hair doesn't look nice." It's good I could be smiling differently. I'm too much of a perfectionist. I'm also not on Instagram or on Facebook. I am the contradiction term that I'm actually trying to get people to think about. [chuckles]
Helga: How do you think this way of producing images, of listening to images is specifically important to people of color, to women, to any group of people?
Tina: It is a practice that I developed specifically in relationship to images of communities in the African diaspora, because of the fact that so many of the images made of and by African diasporic people, in particular, have been dismissed as irrelevant or mundane. That irrelevance, that dismissiveness prevents us from seeing the powerful ways in which Black communities have mobilized photography, specifically, the most everyday forms of photography like family photography, like snapshots.
One of the motivations for me in challenging people to look at their everyday photographs and listen to them for what they have to say and how they impact us, is about embracing the fact that that is where our history is documented. When you look at the ways in which African Caribbean migrants to the UK created entire archive of studio portraits, that's one of the things they would do when they got there.
I'm talking about the post-war Windrush generation. One of the things that they did was no matter how much or little money they had, they would spend some of it having a portrait made that looked like the portraits that the Edwardian portraits that they would make in Jamaica or in Trinidad or wherever, and have one of those made and send it back home.
When I did interviews with members of that generation, I was asking them, "Why did you do this?" They said, "Well, that was how we could show we were doing okay." We didn't get to talk to them or see them, but if you sent a photograph, they would see how you were doing. Then I would ask them things about, why did all women have purses in their portraits? That's something that my people wouldn't do. [laughs] You don't have a purse in your portrait. They're like, well, that showed that you might have some money. It didn't have to have anything in it, but you had a pocketbook, you wore a watch. You were personifying.
Helga: If you had pearls, you wore those?
Tina: Right. They might be borrowed, but what you're trying to do is you're trying to project the wellbeing that you wanted your family to find reassuring about the fact that you had gone thousands of miles away. Well in many communities of color, the passport photo is not simply a documentary photo. People kept them. They exchanged them. That was to demonstrate the fact that they were going someplace. They had the capacity to move and to create a new life someplace else.
I did a lot of research on prison photography and mugshots, and the ways in which communities of color in particular, would have facial expressions, would play with the camera and go against the rules even in prison that you were supposed to observe for how that photograph is supposed to classify you as a criminal and how they were going against that.
If you look at these mundane forms of compelled photography as well as voluntarily made photography, if you listen to what they're trying to tell you, the stories are trying to tell you beyond what you see, because in a mugshot, all you see is somebody who was incarcerated. In a passport photo, all you see is somebody who wanted to get a passport. You don't see the aspirations behind that. When you listen to the fact that this passport photograph is I'm encountering it, not in a passport. How did it get to me? Somebody gave it to somebody, somebody kept it, somebody made sure that it had a life beyond that which was prescribed for it.
Listening, attending carefully to both what we're seeing, why we're seeing it, how it resonates with what we know from our own families, from our own travels and aspirations, it tells an alternative story about the struggles of Black communities against all odds to do things and to move beyond the limits and the constraints that were imposed upon them.
Helga: How do you think it could be used now to really build ourselves up? Not just in a vein and passive way, but to really, as a practice construct, not just a person, but a community, a society, a world that is better than we've been doing?
Tina: Well, the answer to that question in my mind right now lies or is most powerfully enacted by contemporary artists who are making imagery, making objects that confront us, not simply with the Black experience or the precarity of the Black experience right now, but they do it in such a way that makes us all witnesses rather than passive consumers or viewers.
What I mean by witnessing is just take it in it's most general form of meaning, which is if you witness a crime, you can decide to do something with that information or you can decide not to. Regardless, you are implicated and affected by that experience. That's the difference between witnessing and just seeing something. Witnessing means that it makes an impression upon you and that that impression, negative or positive, shifts something in your relationship to that encounter. When you ask about how can we use images to build something up, to create community? I feel like, or I'm arguing that particular ways of creating images implicate us and make us accountable to one another.
In being accountable to another, we develop a different relationship, both within our communities and across them, with other communities who are not sharing the same experience. I've been calling this something called a Black gaze, which is not about how Black people see life, but it's about being drawn in to understanding your relationship to the acts of violence, the acts of dismissal, the acts of injustice that we see being perpetrated upon Black subjects and people of color so that if you choose not to look away.
I think that there are really powerful, artistic works that challenge us in a different way than journalism, in a different way than simply recordings of, a cell phone recording of this or this act, but when they represent them in a way that makes it inescapable not only about like, oh, I feel bad or I feel--
Helga: That's so much of where we stop. That's so much of where all the discourse stops and that people then become numb to the images is another experience I hear people talk about a lot. That it becomes a porno for folks who have absolute no intention of changing anything about their relationship to the events they may be witnessing.
Tina: I think you're right. There will always be those who can escape with impunity. I am not trying to reach cruel people. I do not waste my time trying to reach somebody who does not have the capacity. I think it's most important to reach those who do not know they have that capacity and who we can activate that in.
Again, the cruel, the truly barbaric, that's not an audience that I feel is worth my time, but there are so few who are in that category, so few. Why direct our attention there when we have willing interlocutors who really want to understand their place in the world? They're willing to accept its complexity if we have a conversation, if we can make that bridge possible.
That bridge is not it's not easy. There are headwinds, there is pain in point of fact. There is discomfort, there is shame. For those willing to make that journey, I think we should be able to recognize that as a potential to change the world.
Helga: Was there a particular image or particular set of images over time that ignited this practice in you to listen to images?
Tina: It was really a journey. It started with a set of family photographs of Black German families. In my early research, I wrote a book called Other Germans, which was an oral history of the Black community in Germany during the Nazi period. I had done a number of interviews with these individuals and I was asked to curate a sound installation with their voices. Through that experience I realized we needed to be able to show them as well as listen to them.
I started collecting their photographs, photographs from their childhood. What I saw were, I saw these families, I would see a young Black German man with his two White German buddies in the pub or at work on the farm. I would see a young Black German toddler with her two White parents, her mother, and her stepfather at the beach, having a wonderful time.
This was not the story that was being told. The story was that was being told was about the persecution that they experienced, but you didn't hear the love that they also experienced that that was obvious in these photographs. You didn't see or hear about the embrace of seeing this young Black German boy at a wedding that had all of his extended family in the portrait and he was in the middle of the portrait. You didn't hear about the stories of, my first child.
That was the beginning of looking and looking and looking and on the one hand, trying to describe something that was beyond what we were seeing, because if you describe it, you describe, okay, mom and dad take a toddler to the beach, but there's something more, much more. Then I started looking at all of these serial portraits, like passport photos. Passport photos, people dismiss them as, they are uniform, they all look alike, but they're not all alike. They're not all telling the same story.
Then more recently, looking at artwork that is reintroducing painful painful histories of White supremacy, of anti-Blackness that we have seen over and over again, but assembled in a way that makes us wake up. Listening to those responses, it goes to your point about, so many of us have become numb to seeing the serial violence and brutality that's recorded over and over and over again. That's where I find that artists intervene in that.
Their craft is to be able to shake us out of and that they can show us something we have already seen in a way that suddenly makes us realize this is part of my life. I am involved in this. The practice has been about sitting with my own responses and then writing to those images, listening to them and then writing to them. It really has changed the way in which I see the world, is that I question those moments when I want to just sit back and take for granted something about what I'm seeing.
Helga: I'm always trying to find a thing for people to do, to take away from these conversations that might help them in a moment learn something, be with something, move through something. What are the things that you do every day that just like practical things? What can we imagine just as an exercise or perhaps the beginning of a practice of listening to images?
Tina: I'm going to start with the first part of what you said, which is the question that you pose or that you try and ask of your guests about our rituals. I think that it's a really important question because it's really the question of how do you find peace on a daily basis in its most granular form. I think that all of us have been searching for that in particular over the last 18 months of the pandemic. I got to a point where I was just so anxious that I started obsessively walking my dog. Obsessively, walking her.
I thought, she needs exercise. It was this projection I've spent most of the pandemic up here in the Hudson Valley. I would find it started walking down the street, it started going to park, it became long three hour hikes. I realized it was less about the walking than about watching the joy of this animal just literally running. I realized that I had this deep sadness in my heart about the state of pain in the world, and that the only thing that could take it away was watching this dog run with abandon and unmitigated delight.
I could just watch her anytime, any place, because it was the purest form of pleasure, of joy. I've gone to the point where I still do that, just watching a dog do what it was created to do humbles me and I find great, great peace and that humility.
Helga: That's two things though there's an acknowledgement first, and then there's an action and it doesn't have to be a big action, just an action in a direction really towards pleasure.
Tina: That pleasure doesn't have to be mine. I get such satisfaction out of the pleasure of even an animal. The listening to images, I think that what I want to offer people, or I hope to offer people from this practice is not merely a practice of listening to inanimate images, so photographs or films, but listening to your environment. What does it mean to look at something and hear it? To attend to it as three dimensional as opposed to two dimensional. That's one of the things that vision that we reduce things to something that's two dimensional.
When listening to an image insists upon our encountering with our visual field as fundamentally three dimensional. What does that give us when everything is three dimensional? When a bird is three dimensional, when a pen is three dimensional, when my [unintelligible 00:38:03] is three dimensional rather than two dimensional. That gives us a relationship rather than a passive posture that we are either being done to or we are doing. It is multi-directional and I think that's what I want to offer, what this practice offers us as a way of navigating the world.
This conversation has been so rich for me because I really appreciate the incorporation of silence and pauses into how you create conversation. I'm somebody who very often fills spaces of-- I get nervous. One of the things that you've modeled is one of the things that I try and do is I try and listen and I've been listening really carefully. There's a way in which you-- I want to be able to model this, what you're doing. Which is I want to be able to leave room for active reflection and that looks like quiet, to bring quiet into conversations because that enables us again, to establish a relationship that's not two dimensional, but three dimensional.
Because it leaves room to mull, to consider, to think more carefully, to unpack, to elaborate and to appreciate. I just need to thank you for soliciting and for enacting a particular listening practice. Thank you.
Helga: I thank you also for sharing what you did about your father and for bringing him into this space. I love that we got to make space for him to shine through you and to sit with us and listen.
Tina: Thank you.
Helga: That was my conversation with Tina Campt. I'm Helga Davis. If you want more of these conversations, subscribe for free wherever you get podcasts, give us a rating and share with a friend and don't forget to follow me @hel.gadavis on Instagram. Helga, the armory conversations is a co-production of WNYC Studios and Park Avenue Armory. The show is produced by Crystal Hawes Dressler, with help from Darien Suggs and myself. Our technical producer is Sapir Rosenblatt, original music by Michele Indego Cello and Jason Moran. Avery Willis Hoffman is our executive producer and now, [unintelligible 00:41:34].
Tina: I'm recording a reading of a section from my new book, A Black Gaze and I need to say about this section that it was written in the present tense because it was written when my father was still alive. I'm going to read it in that particular tense and then I'm going to follow it with another section, another piece of writing I'm working on now that's in the past tense, that I've written since my father's death.
It's a question that is posed to me again and again. How exactly do we listen to images? We listen by feeling. We listen by attending to what I call felt sound. Sound that resonates in and as vibration. We listen by feeling the vibrations that emanate from images we think are silent, but which I would argue are anything but. It is a listening that attends to how these vibrations solicit both subtle and powerful responses in and from us.
I listened both intentionally and specifically to their lower frequencies. Put another way, I listen to their quiet. It is a quiet that to me registers at the insistent frequency of a hum. I know a lot about humming. I know a lot about humming because my dad is a champion hummer. I adore my dad's hum. His hum has been a kind of solid lifeline that's carried me through some of the most difficult and momentous events of my life.
My dad hums with vigor and virtuosity. He hums joyfully and contentedly and while he maintains that as a passionate tenor, he hums as practice for his choral performances. I am quite convinced that more often than not, he hums completely unaware of himself. In fact, you used to be able to hear his hum on his voicemail greeting. Sadly, when I mentioned this to him, he re-recorded it and I continue to delight in the fact that my dad often hums unknowingly when he leaves messages on my voicemail just after he finishes his message, right before he hangs up the phone.
A hum can be mournful. It can feel like a gnawing, gritty scratch. It can also placate, caress and hold. It can rock you like a baby or soothe you like a reassuring massage. It can irritate or haunt, create or distract but it can also be joyful and mischievous or it can just keep you company whether you're alone or in the midst of a crowd of people. My dad's hum is not the melodious kind, one would expect to associate with the idea of humming. His hum is rhythmic and vibrational, it's persistent and durational.
His hum locates him in the house and tells me when he's coming into or leaving a room, and I am convinced that his hum leads him from task to task and from thought to thought throughout the day. Perhaps most importantly, my dad rarely hums an actual song. It doesn't have verses or choruses. It doesn't have a beginning, a middle or an end. It's a loop that repeats and repeats. It's meaningful, not for what it says but for the focus that provides and the attention it accumulates.
As cancer ravaged my father's lungs, its earliest casualty was his voice. As [unintelligible 00:46:00] waned he found it difficult to speak above a whisper but until the very end, my father hummed. Even as his voice faltered and he struggled to speak, he hummed simply by blowing soundless air through pursed lips. I noticed him humming, as I wheeled him through the endless corridors of the hospital on one of our many trips for tests and doctor's visits.
At times, it sounded more like a whistle but I recognized it as the pitchless simulation of the irrepressible hum he would perform throughout his daily tasks and chores. It had the same rhythm and cadence. A smooth staccato punctuated by pauses followed by reprises. It distracted and calmed him in the face of impending procedures, in the face of unknown diagnoses and an uncertain future. It calmed me through its familiarity and its capacity to fill space and time with a dull murmur that made me feel like he was guiding my path as always, rather than wheeling my sick and vulnerable parent for the most frightening experience of his life.
My father's hum was a shield, that for him served as a beacon and a wedge. It shielded him from loneliness, uncertainty and fear. It dampened the blows of loss, confusion or despair. It deflected scrutiny by enveloping him in a tonal curtain of resonant breath but it was also a beacon that oriented and accompanied him through everyday tasks. It was the wordless music that guided him through both difficult and quotidian moments.
His hum captured quiet like a wedge of unspoken emotion, sadness, satisfaction, solitude or simply the focused concentration or determination required to get to the other side of a task or the end of the day. It was never clear which of these it was. His humming never gave us direct access to his interior state of mind. His hum was as much a shield as it was a veil. It was a filter that offered collection without transparency