I’m not even sure any more how it started. Just curiosity, I guess. I was browsing the archives of the US Library of Congress, when I came across the famous Farm Security Administration collection and was amazed to discover some photos with punched holes. There was a series with a sow suckling her offspring, followed by two young boys, one squatting, the other standing: the punched hole hit just the groin area; and then a woman and her daughter sitting gracefully in a park separated by a punched hole. Further on, sumptuous empty landscapes with a huge, perforated black sun defiantly shining on an America in the process of reinventing itself.
I had heard of the project manager who punched holes in the negatives he thought unusable, but that’s about it. Nothing had prepared me for the aesthetic shock of these mutilated photographs. I began to obsessively scour tens of thousands of photos in order to pick some that appealed to me because of their aesthetic or uncanny qualities, or those where I could not believe that the location of the holes was completely random. I thought there were too many punched-out, “touched” hearts, throats, and intimate parts for this to be mere chance.
Anyone with even the slightest interest in photography and its history knows how this project, which lasted from 1936 to 1944, is one of the cornerstones of the documentary tradition, and of photojournalism at large. Launched by Roy Stryker, head of the FSA’s Information Division, this great countrywide photographic campaign aimed at documenting the living conditions of Americans during the Great Depression and the government’s efforts to improve them. It went on to cover many aspects of American society. It called on some of the greatest photographers of the period, such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, who in turn produced many iconic images.
My selection, or at least the most problematic part of it, seemed like a giant visual Freudian slip. The mutilated images seemed to evince a desire to harm, to injure, as well as spoke to pedophilic tendencies and scopophilic perversion. How can one objectively decide whether Stryker was conscious of symbolically killing the indigent people pictured in the photos or whether this was my own projection, a shadow of my own self cast across a missing nose? Should I have compared the number of photographs in which a person was “touched” with the number of photographs with holes punched elsewhere than through a human figure? Or should I have factored in the probability of the position of the hole on the surface of the photograph the way one tries to predict the movement of electrons around the nucleus? Our belief in the magical power of images is not that far from what it must have felt like to a caveman. Try burning a portrait of a loved one and see what that does to you! Another way to decide who, Stryker or myself, is the repressed pervert, was to look for some clues of moral derangement in his political positions, in his private life, in his relationships with the photographers he hired.
We know that the photographers complained a lot about his dictatorial approach, especially since it seemed random, and he abandoned it under their pressure in 1939. Moreover, toward the end, the punched holes become smaller and more peripheral, as if he were letting go little by little. Nowhere, to my knowledge, does Stryker himself comment on this practice or on his selection criteria. He punched a lot of holes in the work of some photographers, while leaving others alone. Between two similar photographs there is no apparent reason to discard one rather than the other. If nothing in his private life or in his psychology can justify this symbolic brutality, we could look at the collective unconscious of his time, and place this series of photographs in a wider context of the relationship to image-making. We are familiar with the incestuous relationship between photography and colonialism, which gave birth to a remarkable, and obviously inferior, Other, despite, or because of, the Other’s folkloric strangeness or physiognomy. What is astonishing in the series at hand is the confluence of two elements: on the one hand, the FSA’s good intention to ameliorate people’s living conditions and, on the other, the brutality of a gesture that reveals more than intended.
To me, Stryker’s unfortunately placed perforations are an oversized punctum calling attention to a society that exploits its poor, sending them to fight wars with spurious motives, feeding them packaged crap, making them forget how much they are being robbed of their health and dignity. Stryker’s big black hole is the blind spot of the American dream, of an anal-retentive society that worships money. It is the “big Other,” the alterity of America that has fallen into the gaping chasm separating the classes, and which is transformed into Lacanian objet petit a, or that which was always missing. It is the empty promise that makes Ford factory workers slave away like convicts in chains. It is the people housed in projects in dreary neighborhoods where cops shoot unarmed men on sight. It’s animals bred for slaughter in facilities that function like extermination camps. It is Walt Disney and Henry Ford cheering the nascent Nazism; it is the ongoing, perversely underhanded repression of the African-American population who had only just won their freedom; it is the massive incarceration of more than 2 million citizens; it is the policy of massive support to bloody dictatorships; it is priests raping thousands of children while dispensing lessons of morality; it is the lies of the government and the silence of the media conspiring to launch unjustified wars; it is Monsanto which takes to court the farmers it had ruined; it is the hypocrisy of an increasingly unequal society where democracy lost the war against mafias hiding their assets in tax havens.
Don’t get me wrong, I am no moralist. I am not talking beyond this story. I know that I can’t even measure the extent of my privilege. I am aware of the compulsive, reckless violence within me which threatens my compassionate impulses. I recognize the racist feelings that haunt the limbo of my white, old-bourgeois consciousness. What Stryker’s holes reveal is the humdrum madness of an average civil servant who is subject to violent instincts even as he disavows them. It is an ordinary madness, the interminable psychic distress that affects every human being in a society excessively focused on production, on rationalization, on domination.
Luckily, there is more to this story than poorly placed holes. Some perforations are just there, anachronistic, lost; others seem to earmark an image full of poetry and softness or foreground a side glance, a shadow cast in mid-gesture, a graphic play between the plan and the form — a benign reversal of a sign pointing out in order to eliminate into one pointing out in order to select. Some holes seem to focus the attention of the photographed subjects. Others travel from one photograph to the next like a balloon or a black soap bubble set loose as a prank. By determining what is not to be shown, Stryker’s perforations activate our scopophilic instincts.
The perforated photographs also function as the other side of a scene viewed through a keyhole. The represented scene is centered around a patch of darkness. Our gaze is drawn to the hole where there is nothing to be seen but bottomless, imageless cosmic void, or anything else we might imagine. The hole can also be considered as a black sun around which the world revolves. It can be read as the representation of a central power, of absolute authority — the sun king, “l’état c’est moi.” And then one can also draw the analogy with the solar oculus, the omnipresent gaze, as if foreshadowing a world under surveillance, populated by CCTV cameras and by state and corporate trackers violating our privacy. Through their actions, humans may improve the world, but not themselves: they continue to be ruled by primitive instincts and desires. Stryker is a Doctor Strangelove in the making.
You might tell me that I have put a lot of different things into Stryker’s holes — as if out of a need to fill a semantic gap, to justify their indexical savagery — and that’s exactly what’s going on here. There is a plethora of possible interpretations, as if the perforations were one large Rorschach test.
These holes, and what they represent, are both extremely simple and insanely complex. They are like hieroglyphs of a language so primitive that it is indecipherable, like a crime novel full of red herrings and false clues. One can imagine a lot, then get bored of all the speculation and go back to the evidence of the gesture that is neither more nor less conscious than any other gesture we might make at any given time. Our fascination then stems from the impossibility of closure.
By Jean-Christian Bourcart
Jean-Christian Bourcart practices photography, writing and video. He is Franco-American, with no fixed residence. He received the Niepce Prize, the Nadar Prize, the Jeu de Paume Prize, the World Press Award.
An NFT was created from the photographs in this series. It is available on the Foundation platform. It is the first NFT created for the Rencontres d’Arles.
To learn more about Jean-Christian Bourcart visit https://www.jcbourcart.com/.