Looking Together as Method: Decolonizing Ottoman Armenian Expatriation Photographs

Zeynep Gürsel

Keywords: decolonizing; archive; migration; bureaucracy; Ottoman Armenian; ethnographic

Participation: on-line

Between 1896 and 1908 at least 4400 Ottoman Armenians emigrated abroad through terk-i tabiiyet, an expatriation process that required that to be emigrants be photographed for the state and vow never to return to the empire. These images - just over 100 of which exist today in the Ottoman state archives in Istanbul - do not visualize citizenship then but rather they visualize the severance of nationality. These photographic subjects are no longer Ottoman subjects. Using Ottoman Armenian expatriation photographs as an example, this article details “looking together” as a method that enables one to work ethnographically in a state archive to ask the question what decolonizing photographs in state archives might look like. Working ethnographically in bureaucratic archives means tracing state apparatuses that arrest certain bodies in the archive but it also means gaining an understanding of those bodies outside of the archive and following the lives of individuals and photographs. Specifically, this meant looking for the descendants of almost 400 individuals to better understand if sharing these images and listening to stories might help bring about a balance of stories and images. Looking together means holding on to specific details in certain photographs because these details hold together layered histories that move between the Ottoman empire, Europe and America but also because these details allow us to hold on to individuals even when we are speaking of populations and mass migration. This talk asks what decolonizing images might look like and shows how looking together yielded an understanding of both how the state intended for these photographs to function and how individuals conscripted these portraits of unbelonging into their own projects of belonging.


Zeynep Devrim Gürsel is a media anthropologist and Associate Professor in the department of Anthropology at Rutgers University. Her scholarship involves both the analysis and production of documentary images. She is the author of Image Brokers: Visualizing World News in the Age of Digital Circulation (University of California Press, 2016), an ethnography of the international photojournalism industry. She is also the director of Coffee Futures, an award-winning ethnographic film that explores contemporary Turkish politics through the prism of the everyday practice of coffee fortune telling. For more than a decade she has been researching photography as a tool of governmentality in the late Ottoman period. Specifically she is investigating photography during the reign of Sultan Abdülhamid (1876-1909) to understand emerging forms of the state and the changing contours of Ottoman subjecthood.