The series re-works 6 hand-coloured photographs from the end of the 19th century showing Heligoland, Norderney and Venice. Inserted into the settings (tourist, travel and holiday destinations) is a single image of a young woman, a Berber from North Africa, probably Algeria. It is taken from a two volume work published in Berlin in 1910 – Das Weib im Leben der Völker by Albert Friedenthal, most “from my own collection,” as the author says.
Interwoven with these historically contiguous elements are seven texts in the form of separate, extended quotations from SCRAM: Relocating under a new Identity by James S. Martin. The short ‘captions’ at the bottom of the photos themselves also come from this source. Published in Washington in 1993, the book is effectively a handbook with legal and not so legal tips about how to divest oneself of one identity and acquire another. Wiping the slate clean. Building a new life. Starting again somewhere else. It demands the total erasure of one life and the assumption of another, justifying it by the fact that the authorities provide the same “service” and relocation possibilities to criminals.
It is a book that makes certain assumptions (whiteness, literacy etc.) about its readers and their soon-to-be-acquired new identities and takes little account of the ID checks and monitoring that, for example, Afro-American males might be subjected to—they are eight times more likely to be checked than whites especially if they are driving recent (or expensive) cars. Studies have also shown that city surveillance CCTV programs in both the USA and the UK, are mainly manned by white men who scrutinise and track women and non-whites as they go about their business at least twice as much as they do white males.
Despite being separated by almost a century, both the above books are informed by the same white Western (male) assumptions of privilege in relation to abstract notions such as freedom of movement, mobility and the ability to self-define identity.
The heroine is sharply focussed, as is her resistance to being photographed – her defiance in the face of the visual appropriation has continued throughout the century which separates us. She is more solid than the delicately-coloured scenes which have a tendency to regress into the nostalgia of long-ago holiday images.
Placing the same person in a number of situations and three different locations strengthens certain narrative associations and historical resonances. Venice, with its mercantile and imperial past and its travel, art historical and literary echoes, Heligoland, a fortified island turned excursion destination, with its connection to the African continent as the subject of an Anglo-German Heligoland /Zanzibar Treaty of 1890 and Norderney, a quintessential tourist fin-de-siècle destination that once attracted Kafka.
Thus apart from issues of migration, white mobility, tourist travel and exhibiting people (Völkerschauen), the work also addresses issues of colonial history/appropriation and the connection between looking, surveillance and differential control of sections of the population.
The consequences of the al-Qaida attacks on the US, the sheer volume and details of security and surveillance measures, make “Scram”—published only eight years earlier—appear to be closer in time to the photographic material used in the series that to present day circumstances. The issues may have changed shape but they have remained essentially the same.