Visualising Traces of the Past in Latin America

James Scorer, Elizabeth Edwards

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At the turn of new millennium, Gérard Wacjman suggested that the ruin might be the archetypal object of the twentieth century (2001). Though he went on to argue that absence was, in fact, that object, the idea of the trace still resonates. The ongoing fascination with decaying objects of the past is evident in the photographic essays of abandoned mansions and empty factory buildings that appear with considerable frequency in newspapers and online. And whilst these modern ruins continue to capture the imagination, images of Islamic State’s destruction of heritage sites such as Palmyra have also produced impassioned expressions of outrage about the way the past should be preserved and protected.

In this special issue, we include a series of essays on the shifting relationship between objects of the past and photography, focusing on discrete times and places in Latin America from the nineteenth century to the present. The authors think about the way photographs shape the past through their content, their materiality, the patterns of their dissemination and archiving and, above all, what they ‘do’, that is, the expectations brought to them and the visual economies in which they operate. Taken collectively, these articles demonstrate both the particular relevance of Latin America to thinking through the relationship between photography and the material past, precisely because Latin America provides a unique fusion of pre-modern antiquities, colonialism and modernity at the margins, and the role of photography in constituting that past.

What we understand as traces of the past – ruins, antiquities, remains – has broadened with the growth of academic interest in memory, monuments, and ruination. As Stefanie Gänger reminds us in Relics of the Past, such objects have to be enunciated as such: ‘antiquities are categories, not objects of collecting’ (2014: 7). The socially configured nature of ‘the trace’, as we use the term in this special issue, refers as much to Chilean nitrate towns or photographic traces of Caduveo body art as to pre-Columbian ruins. Such an approach and definition only intensifies the way that objects of the past are sites through and around which political, social and aesthetic discourses are shaped and contested.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)131-139
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Latin American Cultural Studies
Issue number2
Early online date11 Apr 2017
Publication statusPublished - 2017


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