Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Uncanny Exposures: Mobility, Repetition and Desire in Front of a Camera

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Uncanny Exposures: Mobility, Repetition and Desire in Front of a Camera

Article excerpt

A photograph shows a young woman sitting behind a table and leafing through the pages of a (family) photographic album; she poses in a dream-like state, her eyes looking at an unidentified point in front of her. The subject looks (or, better, she acts as if she is looking) at pictures of the past (see Image 1). The photograph was taken in a photographic studio in Bassano del Grappa (Italy) in 1939. On the back of the picture we find the message Tanti cordiali saluti da chi sempre ti ricorda. Tua sorella Rita.1 Like other photographs, this is an object whose primary affect is to trigger memories, emotions and desire.

Another detail, however, needs to be added. This is a photograph sent from Italy to a relative in Australia. It is an object with the capacity to connect two lives and two geographically distant places. Not only does it belong to another time but also another space. Looking at this picture, the receiver abroad will see a world where she or he is not anymore, and from the place of the Other.

This is one of the numerous photographic portraits that often circulated through epistolary exchange between Italian emigrants and their families and acquaintances back in Italy. The exchange of photographs helped maintain kinship ties and the images mostly served as mementoes and icons of remembrance. In the particular picture described above, the stillness typical of the photographic image reflects the geographical stillness of its subject; she is the one leftat home who is trying to reach her relative abroad through the photographic image. And one way she reaches her far-away family is through a performance that draws the viewer into emotions and desire. This image is, thus, uncanny in its blurring of fiction and reality, familiar and unfamiliar, self and Other, here and there, past and present. Such a theatrical performance (a photograph of somebody looking at other photographs) works also metaphorically for the doubling, repetition and circulation involved in every photographic act and product.

In this article I discuss some of the uncanny characteristics of photographic portraits by turning its attention to photographs representing Italian migrants in Australia. These are images of mobility through time and space. These photographs also reduced spatial distance, transporting migrants own desires and unknown faraway lives into the imagination of the viewers at home. The migrants desire is for both a new life (as it will be mostly discussed here) and for familiar affects. It is also-in Lacanian terms-a desire from the Other: the desire to be the object of the Others desire, emotions and gaze.2

In particular, I will analyse studio photographic portraits produced in Australia during the initial period of the Italian diaspora from the end of the nineteenth century to the first three decades of the twentieth century.3 By drawing mostly from Freud's definition of the uncanny and Barthess reflection on photography, I will look at these photographs as uncanny visual traces-and promoters-of emotions, desire and of a journey to a multi-faced identity. These photographs and the studio where they were constructed are also transnational spaces where-within specific social and economic practices-processes of repetition, possession and circulation played a crucial role in the maintenance of relations between Australia and Italy.


The dramatic new migratory movements-and the generally increasing mobility of people around the globe-that took place in the second half of the nineteenth century occurred together with the circulation of mass-produced images and the success of photography.4 The power of new means of transport to move people to new places paralleled the cameras extraordinary capacity to capture peoples visual appearances and to transport them into new contexts. Visual and spatial presentations of the world were transformed and thus perceived as both fascinating and threatening. …

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