Seeing the Disappeared

Our work draws from an ongoing inquiry into the human costs of U.S. immigration policy. We explore two key features of disappearance: the mass detentions and deportations sweeping the U.S. since 9/11/01, and the relative absence of those caught in the system from mass media and the law. By proposing new terms to tell these stories of disappearance and loss, our works aim to intervene in how narratives of detention and deportation are presented on all sides of the immigration debate.

The Disappeared Project
View a slide show of the painting series Seeing the Disappeared, by Chitra Ganesh. Launch the website How Do You See the Disappeared?, an ongoing collaboration between Mariam Ghani and Chitra Ganesh

Media stereotypes and the abstract language of the law further obscure the struggles and conditions of people impacted by detention and deportation. As a result, the urgency of generating a collective history of individual disappearances lies at the heart of activist initiatives addressing the crisis.

As we were exploring this issue, we noticed that much of the advocacy work around detention and deportation occurs within the structures of the courtroom or nightly news broadcast, and so these narratives risk being subject to the very codes and language they seek to contest. For example, the recurring use of testimony, statistics, and expert witnesses in activist documentaries about detention and deportation recalls courtroom dynamics, and reiterates the pundit-driven rhythms of network news such as CNN and Fox.

Our work departs from this idea—that individuals are disappeared for a second time in the scarce and troubling visual representation offered as their history by mass media, political debates, and the law.

Seeing the Disappeared exists in continual tension between collaborating with the activist movement towards a collective history, and using a different visual language to reconsider the terms and depth of that collective history.

We want to mine the visual—as a site where audiences come face to face with specific and visceral details of lives that are impacted by post-9/11 disappearance, and in the process are asked to question the cultural and systemic codes that lie beneath current events. Our common belief is that this deeper awareness can be activated by a commitment to form as content—that an unexpected visual experience can be profound enough to transform one's perception of a particular issue, history, or conflict. Our presentation is a more intimate and non-linear one that hopes to also question the communication strategies of political art.

In the Disappeared project, we collect from the ordinary past lives of the disappeared the unquantifiable data that would otherwise go unnoticed. We create a space for this information to be considered without being reduced, and want to create a deeper understanding by juxtaposing text that doesn't simply explain an image, but becomes a visual element of the work. This project shares concerns that are at the heart of both our work as artists: an interest in exploring how memories and their repression shape moments of personal and social crisis, and mapping narratives that emerge in border zones and between cultures in conflict.

Through this active translation of "raw data" and formal choices that disrupt conventional modes of seeing, the Disappeared project aims to elaborate a visual language that truly resists those descriptive and narrative conventions and 1:1 relationships accumulated in the legal and media treatment of detention and deportation cases. Our belief is that only through a visual language of resistance can more nuanced representations and sharper analyses be articulated.

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