I recently attended the annual meeting of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, where I presented a paper entitled “Visual Economies: War Photographs in Circulation In and After Yugoslavia” and chaired a panel on the use of figurative language in Croatian literature.
My paper focused on selected works by a series of photographers who, working in pre-Yugoslav, Yugoslav, and post-Yugoslav contexts, turned their camera to sites and scenes of war. I detailed the interplay between aesthetic features and social context that allowed these photographs to almost immediately become icons with wide and varied cultural purchases. To a large degree, the iconicity of the photographs I outlined inheres in the medium of photography itself and the technological innovations of production and circulation made in the field of photography over the 20th century. And it is to issues of circulation that I remained attuned. Circulation in the sense of the physical and virtual sharing of images and their uptake by audiences. And circulation in more abstract senses – the way images travel across time and space, the economies of value and cultural fields into which they are transposed and with which they interact.
This paper was part of a three-person interdisciplinary panel on South Slavic visual culture. The panel sought to address how attending to visual culture in both researching and teaching on South Slavic topics has become a necessity in recent years. It is increasingly an expectation that humanists, no matter their training become well versed in using visual evidence and making claims on the basis of films, works of fine art, and other visual formats. This is especially the case in a small field like South Slavic Studies, where despite one’s own area of research specialization, one must also be competent in a much wider field, temporally and medially, than might be the case in other “bigger” fields. And these issues are no less vital in teaching. Today’s students are highly fluent in locating and making sense of visual information – much more so than even ten years ago. At the same time, because of the widespread available of images and films and the degree to which they are often presented without (accurate) historical buttressing, students do require training in “visual literacy” – the skills necessary to read images, to situate them culturally and historically, and to use them as grounds on which to make claims. The panel argued that emphasis on developing a visual toolkit can and should be integrated with training in the careful analysis of texts, and practice developing and supporting arguments in writing.
The panel, and indeed the whole conference, was particularly valuable for me this year, as the paper was part of a new project I am currently beginning on the role and function of photographs in twentieth- and twenty-first-century Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav cultural production. I received incisive feedback from the other members of the panel, as well as audience members.
In addition to connecting with colleagues at the conference, I also had the chance to attend a number of panels addressing strategies for teaching the language, literature, and culture of the Balkans. Listening to and talking with fellow instructors about pedagogy topics and methods have given me fresh insights and renewed energy for teaching my language and literature classes this year.