The Institutional Gaze of the School

By Griselda PollockAugust 21, 2020

The Institutional Gaze of the School

School Photos in Liquid Time by Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer

EVERY NEW PUBLICATION from Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer is an event to be welcomed and read with deep attention. When we encounter their co-authored work — on memorial objects, witness testimonies, photographs, and family secrets — we are given a triple dose of insight, fine-tuned historical research, and transformative close readings of freighted images. Their latest book, School Photos in Liquid Time: Reframing Difference, is no different. The key, in the musical sense, is deeply affecting, even as we come away in a renewed state of shock at the psychic violence enacted in the name of nation, empire, and the modern intolerance of difference.

In their introduction, Hirsch and Spitzer set out three coordinates for their latest study. Firstly, they draw our attention to an overlooked archive of everyday photography: school photos. These images repetitively stage formal assemblies of often identically dressed students, all confronting us, “face to face.” Secondly, as images of children outside of a conventional family context, the photos do not directly belong to the well-studied genre and site of the family album with its complex sets of social relations and affective dramas. Thirdly, school photos have to be understood instead as images of children who are subjects of and subjected to an institution: the school, which must be understood as a major “Ideological State Apparatus” in Louis Althusser’s famous terms.

From this perspective, education — positively considered as a social good and the long-fought-for democratic right that indeed it is — is displaced by the focus on the institution of the school as a site of socialization. A state-directed instrument of the politics of assimilation and acculturation (forced or desired), the school, in these terms, can become a mechanism for systematic cultural genocide — the imperial erasure of indigenous, non-European, non-Christian cultures. Finally, as instruments of nationalization, the school effectively inscribes each nation’s inequalities and veils their denied crimes of dehumanization through the extinction of difference. Hirsch and Spitzer’s archive includes a wide range of images that leave traces of the real and cultural violence of the school in settler societies such as the United States and South Africa, to the concentration camps incarcerating and reeducating Japanese Americans established during World War II, and on to the Dirty War that the Argentinian dictatorship waged against political dissenters, many of whom were university students, in 1976 to 1983.

In their opening chapter, Hirsch and Spitzer invoke the series, Lessons of Darkness, by French artist Christian Boltanski (b. 1944) and specifically his work, Autel de Lycée Chases (1987–’88), in which he isolated the blurred faces of a specific class of Jewish school children, each iconized under a large, industrial spotlight while mounting them in a semi-sacral formation. The work becomes a monument to victims, tipping the viewer into what the authors term “the elegiac.” They aim to decrease such intensity, all the better to see in the ordinary school photo a forceful political intervention.

So, why do the school photos Hirsch and Spitzer assemble in this project exist? What do they do? Who is being taught what by seeing their own image in these staged collectivities orchestrated by authorities not always visible in the image? What, in turn, are these authors asking us to feel as they plot out across this archive (in three major chapters) the strategies of imperial framing, the framing — and thus effacing — of difference, and the disruptions of a “disobedient gaze”?


Let me lighten the tone, if only to situate this book more powerfully. In the spirit of our times of lockdown, my sister began cataloging her photo collection. This prompted me to hunt down an album she and my mother had made over 50 years ago, one for each of the three children in the family. Inevitably, I found in my album one of my own class photos from a school I briefly attended in Oakville, near Toronto, Canada, in 1961. There is, however, otherwise no photographic trace of the other six schools I attended across South Africa, French and English Canada, and eventually Great Britain. The album yielded no visual plot of my migrancy and introduction to four disparate cultures and several languages through the institution of the schools I attended, even as I recall the challenge of having the wrong accent, missing historical knowledge of new societies, and general cultural shock unmediated by generosity from my new classmates suspicious of the — to them — inexplicable nature and source of my difference. Once made an outsider, you never belong.

Serendipitously, this trip down the lane of incomplete photographic memory coincided with the publication of the 2020 edition of the alumnae book of Lady Margaret Hall (LMH), the college that I attended at the University of Oxford. This prompted a reconnection to a friend from that period who then sent me the class photo of the incoming students to LHM in 1967, where she and I sat side by side, grinning happily, in the center of the front row. In 2017, to mark the 50th anniversary since our moment of induction in 1967, quite a number of us, now septuagenarians, assembled one sunny June weekend to be photographed once again on the College’s lawn. Were we recognizable to each other? Had time so changed our hopeful young selves that we could no longer find the faces we once knew? What had we done in the meantime, a generation of circa-1968 students who had witnessed, or participated in, the wave of student revolts, the antiwar movement, the Civil Rights movement, the gay and lesbian movement, and, of course, the women’s movement that some of us would make our life’s work: personally, politically, intellectually, and professionally? Does any of this historical turbulence show in this class photo picture of a cohort of all-white smiling women eager to be educated into privilege at one of Britain’s top universities?

Not quite 10 years later than our incoming photograph, Argentina’s Dirty War was waged by the right-wing military dictatorship of the generals against students just like us. The dictatorship wiped out a generational cohort of university students in their 20s, all seeking education and wanting to be equipped to participate in and struggle for democracy, to challenge militaristic, nationalist, patriarchal, and capitalist systems, to denounce authority, to bring about their futures in freedom.

In their book’s final chapter, which focuses on artists who rework school photos as their historical-political intervention into trauma and memory cultures, Hirsch and Spitzer include a discussion of La Clase (1996), the artwork by the Argentinian artist Marcelo Brodsky, born roughly in my generation in 1954, taken from his larger project Buena Memoria. Brodsky’s artwork features his school (not college) photo of 1967, the year I went to university. Brodsky had traced as many of his younger self’s school peers in this cohort as he could, annotating the photograph with information he discovered about each person. Some are circled and crossed out. They are the “disappeared” or the “missing.” These words mean that they have been murdered by their own government by being tortured or, by being tortured, drugged, and dropped from planes into the Río de la Plata to drown. While their bodies washed up, visibly and in great numbers, on the river’s shores, no official death was ever recorded; no accountability was established for each killing; no family ever could mourn knowingly. Brodsky’s school photo shares a date with my college photo but his fellow pupils’ youth — they are children — make infinitely more agonizing the realization that the future their government delivered them destroyed many of them and marked everyone who survived with a trauma that even such memory work can never dispel.


School Photos in Liquid Time is an elaboration of various themes that Hirsch and Spitzer have developed in their previous works singly and together. Their collaboration takes its heartbeat and creates its affective urgency from the photographically traced experiences of both authors as forced migrants, born into survivor families and marked by the racial genocide of the Jewish Europeans in the 20th century. Their work has often focused on the trauma that shaped and marked their own childhoods while reaching out to explore transcultural memory and what Hirsch has influentially theorized as postmemory:

[T]he relationship subsequent generations bear to the personal, collective, and cultural trauma or transformation of those who come before — to events that they “remember” only by means of the stories, images and behaviors among which they grew up. But these events were transmitted to them so deeply and affectively as to seem memories in their own right.

Here they might also be also anticipating what Michael Rothberg has termed multi-directional memory by folding the experiences of Jewish forced migration and familial loss into the experiences of first nations peoples and the victims of several fascist dictatorships. Ultimately, though, directionality and intersection are second to temporality as a frame for memory in their project.

Using the concept of “liquid time” that they draw from artist Jeff Wall (b. 1946), who stresses the metaphorical potential of fluids — such as developing and fixing liquids used in analog or “wet” photography — Hirsch and Spitzer suggest that liquid temporality enables us to work with contingencies and affective registers rather than dry, unalterable, and technological rationality. Liquid and multitemporal reading displaces “the retrospective gaze” that has dominated images of past violence, war, and genocide. How can we resee these pasts as a specific genre of photograph that already implies its own moment as a past, and may anticipate its own forestalled or wrecked future? What, more broadly, can photographs taken in troubled times tell us about photography’s role in shaping the institutions of modernity and their practices of social inclusion and exclusion? What of the place of difference in the social formation of modernity itself?

Thus, the register on which we are being asked to read their analyses of images and the institutions of modernity echoes not only Zygmunt Bauman’s sociological diagnosis of liquid modernity (a society without time trapped in endless change for the sake of change, hence no real change at all), but also his expanded understanding of the genocidal rationality of modernity advanced in his groundbreaking text, Modernity and the Holocaust (1989). In the second text of his modernity trilogy, Modernity and Ambivalence (1991), Bauman used his analysis of the Holocaust as a potentiality within modernity’s drive to rationalize, in order to identify a concomitant anxiety about difference as a defining characteristic of the modern era; this anxiety is modernity’s logic. When reading School Photos, we encounter this dark logic of modernity, but not in the concentration camp and not as one extreme, genocidal experiment. We are instead shown its logic at work for centuries — constituting the colonial modern world of new nations through its paradoxically benign and violent instrument, the school.

To our now rich and varied theories of photography and/as power in terms of class, gender, sexuality, Hirsch and Spitzer elaborate and thus expose to our critical review what they term “the institutional gaze” with its social technologies of forced transformation of both child and apparently dissident adult (for instance, Japanese Americans interned during World War II) in relation to the colonial and the imperial, the genocidal and the evangelical. In fact, what I came to recognize in their book is the dreadful intimacy of these four constituent elements of a modernity that cannot tolerate ambivalence, cannot admit of diversity, and seeks to eradicate difference. Hirsch and Spitzer are, in effect, detailing, through the frozen photographic moments of assembled class cohorts, the racism and monism of any system that believes that what it is doing is the only right way.

We might then ask if difference, in fact, is at all compatible with the monotheistic ideologies that underpin the ostensibly universalist modern nation-state? While documenting the attempts to erase difference via the instrument of schooling, these photographs reveal the modernist ideology that, in its many guises, is the foundation of the crimes these photographs so tragically record as the necessary “work” that the perpetrators called reeducating. How did the school, embraced by the Enlightenment as the illuminating of the mind and the fostering of critical thinking, become the blunt instrument applied to children in the form of forced deracination, imposed languages, and the internalization of self-hatred?

Grasping the profound significance of the school as social apparatus in modern colonial, imperial, evangelizing, and genocidal societies, I swung back to my missing school photos. What would have they told me about a white South African childhood under apartheid, established the year before I was born? About traumatic transposition as a disowned minority (Anglophone and non-Catholic) among multiple migrant minorities in a majoritarian Francophone and Catholic Canada? And about the encounter with post-imperial British social processes experienced in the vulnerability of childhood?

I was also prompted by this book to research school photos that relate to the revelations about other violence against children, for instance, the sexual abuses of children in the schools run by the Christian Brothers in Australia to which many British children were sent by the British government, being told, often mendaciously, that they were orphaned or without relatives.

From tracing, as did Marcelo Brodsky in his work, the fate of the deported children in Australian schools in one photograph posted on the internet by one child in the photo, we discover that 30 percent of the children pictured in this cohort committed suicide from the abuse, both physical and sexual, that they endured in such institutions. I thought also of the forced separation of children of the aboriginal peoples of Australia in “the stolen generation” policy, a crime only acknowledged in a formal apology by the prime minister in 2008 on behalf of the Australian national government. Its long-term effects has been brilliantly examined by the film Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy (1989) by Tracey Moffatt (b. 1960) as well as in the more recent feature film Rabbit-Proof Fence. (2002, Dir. Philip Noyce).

Finally, in the light of the present agony and outrage against murderous racism in the United States and worldwide, I returned to the sections in this book about the violence menacing children during attempts to desegregate education in the United States, following the ruling Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Hirsch and Spitzer discuss this history in an artwork created by Adrian Piper (b. 1948), Decide Who You Are #15: You Don’t Want Me Here (1992), referencing one of the Little Rock Nine, Elizabeth Eckford’s solitary walk to school, harassed by a crowd of white racists. Education has a different value for those denied access to it or to resources adequate to its delivery.

The struggle of Black Americans to access the education standards offered to white American children repositions education as the powerful tool of liberation it can also be. In this sense, the image of a tiny Ruby Bridges, a solitary Black child making her legal claim to education, having to be accompanied by security guards as she goes to and from a school in New Orleans, is the counterimage to the class photo. Here we are forced to be affected by the child in her vulnerability, exposed to the forces of racial hatred we find openly displayed in other images of the struggle for the right to good schooling. We also see the institutional frame in these burly white men obliged to guard her from her fellow citizens’ learned intolerance and inhumanity.


I chose to enter this discussion lightheartedly through my own missing school photos and recovered elements of my college life because I, too, lived through turbulent political times. None, however, threatened my life. Yet the education I was being offered in 1967 — white, masculinist, Eurocentric, Christian-centric, patriarchal, and racist — did deny aspects of my cultural identity even as a woman of European descent, and it did deprive me of the knowledge I wanted to acquire as a woman and came to desire as a feminist.

These personal reflections made what I came to read in School Photos in Liquid Time infinitely more poignant and painful. Centered around the images of children, the book is not just about some children in some turbulent political times. It performs its own unique form of memory work on behalf of multiple but specific historical crimes, in which processes of colonial, imperial, and evangelical modernity attempted to redirect subjects from their own cultural time and imagination by forced cultural assimilation, or by concentrationary imprisonment and ideological reeducation, or by the suppression of first languages and the mythic and creative processes treasured in those languages. This was done by cultural and sometimes actual genocide.

Hirsch and Spitzer’s delicate and finely argued studies — image by image, situation by situation — provide windows onto the logic of the modern state, whose deadly repercussions resound across the cities of the world in protest and in rage that dehumanization and the fear of difference are still, and recalcitrantly, institutionalized in our societies. We need this kind of memory work because it makes us look into the faces of the children whose futures that past still blights.


Griselda Pollock is professor of Social and Critical Histories of Art at the University of Leeds, where she is also the director of the Centre for Cultural Analysis, Theory & History (CentreCATH). She is the 2020 laureate of the Holberg Prize for Arts and Humanities.

LARB Contributor

Griselda Pollock is professor of Social and Critical Histories of Art at the University of Leeds, where she is also the director of the Centre for Cultural Analysis, Theory & History (CentreCATH). She is the 2020 laureate of the Holberg Prize for Arts and Humanities. Photo by A. Bryant, 2020.


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