Sylvia de Swaan
Jan 19, 2018 · 4 min read

I must say that I’m rather taken aback and disappointed in your review of my work. I wonder why you bothered to publish and write about it if you found it so trivial. Others have not. It has won numerous fellowships and awards, including one from SPE, when it was chosen for the Creative Artist Project Support Grant in 2015.

I’m particularly taken aback with your paragraph “In an interview, de Swaan notes that with “Return” she is, “…also seeking to abstract from my personal story to encompass the collective history of the region and beyond — to reference our present world situation, when there are increasing numbers of wars, massacres and displaced people who are losing everything, history repeating itself over and over again.” Certainly this political moment does speak to displacement of immigrant populations, of the many cruel instances of stateless exile for those who have either built lives or sought better ones here. However, this modestly articulated desire of de Swaan’s presses the question: is it possible to describe and situate a personal narrative of a family’s experience of the holocaust in good faith alongside our contemporary tragedies of war, diaspora and mass genocide? The story de Swaan tells us has been so thoroughly historicized, eulogized and closely examined — by writers, artists, filmmakers — over a period of decades and across multiple generations. Do current global atrocities such as the war and refugee crisis in Syria or the sectarian civil wars in West Africa, for example, attract the same level of scrutiny and, importantly, a receptive audience for such? Or is it the case that such historical moments need the distance of time and generations to be viewed closely or clearly, to be made sense of or to attempt to make sense of them….”

Do you, does one, really need the passage of decades and a multitude of scholarly interpretations to feel empathy and pain for people who are being displaced, tortured, their cities decimated, their loved ones murdered, in present time? …maybe you do, I don’t.

Stacy: First: to review it at all. I spent several weeks poring over your work, reading interviews I do not in any way find your work to be trivial. If I had, I would not have taken time, reviews and other related writing about your work, and thinking about all of the images that you sent to me. That long list of questions in the introduction to the essay is my nod of respect to you for taking on the daunting task of addressing all of those questions, which I feel that you do admirably with “Return.” The last paragraph of the issue is not criticism of your work or the work you have put into making that work, but it is a questioning of something that you have said about this work after working on it for years, and what you said opened up into what I argue are broader, important and relevant questions to be asking today — of all artists and thinkers, not solely you — about what it is to make images of pain and suffering, to bear witness to epic and hard-to-fathom events. These observations do not trivialize your project, nor does it display a lack of empathy for other world events. It does call into question your statement, which seeks to compare pain and in your own words, “make your project more relevant” by comparing it with contemporary tragedies. This is essentializing, and and it is entirely appropriate to interrogate this in a review.

Sylvia: Nowhere in my statements did say I was referencing — “our present world situation etc “to my make own work more relevant”that is your invention. Rather the fact that the post WWII, post Holocaust slogan was “never again” (you might have heard of it) to the reality that it is in fact happening again & again. & to claim that one can’t make such a comparison “in good faith” -for those who aren’t aware of it, it’s been in the news and by now in books and some of it even in films.

Stacy: “What I am saying, and in saying it I am definitely not trivializing your work but I am making a critical statement about what you said (here: https://www.worldphoto.org/blogs/20-09-16/make-meaningful-work-sylvia-de-swaan-visura), which is that one cannot compare one tragedy or one’s experience of suffering with another. To do so diminishes the integrity and power of the other’s individual story..”

Sylvia: Quite on the contrary, by making each tragedy unique, makes it harder for others to relate to it. Jewish survivor groups have realized that by speaking of the Holocaust as unique event it becomes just a “Jewish problem” rather than a universal one that concerns the rest of humanity & many have stood up about the Rwanda massacres and other instances of ethnic cleansing

Stacy:The last I will say in response to what you’ve written to me is that in the paragraph in question, I am not arguing against your claim of these massacres and tragedies as happening again and again. I reference and link to photo essays of specific ones in that same paragraph. What I am saying, and in saying it I am definitely not trivializing your work but I am making a critical statement about what you said (here: https://www.worldphoto.org/blogs/20-09-16/make-meaningful-work-sylvia-de-swaan-visura), which is that one cannot compare one tragedy or one’s experience of suffering with another. To do so diminishes the integrity and power of the other’s individual story. I am also saying that these “other” stories are often neglected by both gatekeepers of the art and media world, as well as by viewers and an audience of people that, if exposed to more such stories, might actually take action to effect a change in those situations.

Sylvia: So you’d think that the fact that I have mentioned “those other stories” might be considered a step in the right direction.

You don’t have to answer, but we’ll just have to agree to disagree

    Sylvia de Swaan

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    I'm an art and documentary photographer