Spotlight Essay: Allan Sekula

Allan Sekula, Volunteer’s Soup (Isla de Ons, 12/19/02), 2002–3

Spotlight Essay: Allan Sekula, Volunteer’s Soup (Isla de Ons, 12/19/02), 2002–03
September 2016

Svea Bräunert
DAAD Visiting Associate Professor in German studies, University of Cincinnati
Former Fulbright Fellow, Washington University in St. Louis, and guest curator, Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum

Volunteer’s Soup (Isla de Ons, 12/19/02) part of Allan Sekula’s photo-essay, or sequence, Black Tide / Marea Negra.1 Consisting of twenty photographs in ten frames, the project documents the 2002 oil spill off the Galician coast, in the northwest of Spain. It occurred after a number of European governments failed to respond to the running aground of the tanker Prestige, causing the ship to break apart and release more than twenty million gallons of oil into the sea.2 Volunteers carried out a major part of the effort to contain and clean up the oil spill. Sekula documented them and their work as well as the disastrous environmental conditions in photographs he originally took for Culturas, a weekly magazine supplement of the Barcelona newspaper La Vanguardia. The photographs, most of which are arranged in pairs of two and three, portray the volunteers dressed in white overalls stained with oil. Only a few of them are shown working; most are between tasks, taking a break, eating, or socializing with one another. Other photographs depict seascapes of oil, either panoramic views giving an impression of the spill’s magnitude or close-ups focusing on the oil’s liquid materiality and the abstract patterns it forms on different surfaces. There is also a picture of Sekula himself, looking out from behind what appears to be a wall of black oil—an image of “the artist as witness to the seemingly insignificant details of disastrous events, one who both looks through and makes surfaces.”3

Volunteer’s Soup is a vertically arranged diptych from the sequence that brings together two of its main motifs: the volunteers’ bodies and the oil’s textures. The upper photograph is a half-length portrait of a man eating a bowl of soup, with the poisoned coastal panorama behind him. Unlike the volunteers pictured in other photographs, the individual here is not wearing white overalls. Still the caption identifies him as a volunteer—or at least as someone eating the volunteers’ soup. In this moment of pause, of consumption and replenishment, he embodies a state between work and nonwork that corresponds to the status of a volunteer, who is similarly suspended between worker and nonworker. Aligned with this image of the volunteer is a photograph of the mess he is there to clean up. It is a close-up showing the water’s wavy surface covered by a thickly textured layer of oil. The visceral impact of the image is immediate, graphic, appalling. Yet if the context of the upper panel and the overall sequence was not given, the subject of the photograph would not be evident. It could be an aerial view of a distant, perhaps unearthly landscape; thick blotches of black paint; an animal’s fur. Hence, regardless of its seemingly stark realism, the diptych exudes an equally powerful abstract effect that is achieved not despite but because of the oil’s abject materiality.

Arranging the two photographs—of a man eating soup and of the ocean covered by oil—vertically within the same frame, Sekula brings them to bear on each other. It is a technique reminiscent of modernist lm montage, in which different sequential elements are juxtaposed in order to arrive at a new meaning. This meaning does not reside in the single picture but rather arises from the images building on each other and entering into a dialectical relationship. Montage hence works with the culmination of images and with the imaginary fissures that open up between them. Its different forms and techniques bring about new ways of seeing that instigate new ways of thinking. Montage can thus convey original ideas that come to the fore as visual composites and interstices, complements and contrasts, over time and instantaneously. Volunteer’s Soup functions akin to such montage logic; its pictorial and political messages do not exist solely in the image; they also become discernible in the connections and frictions that open up between the images.4

The work’s montage effects are both complementary and unsettling. The images explain and contextualize each other; their combination (actively) makes sense. But it also calls into question what used to make sense and suggests new interpretations and meanings. ese diverging processes take place on thematic, photographic, and aesthetic levels. The sequence Black Tide / Marea Negra, for instance, ties in with Sekula’s long-standing engagement with the maritime world, exemplified by projects such as the photo-documentary Fish Story (1989–95), the essay films The Lottery of the Sea (2006) and The Forgotten Space (2010; together with Noël Burch), and the research piece Dear Bill Gates (1999). In these projects Sekula tackled the sea as a crucial and multifaceted space of labor, late capitalism, and globalization that is all too often overlooked. It is “the ‘forgotten space’ of modernity”5 that only comes to the fore in “stories of disaster, war, and exodus.”6 The oil spill off the Galician coast is such a story of disaster. It brings the maritime world into focus and treats it as a decisively modern and late-capitalist constellation, with both oil and the ocean signaling the promises as well as the disastrous effects of a globalized market.

At the heart of this constellation is the relationship between humans and the environment. Lately this relationship has been theorized under the rubric of the Anthropocene era, which stresses that we have entered a new age in which we can no longer think about earth and its geologic systems without also accounting for human impact and its irreversible changes to the environment. As a human-made disaster the oil spill is an extreme instance of these changes. It exemplifies how a once nurturing environment has become hostile—a point driven home by the bowl of soup, alluding to the fact that the sea used to feed people in the region. With the spill, however, it has turned from nourishing to toxic. Nevertheless the man is taking it in, digesting it, and a disturbing parallel is thus evoked between soup and sea, sea and oil, and oil and soup. These liquids make for a highly immersive environment that cannot easily be contained. Depending on one’s point of view, for example, the man in the upper photograph seems to be standing in a sea of oil, infused by it, and even metaphorically taking it in by spoonfuls. Similarly, the oil is spilling over into the sea. And true to the work’s montage tradition, a similar kind of spilling takes place on a visual level, for, like the liquids, each image is always on the verge of spilling over, both visually and discursively, into new meanings, new associations.

These associations have to do with the dynamic between stasis and flow, as it concerns the sea and photography alike. Even though the sea challenges spatial analysis, with its waters “constantly stirred by currents and waves that seem to erase any trace of the past,” Sekula’s work persistently focuses on the sea’s materiality.7 As Steve Edwards has written, “During a time when cultural debate was dominated by ideas of dematerialization, spectacle, virtuality and the like, Sekula insisted on capitalism and the material reality of the sea.”8 In Volunteer’s Soup, this tension between materiality and immateriality manifests itself in the representation of liquids. This is most notable in the bottom photograph, which is all about oil. The image is abstract, but its abstraction arises out of its materiality and is therefore anchored in reality—the reality of oil, of a viscous liquid that tacks itself onto other surfaces, thereby turning into an image that can serve as an index of the spill.

In the process, a link is established between oil and photography, which points to a further tension in Volunteer’s Soup, because even though the work deals with “the fluidity of the sea,” it does so with the “means of the still image.”9 Nevertheless, the technique of montage sets the still photograph in motion, drawing on the dynamic exchanges between the two images. One of these exchanges concerns the different traditions of photography that Sekula explored in his writing and practice, including both realism and abstraction. What returns in Volunteer’s Soup is Sekula’s engagement with the divide between photography as evidence (realism) and photography as art (abstraction): “We repeatedly hear the following refrain. Photography is an art. Photography is a science (or at least constitutes a ‘scientific’ way of seeing). Photography is both an art and a science. In response to these claims, it becomes important to argue that photography is neither art nor science, but is suspended between both the discourse of science and that of art, staking its claims to cultural value on both the model of truth upheld by empirical science and the model of pleasure and expressiveness offered by romantic aesthetics.”10

Volunteer’s Soup visualizes this notion of photography as neither art nor science, neither realism nor abstraction. The composition is hence not just a sensitive documentation of a natural disaster; it also constitutes an intriguing meditation on photography. It embraces the suspension of traditional forms of thinking, seeing, and representing the world. In that, it exemplifies Sekula’s concept of critical realism as an exploration of social conflicts through photography, combining realism and abstraction, art and politics, aesthetics and activism.11 In the case of Volunteer’s Soup, this combination takes the form of a vertical montage, which triggers thoughts about the relation between humans and their environment, the politics of the sea, and the social relevance of oil and other liquids, as well as their connection to questions of labor, late capitalism, and the stuff that binds all this together, discursively and materially. For Sekula, this stuff is photography and the histories, representations, and social groundings that constitute it.


[1] Sekula prefers the concept of sequences over series, as Bill Roberts notes, due to “their coherence as uniquely determinate arrangements (generally with a beginning and an end),” which offers “more potential resistance than the ‘metronomic regularity’ and indifference of the series.” Bill Roberts, “Production in View: Allan Sekula’s Fish Story and the Thawing of Postmodernism,” Tate Papers, no. 18 (2012),

[2] The way the spill happened is typical of contemporary crimes at sea, which often result less from “the direct action of a singular actor than the inaction of many.” Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani, “Liquid Traces: Investigating the Deaths of Migrants at the EU’s Maritime Frontier,” in Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth, a project by Forensic Architecture, London (Berlin: Sternberg, 2014), 659.

[3] Allan Sekula, “Found Painting, Disassembled Movies, World Images: Allan Sekula Speaks with Carles Guerra,” Grey Room, no. 55 (Spring 2014): 132.

[4] In montage theory, introduced by the Russian film director and theorist Sergei Eisenstein in the 1920s, vertical montage is associated with the focus on a single shot or image. Despite its vertical arrangement, however, Volunteer’s Soup rather calls for an associative viewing that is traditionally connected to horizontal montage and thus to the interaction between more than one image.

[5] Allan Sekula, in “Conversation between Allan Sekula and Benjamin H. D. Buchloh,” in Performance under Working Conditions: Allan Sekula, ed. Sabine Breitwieser (Ost ldern-Ruit, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2003), 44.

[6] Allan Sekula, Fish Story, 2nd rev. ed. (Düsseldorf, Germany: Richter, 2002), 53.

[7] Heller and Pezzani, “Liquid Traces,” 657.

[8] Steve Edwards, in his obituary of Sekula, “Socialism and the Sea: Allan Sekula, 1951–2013,” Radical Philosophy, no. 182 (November–December 2013): 64.

[9] Sekula, in “Conversation between Sekula and Buchloh,” 49.

[10] Allan Sekula, “Reading and Archive: Photography between Labour and Capital,” in The Photography Reader, ed. Liz Wells (London: Routledge, 2003), 450. For Sekula, the two major trends in the history of photography are represented by Alfred Stieglitz’s pictorialism, on the one hand, and Lewis Hine’s social documentaries, on the other. For an exemplary discussion of Stieglitz and Hine as representatives of these two modes of photographic representation, see Allan Sekula, “On the Invention of Photographic Meaning,” in Photography against the Grain: Essays and Photo Works, 1973–1983 (Halifax: Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1984), 3–21.

[11] For a discussion of Sekula’s concept of critical realism, see Jan Baetens and Hilde van Gelder, eds., Critical Realism in Contemporary Art: Around Allan Sekula’s Photography (Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 2006).

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Image Credit

Allan Sekula (American, 1951–2013), Volunteer’s Soup (Isla de Ons, 12/19/02), 2002–3. Cibachrome, 3/5, 62 7/8 x 42 3/4". University purchase, Bixby Fund, 2003.