Episode 10 - Katrin Joost - Photography, Phenomenology and the Pandemic


Alan: Hello everyone! And welcome to In Limbo Conversations! Today, we have with us Dr. Katrin Joost. She is a researcher, educator and an artist. She was a program leader of the MA Photography degree and a Senior Lecturer at the University of Cumbria. Her research is grounded in Husserlian phenomenology which underpins her research interests in the fields of philosophy of photography, photography theory, media philosophy and post phenomenology. So thank you very much for talking to us doctor!

And I think you have a very wonderful mix of interests and we're hoping that we can see a nice new perspective that we generally don't see. So thank you very much much for joining

us!


Katrin: You're very welcome! Looking forward to this conversation


Alan: So, you've written a.. you're given a talk I think and then there's a follow-up..

article on this blog called The Red Eye Photography..that is you talking about what it is to experience the pandemic as a philosopher and not just philosophy..with somebody who is also interested in photography and so what I just like to start with the beginning part and ask you - what does it mean to be a philosopher in general..like what does philosophy help you see that you wouldn't see otherwise and what does it mean to be a philosopher, especially today..nowadays in the pandemic?


Katrin: I mean it's difficult to sort of say what does it mean to be a philosopher but..

you know the straightforward point that sort of springs to mind is that philosophers tend to reflect a little bit more maybe, than than other people. I mean I don't want to make that sort of distinction but there's an emphasis on just sort of stopping a little bit and hesitating and thinking about how things unfold around you. You know, everybody thinks about the world and what it means to them. The philosophers, particularly when you work or when you think within an academic structure or when you relate sort of to the history of philosophy..that's sort of a little bit more contextualized and a bit more structured than other people might think about it and I think that's quite important to sort of connect to a bigger picture. And then sort of talking with people around you who might not be that interested in philosophy..

If you point out certain strands of thoughts and certain assumptions, it's really quite - "Oh yeah actually, you're right!" and you sort of connect back to everyday life. So I think it's really quite important that the world has lots of philosophers in it. So we think about the values, the ideas and the reality of what is happening and like you said, especially now with..

You know very extraordinary things happening around us, we really need to step back and reflect- What does that actually mean for our lives? Can we go on as we did before? or What does it mean to go on as we do generally? And I think in that sense the pandemic particularly that sort of moment of the lockdown has been a really interesting point where the value of philosophy came to the fore again Does that make sense?


You know very extraordinary things happening around us, we really need to step back and reflect- What does that actually mean for our lives? Can we go on as we did before? or What does it mean to go on as we do generally?


Alan: So I think but..it's..in a sense..you don't have to be a philosopher but that act of philosophizing, stepping back, looking at a larger thing, is I think helpful for anyone to deal with these situations.


Katrin: Absolutely.


Alan: We don't even have to be an academic philosopher..it's just a sort of mindset that you can have..sort of looking at things..


Katrin: A lot of photographers do that sort of naturally..not necessarily having you know, a major academic knowledge of philosophical schools of thought but the act of looking and showing - What do you look at? What do you show people? It is a very intuitive way of reflecting on the world and what is important. You do have to choose as a photographer and that's really really interesting.


Alan: That is quite a great point. I mean you rarely see it that way because as a philosopher, you are presenting a certain thing..stepping back.. same thing you're doing as a photographer or a visual artist, if you will. Sort of framing a certain thing in a certain way. That's a very interesting way of looking at philosophy as well I guess. You have mentioned in that article that we were talking about, about how the pandemic has given us the chance. It's sort of forced us to sit back and reflect because we don't have things to do and so, that is part of the whole philosophy thing and you also talked about- how there's this lived experience, the lived world you know..it forces..sort of..maybe compartmentalize..I don't know how to say it but it sort of restricts our lived world..our experiences..it changes them in a certain way because we're forced to sit back in our houses and think about it differently.


Katrin: Yes. So, the period of the strict lockdown was quite radical in that way because like you said, just very practically our lives were restricted physically. We weren't allowed to move within the spatial world as we're used to. And in experiencing that.. and I think it's especially because it's a social, a communal experience, it wasn't just one person who wasn't allowed to go somewhere. That's a very different structure of an experience. But since we did that as a social group, it sort of forced us to think - What does it actually mean to really relate to the space around us? Because I felt - and in conversations with friends, who are philosophically interested and not philosophically interested - it became clear that that radical experience had an impact on all sorts of levels of our lives. It's more than not just being able to go on holiday. But the value of the space within which you are working and living and moving, it has all of a sudden taken on a different meaning and value.


Alan: So I think this is also a nice place to talk about phenomenology. And I think it relates quite a lot - the whole idea of experiencing something differently and thinking about it and

entering that experience and everything. So if you could tell us, what's your interest in phenomenology? Why have you taken an interest in that and does it help you?

Or what does..what do you see through it, like, nowadays? How does it play out in your life I mean?


Katrin: I've you know..I've quite classically sort of studied philosophy just following the lead of the university. Just generally being you know .. I grew up in Germany - you don't have philosophy at the school level. But I came across one or two texts and I was sort of just generally interested in the idea of thought and history of ideas and then like I said, you follow, the texts that are given to you. But encountering, as it were, the phenomenological school of thought - that really chimed with me because ultimately we are interested in philosophy because we want to find out about the meaning of life, don't we? As sort of intuitive, What is philosophy? It's thinking about the meaning of life. And a lot of other schools of thought appear to me to limit, you know, what are the fundamental questions. They always felt nothing was being left out. So particularly, when you think about epistemology- it's focusing on knowledge but not on emotions, not on intuition, not on this, that or the other. And phenomenology, for me, is that school of thought, even though it's really really rigorous, but it is all encompassing- it can turn its perception to anything and it really takes into account this sort of, as they say it, the messiness of life. You know, the concrete mixture of what it means to be alive and it's that sort of richness that I find really important. It allows us to sort of step back and think about it, how that unfolds in a structural way but at the same time, it doesn't deny a lot of realms of life and I think that's really, really important. Our society is far too keen on finding simple answers and on finding a sort of ..

a Lego block. And find that now that the pandemic is sort of moving on and we're trying to rebuild our lives. I think that's sort of really coming to the fore again..that there's "Okay! We've dealt with that, move it away."..and then sort of building up things.

Yeah, in a way, missing really important aspects of our lives. So, the contextualized manner of phenomenology and the concreteness of life is really important.


What is philosophy? It's thinking about the meaning of life...and phenomenology, for me, is that school of thought, even though it's really really rigorous, but it is all encompassing- it can turn its perception to anything and it really takes into account this sort of, as they say it, the messiness of life...


Alan: I do think phenomenology does sort of..I don't know how it is out there in the UK and Europe but it seems to have lost a bit of steam over the years. I mean the whole phenomenological movement as such.


Katrin: I suppose so..I mean. Maybe it's showing my age .I'm still with that sort of..revolution there. What I find now - my interest is it's not the rule of life, you know. What was that real core that attracted me to it initially is now almost diluted through technology and all of those different aspects that come into it. But I think within, particularly in an arts context, that actually becomes really interesting yet again. And I also think that increasingly people are sort of deterred by the complexity of it all and the denial of getting a simple answer. So you have those people who are quite happy with that element and embrace it, but that's quite a small club, as it were. The revolutionary sense of "Yes-we need to get life by its horns", as it were, has been a little bit diminished through the years.


Alan: So, this is also partly why I was really interested in your work because it seems like..okay maybe phenomenology might not have the same power or pull it had in like the written academic circles but it seems to have a lot of potential to - through the visual arts, through photography, through the visual medium - to sort of..explore the phenomenological space bit more. I think the visual sort of opens up a new aspect to it or something. I feel like that I mean..I don't know how you feel.


Katrin: I agree. I think a lot of visual artists - and I mentioned in the article, Henry Iddon and John Darwell - and a little bit my own work..I don't want to blow my trumpet but..I mean I obviously think philosophically but the others..or a lot of visual artists are doing that kind of reflection quite intuitively. Not necessarily, you know, referring back and referencing philosophical texts even though - because I work within the sort of arts context in academia - even though the sort of the PhD study, the research that is going on to onto the more structured PhD examinations is taking exactly that approach and forcing people to engage with texts a little bit more. Even though there's always that initial reluctance like, "Oh my god, no! I'm an artist! I couldn't possibly read Merleau-Ponty!" or something like that.

I think that just in an academic field, within the visual arts starting to grow really quite a lot.

Having said that, I think within the arts context outside of an academic, you know, strictly academic realm, that is not happening and people are still very reluctant to engage with

a philosophical idea. Although I insist; but people are doing a lot of visual artists are doing exactly that! I think it is very interesting on that level. But I also have another little criticism that the sort of normal relationship, particularly to photography; normal - when I say, you know, people are not necessarily following an arts practice or engaging with, going into many galleries or whatnot. They tend to see photography as this sort of snapshotty thing, rather than thinking about bodies of work. And it is really when you look at bodies of work.. And it's not only photography but visual artists as well. It's not the one picture that gives us an insight, and those kinds of ideas as to how the world appears to us? That really comes out when you look at a series of work rather than individual snapshots. And that's really important I think.


Alan: I think that point that you raised somewhere there about how the photographers or visual artists seem to already be doing a lot of this in their work, unintentionally, if you will, and unaware of it. I think that's pretty interesting that there is a convergence between these ideas. Maybe they realize it in different senses. Maybe some people write big books about it, other people organize a gallery about the same idea. But it's still there. And you, like you had mentioned in your biography as well, that you did conduct quite a few conferences around this idea, where you..seemed like it was trying to bring these two ends together. Sort of a

meeting ground for both of these places.


Katrin: Absolutely..


Alan: Mostly.. for me that struck me the most was your last thing about "Visualizing the Home", I think it was?


Katrin: Yes, yes.


Alan: It immediately reminded me of Gaston Bachelard and


Katrin: Yes


Alan: ..to sort of just immediately go into "Poetics of Space" and all of those ideas and sort of see like a visual, in-person representation of those ideas and those things. That's what came to my mind first. And so that was like a very interesting thing. Do you think there's a lot of space for things like those? That do you think there is.. Do you feel there's a lot of space for activities like those or for confluences like those to happen more?


What does the home mean to us?...There's no sense of knowledge where you can say - Okay if you know A, B and C, then you know what a home is. There is that disparity and difference between everybody's home.


Katrin: Absolutely. I think there's a real need and people are extremely interested in engaging in those levels of debates. Because there's a sort of .. there's a sense of searching. When you take a theme like home, it's a very charged one. Still is, with the refugee crises and you know the pandemic as well. What does the home mean to us?

It's a really, really important concept and theme. And we all know immediately that we can't define it straightforwardly. There's no sense of knowledge where you can say - Okay if you know A, B and C, then you know what a home is. There is that disparity and difference between everybody's home. But we also all immediately know what it is. In many ways, it's really ideas like that where I think we all feel a real need to think and discuss it. And then you have photographers who try to do that, or artists, who try to do that visually and grapple with the idea, "What does home look like? How can I, how can I communicate that?" And then you have people like me who are maybe a little bit more tech space and try to think, what .. how can you describe or, what is it about Gaston Bachelard's "Poetics of Space" that really seems to get almost to the point that I can completely communicate that. And it is fabulous when you have people, philosophers, looking at photography thinking, "Wow that's sort of almost getting there" and then likewise, photographers reading a text thinking "That's what it is like!" I do have to say though, that it's sometimes quite difficult to find a ground for those communications because of funding. In the sense that the academic machinery, as it were, makes it possible for a lecturer, a researcher going to a conference, giving a paper and engaging in that and you know, it is financed by the universities. A lot of artists have to do that, all of that, on their own back .. and have to pay the conference fee and whatnot. So there seems to be always a danger of an unequal kind of debate, if that makes sense. Similarly, if you have the photographer's gallery in London or, you have a few - unfortunately

only a few in Britain - Arts Organizations that try to to organize events. And they seem to not necessarily be picked up by academic radars, necessarily. Especially when it is not within their own subject group. So the Art History department or the Photography Department might pick up on it but certainly not the Philosophy Department. So I think there's a bit of an issue there. But in principle I think it's a really fruitful way to liven up photographic practice or artistic practice as well as academic thought, because we all get a bit sort of closed in at times and go around in the sort of familiar circles of thought or practice.


Alan: Yeah. We could talk about the academic reluctance to accept these things forever, I guess. Like you could have a week-long conference about it I think. And I think it would be universal across, across the world. Everyone will have the same ideas I guess. But I don't want to go into that even though I really would like to talk about those things. I don't want to go into it because it would take too much time. I do want to take .. like sort of move from this into probably one of the most interesting parts of your work where you talk about Visual Philosophy. It's also there in the article. You mentioned that as well. Could you tell us what you mean by Visual Philosophy? I think it's related to what we just spoke a bit before, but what does it mean to philosophize visually?


Katrin: Well it is quite interesting that when you look at the history of philosophy and - my speech already: you "look" at the history of philosophy. That the idea of seeing is almost equalized with the idea of understanding and knowing. There are people who are visually impaired and who cannot rely on their sense of sight so much but generally most people relate to the world around them very strongly through visual cues. Our sense of

vision is very important in our relationship to the world and how we think about it. And I think philosophy is taking that on board, or is quite often having that, sort of implied within it. But visual artists are then pushing it that step further. So I think there's an original affinity with sight and philosophy that's what I'm trying to say. But then when you have visual artists, they really take on board that sort of notion of letting the sight guide their understanding of the world, rather than taking ideas and then looking for evidence thereof in the world. And that sort of grappling through vision with what the world means I find incredibly fascinating, because we do that in our everyday life. We take photographs with our phones and sort of look later at them and think "Well what was that?" "Why is that important?" Like I said, with the example of Home you know. We try to take pictures of home and share them with everybody around us, and think we sort of get the point of what it is. But when you have a photographer looking at home, photographing maybe in a documentary way what is going on around them, and then sort of picking up on intuitions - where maybe shadows or intimate spaces - again, like Gaston Bachelard - the corners, the sensibilities, that also go beyond the visual, and then are sort of, they are trying to express that. And I find that really, really interesting. As a consumer, as it were, of visual art I think it's also really interesting when I look at work I obviously see what is in the image. Umm, more often than not, some images where you don't quite know what you're looking at. They are more abstract. But in looking, I'm invited into a philosophical debate - thinking, looking, thinking, looking at what I'm, you know. That sort of back and forth of thought and vision. I'm invited into a process rather than "This is what it is. That's the definition" and full stop. But I'm invited into a process with the visual artist to sort of grapple with ideas and that's what I find really, really interesting. Especially when you hear about how visual work has been developed. So, for example, Henry Iddon cycling around Britain at the lockdown, just looking at the world around him. Sort of saying, "You know, what does that mean?" Looking at it, taking photographs. Not knowing which ones are important. Similarly John Darwell - I mean he's my partner so I'm a bit biased there - but he is a photographer who's got a long-standing practice and what I think really is interesting about John is he keeps looking at his previous work and keeps asking the question "What did I think then?" "What does it mean now, for me to look at that image then?" "Now being in a lockdown situation, I look back at moments when I looked out into a world with a greater sense of freedom. What does it mean that I can't do.." I don't know, but we can't do that now. So it's really, really interesting to have those conversations with artists.


We try to take pictures of home and share them with everybody around us, and think we sort of get the point of what it is. But when you have a photographer looking at home, photographing maybe in a documentary way what is going on around them, and then sort of picking up on intuitions - where maybe shadows or intimate spaces - again, like Gaston Bachelard - the corners, the sensibilities, that also go beyond the visual, and then are sort of, they are trying to express that. And I find that really, really interesting.


Alan: So, if I were a Visual Philosopher would it be enough for me to sort of philosophize looking at images? Or is it, is it like a more interactive thing where I actually go out and I try to, sort of, philosophically interpret the world through actual photography or through actual work? Like, is that part of the idea of being.. of doing visual philosophy or is it just is it enough to sort of sit back and like look at an image and be philosophical about an image I see? Is there an element of practice? is what I think I'm asking.


Katrin: I think both. I think it's essentially both because the way we go out and look at things is so much determined by a history of images. We look at the world, not just how it presents itself to us. We look at the world through a filter of images. We've already seen so many things, that what we look at is essentially shaped by that. So, it's maybe my lecturing status, you know, that I'm trying to get the photography students to look at past images so much, is sort of coming through here. So, I think that is really, really important. And we keep taking the same images other people have taken already so often.

But you are touching on a very important point: that the act of practice and repeated practice and refining that practice. I mean, yeah, doing philosophy. I mean that brings me back to phenomenology as well, when you think about that call by Husserl! (I do have a soft spot for good old Husserl.) And you know we have to do phenomenology. We don't just read about it and then close the book and take it, put it away. But in our everyday relationship to the world we need to keep that reflection alive immediately. And interestingly, when you have a practicing artist that's exactly what they do! They do phenomenology. They do photography. And that is keeping the thought alive as much as there is obviously a necessity to contextualize that in terms of a history of vision, as well as thought. But yeah, it's especially in a situation like the pandemic where we haven't lived through that before. There might have been the flu epidemic in 1917 but you don't have anything to look back on. There is active engagement with the world around you happening now. That is really important.


..doing philosophy..We don't just read about it and then close the book and take it, put it away. But in our everyday relationship to the world, we need to keep that reflection alive immediately. And interestingly, when you have a practicing artist that's exactly what they do! They do phenomenology. They do photography.


Alan: So while we were talking, having these conversations .. something came to mind. There's this German author - Sebald. W.G. Sebald. Not sure if you're familiar with him.


Katrin: Yes, I've heard of him.. a friend of mine gave me a book and i haven't read it yet.


Alan: He uses a lot of pictures in his books, in his stories. So I was wondering if you are familiar with it. There's a kind of.. it is in the same area as what you were talking about, so I was wondering ..


Katrin: Yeah, yeah. Sorry. I know of him, but I haven't, I haven't actually read.. I forget the title even. A friend gave me a while ago. So yeah sorry. But it is interesting to interweave images and actual texts. I mean that's where also contemporary art - and again I'm really bad snapping up, sort of examples out of the air - but where people are interweaving photographs with fictional ideas. With photography particularly we cling to that idea that it is real. That is actual. That it's a documentary. It's not giving us a snapshot of the truth, but it links it back to a reality, that sort of idea of indexicality and it's really fascinating when artists play with that idea because it is not absolute. You know, we all look at photographs and think we know what we see, but there's a whole plethora in those that is half imagined and not. There is no no clear difference and that has, I think, a huge impact on what we understand as fact and truth and reality. Now that is more complex than we think.


With photography particularly we cling to that idea that it is real. That is actual. That it's a documentary. It's not giving us a snapshot of the truth, but it links it back to a reality, that sort of idea of indexicality and it's really fascinating when artists play with that idea because it is not absolute.


Alan: Right thank you so much. I think those are all the questions I have. It was really nice talking to you. It's a very, it's a very, very interesting way of looking at the world. I mean it's a very different way of philosophizing as well and it's very interesting and I recommend all the readers or the viewers to go and check out Dr. Joost's work. And even the article. She’s mentioned a bunch of other artists, photographers as well. So I think their work is also quite interesting in context of the conversation you had. So thank you so much Doctor for.. I mean I would never have thought of photography, phenomenology and philosophy coming together in such a way. Even though as we speak, it just seems they are meant to sort of be together, in a sense.


Katrin: It sort of is obvious when you think about it but It's not the usual .. tiro


Alan: But it's a wonderful trio if you do spend time with it as I'm finding out..


Katrin: Especially because photography is so important in our lives now. It's yeah intermeshed with everything.


Alan: It's ubiquitous. It's everywhere. It's..You can't escape it and actually it's almost an over-saturation .. at some level.


Katrin: Absolutely yeah! Erik Kessels has done art projects on that. The plethora of photography.


Alan: So, I hope, I hope this talk or just just your work in general helps artists see the philosophical side and philosophers see the more artistic side, visual side of things and I hope I hope that this idea grows a bit more and yeah I think that's it. Thank you so much doctor for talking to us.


Katrin: Thank you very much for inviting me. It was a pleasure.





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