- Photo-texts: Contemporary French Writing of the Photographic Image
Andy Stafford's book is a welcome and attractive publication in the fast-growing field of intermediality studies and an exciting enrichment of a series that opens new ways in the study of postcolonial francophony. The qualities of the book, which should concern more readers than only those interested in contemporary French and francophone culture, can be situated at three levels: the subject in itself, obviously, but also the dialogue that it tries to establish between anglophone and francophone scholarship, as well as the specific accents that are proposed by the author. I will discuss these points in that order.
As far as the subject is concerned, the task of any author writing on the domain of photo-textuality has become a rather difficult one, such has been the almost chaotic development of literature-and-photography interaction in the last decades. Stafford pays, therefore, [End Page 273] a lot of attention to circumscribing his corpus, not always in the most convincing ways, for throughout the book one feels a permanent struggle with the many possibilities of organizing the material. Nevertheless, since the author presents and discusses his own doubts and biases in a very open and self-conscious way, the reader can feel sympathy for his efforts, even if, until the end of the book, one is left with the impression that other types of classification might have been possible. Nevertheless, the global structure, which leads us from a text inspired by just one picture to a work focused on captioning, is clear and coherent and certainly does not prevent the author from doing what he wants to do. The notion of photo-text is mainly defined by Stafford in terms of "photo-essayism," a term that is both exclusive and inclusive: It excludes the whole field of the photonovel, while it includes all kinds of textual productions (essays in the traditional sense of the word but also prose fiction, poetry, captions, etc.) that establish a dialogue not just with photography but with specific photographs on the page. This both very narrow and very open definition allows Stafford to propose a very broad and diverse corpus of nine works, some of them very well known (such as Errance by Raymond Depardon), others less known or rarely introduced in discussions on photo-textuality (such as some works written by Tahar Ben Jelloun). What matters here is less the fact that some usual suspects may be missing (there is for instance no chapter on Sophie Calle) than the fact that the selection made by Stafford really innovates the field: The overall impression one gets from his view on photo-textuality is really different from the one that is offered by most French studies on the subject, the main difference being the emphasis on postcolonialism.
The difference and usefulness of this book is also explained by its eagerness to establish a cross-fertilization of anglophone and francophone scholarship. One of the most paradoxical and painful aspects of globalization is indeed the growing gap between humanist scholarship in these two traditions: Anglophone readers, even very specialized ones, only know of "French Theory" what is available in translation, whereas francophone scholars like to stress their "cultural exception" to avoid or misread work being done in English (a good example is the longtime refusal or fear of cultural studies in France, a blatant case of cultural blindness that really should have no reason to be). Stafford is doing an important job in this broken dialogue, and he tries to do it in as objective and impartial a way as is possible, even if one feels some unease from time to time, not at the level of the theoretical discussions, but at the level of critical evaluation of some of the works under discussion. (Stafford is clearly reluctant to criticize Tahar Ben Jelloun, for instance, whose work presents a number of features that are criticized elsewhere in the book: This stance can only be explained by...