The Evocative Archive

The Evocative Archive


Photographs are often described as windows to another world, allowing a viewer to look through the frame and into another moment. In her photo collection Portals and Passageways, Kamal Badhey pushes this threshold metaphor to an extreme with emotionally evocative images inviting viewers to take a more active role as participants entering into her personal, familial memories.1 The work is “a re-constructed family album” and at the same time an archive of feelings following a narrative of rediscovered childhood in the artist’s ancestral family home.2 “These images,” Badhey said of her work, “[represent] a meshwork of what I saw, felt, and heard about my family.” Portals and Passageways demonstrates a new category of archive: the evocative archive. It is an archive of particular feelings more than of conventional data, and its value lies in its interaction with an engaged audience. This evocative archive collects the emotional charges of the artist as well as capturing those brought to the gallery by each viewer/participant. Much in the way that a traditional archive constructs our concept of history, the evocative archive composes a larger narrative of specific, qualitative cultural valuation of what it means to be human. By universalizing a particular experience, allowing a community to enter into her own emotions without necessarily providing the contextualizing data (i.e. showing us a kitchen through her own eyes, and without knowing whose kitchen it is, we know to interpret this as ‘home’), Badhey reconciles the unique experiences of life with the universally familiar difficulty of being a developing person.

To recognize a new archive, we must first define an archive at all. Traditionally, archives are intended to record history and create knowledge. They are perhaps most familiar in the form of a museum or a published collection of writings; before the introduction of postmodernism into archival theory around the late 1960s, when archivists began to take an active look at their own biases as cultivator of the collections, archives were thought to be very straightforwardly a preservation of, essentially, as many things as we could preserve. Recordings of historical events, taxidermied specimens, and the general presentation of institutionalized knowledge constitutes a concrete collection of data that gives a physicality to the concept of knowledge, one that can persist through time and withstand changing contexts. Archives are not simply “passive storehouses of old stuff, but active sites where social power is negotiated, contested, and confirmed” through the creation of narrative epistemologies.3 They constitute the ideological foundation of the future by metonymically dissecting “the complex, messy present, and the pasts” thus invoked.4 The archivist collects the pieces of the past which they deem most important and relevant, which are then put together and called, very generally, “history.” In this way, the archivist “continually reshape[s], reinterpret[s], and reinvent[s] the archive” with each collection or, in the syntax of Cook and Schwartz, performance.5 Each “performance” of archival knowledge production constructs a historical narrative for audiences to accept or deny on their own conditions and thus exerts power on our collective memory as well as the individual identities referenced in the archive.6 The intrinsic issue with archives and representation is the inevitable loss of some aspect of the subject: “there is always some distortion, even if only through incompleteness,” that prevents a truly holistic understanding.7 Especially in the realm of archival information, “content analysis cannot be [considered] as though it reflects unproblematically or atheoretically the social or ideological world outside the particular context[s]” of the archivist, the archive itself, and the audience.8 Traditional archives have no methodology to deal with the ambiguities they capture, necessitating a more fluid medium, a “transgressive archival performance” that will not only enhance ongoing archival tradition but also contest the “authority and legitimacy of past performances” and the biased knowledge produced therein, making explicit their tacit assumptions and challenging their power.9 These archival performances, which this paper posits should include and even commend the evocative archive, will likely still become generalized and codified into “universal” knowledge as previous archives have—but without the illusion of objectivity which plagues archival tradition.10 Archives should embrace the ambiguities they inevitably record, using nuance as evidence of life’s complexity rather than oversimplifying for the sake of a satisfactory historical narrative.

Cook and Schwartz’s concept of archival performance emphasizes the active role that archivists play in the construction of archives and of knowledge itself. In more traditional archives, “the archivist’s role in relation to records is to reveal their meaning and significance… through the exercise of intellectual control,” assuming that one could collect knowledge without imbuing new meaning.11 In fact, any presentation, collection, or description of a record unavoidably changes its meaning; the power to organize, describe, and display information is itself the power of creation. Furthermore, these actions recreate the included records, with added connotations of the archivist’s intent, and they set a precedent for the stylization and use of future records.12 Beginning in the late twentieth century, the traditional role of the archivist was called into question as humanistic postmodernism was introduced into archival theory and archivists became responsible for recognizing and revealing the biases which inevitably result from the involvement of any archivist, in the interest of more complete representation.13 Postmodernism values stories over structures, “the margins as much as the centers,” and emphasizes diversified perspectives over the familiar conventions of Westernized and post-imperial culture.14 Archives, as a space for the construction of social and political power, needed to become a means of sharing and refocusing power, a conceptual space where conventional narratives and those who constructed and upheld them were finally held accountable.15 Postmodernism in archival theory attempted to make clear the hidden construction processes behind archival knowledge, thus accepting some nuance into the practice. However, admission of subjectivity in epistemological practice does not necessarily dislodge the myth of archival objectivity which structures the audience’s experience; archival practice must transparently champion the universality of ambiguity through its knowledge dissemination processes.

How does one capture ambiguous information? John Berger famously described photography as “the process of rendering observation self‐conscious,” an automatic record that utilizes the situation itself to explain its recording.16 Images can “carry connotations and invite individual reminiscence” with an unusually qualitative sense of objectivity.17 Though they “appear to be ‘an imprint of reality’” capable of nothing further than documentation, photographs actually “create complex and subtle relations between the represented and the viewer” in a dialectical meeting of the viewer’s sense of modality and the photo’s asserted reality.18 Whether it is abstract or concrete, the photograph provides the viewer a role in its world and actively suggests which “attitude [to] take towards what is being represented” through visual cues.19 Operating similarly to archives, photos collect and present data, but they also expose and encourage ambiguity due to the very visual nature of photography. Both complexity and incompleteness are intrinsically assumed in a photograph because of its compression of a three-dimensional world into a two-dimensional image and because its limitations are obvious in the frame of any photo—we know that the world does not end at the 3:2 crop. Every picture imposes its own aggregated reality upon the viewer, one often at odds with the viewer’s actual reality; thus the very nature of photographic engagement accentuates ambiguities and makes the viewer conscious of the knowledge construction process.20

The evocative power of photography is particularly salient in Portals and Passageways. The relatively small collection of photos is intentionally and artfully shot to envelop the audience in its photographic narrative, creating the universally recognizable place of “home” out of one particular building and the experience of the few living within its walls, utilizing the comfort of domestic objects and imagery to encourage viewers to identify emotionally and project their own childhoods and families into the conceptual space of an ancestral home. 

As much as a photograph evokes what is shown, it “always and by its nature refers to what is not seen”—its prominently cropped borders and frozen figures remind a viewer of its natural limitations.21 In the fifth presented photo from Portals and Passageways, a partial portrait of a figure offering to the camera a partially unwrapped stringed instrument in a small room lit by sunlight, Badhey’s low vertical angle and exclusion of the figure’s face invokes a symbolic power relationship: the viewer is assigned short stature at the end of a compositional vector connecting them to the figure.22 In visual syntactic patterns, a vector line implies direct action between two figures, usually illustrated by eyeline and body language;23 here, the figure presents their instrument directly to the viewer. With no option to respond, the viewer is relegated to the role of an impressed child, perhaps the younger cousin of this figure. We can assume from the interiority of the environment and the closeness of the figure that they are represented “as though they belong… to our group, and that the viewer is thereby addressed as a certain kind of person” aligned with the pictured person.24 This “imaginary contact” with the photographic reality prevents the viewer from “[observing] in a detached way, and impersonally, as though they are specimens in a display case,” forcing them to acknowledge the personhood of the photo’s subject.25 Behind the figure, the visible corner of the wall implicitly invites the viewer to walk around and explore the rest of the home; the website formatting uses side arrows to lead viewers through the photographs and, evocatively, the house itself.

Other photos in the collection, like the opening image, use spatial elements to suggest intimacy in a very different way: here, in this intimate shot of a dark kitchen, a single, natural spotlight formed by a square window serves as a symbolic attribute serving the saliency of the kneeling figure.26 The glowing square emphasizes the emptiness of the kitchen’s center, creating a gravitational effect that follows the figure’s forward momentum into the cabinet. The viewer, caught in the pull and unconsciously affected by the symbolic value of the spotlight, is once again drawn to the faceless figure, perhaps hoping that the static image will turn around and reveal their identity. This image thus invokes a power structure which again relegates the viewer to a relatively infantile position. Forced to identify personhood through the soles of the figure’s bare feet, the viewer will likely attribute a familiar domestic identity relevant to their own childhood, like their own parental figure. The “marginal elements” of the dark kitchen—the tile floor, the sense of nighttime, the window in the corner which does not quite provide enough light to see by—are “held together by the cent[ral]” square of light, “belonging to it, subservient to it, and so on,” contributing to the gravitational effect so much so that the viewer sees the open cabinet not as a storage space but a secret passageway to somewhere unknown, and much more magical than the commonplace kitchen we actually see.27 This latent content of a hidden passageway is evocative of childhood in a new way: it brings fantastical wonder into the smallest corners of the domestic space in a way that most people have forgotten by their teenage years.

The collection continuously places the viewer in the role of a child in their own home, granting the viewer an openly active role in the world of Portals and Passageways. The collected images are not even individually named, but presented boldly alone, as if they are simply the transcription of a young child’s camera roll. Childhood itself is symbolic of several charming traits: innocence, wonder, care, and so on. By casting the viewer in such a way, Badhey evokes an interesting compassion, as an opportunity to relive the experience of making new friends at ten years old with anyone and everyone. The lightness this grants a viewer is not without its balance, however: several images in the collection feature “adult” figures, somewhat disconnected from the viewer and seemingly distracted by the problems and logistics of life. In some of the photos, such as the second presented image, a close up of a weathered hand holding a small, cracked golden disc, or a later photo of a woman’s partial reflection in the corner of a blurry mirror, forever trapped between the out-of-focus frame and the reflected doorway it captures, certain visual cues such as facial expression and gestures suggest that these figures are caretakers of the child-role assigned to the viewer. The close, low angles and the unconventionally limited composition of the images again imply a childishness in perspective, a sense that the viewer is shyly ducking out of sight, accentuated by the interactive vectors which guide the visual narrative. Photography, as a medium employing reality in image-making, is not a transformative art; “there is only decision, only focus,” to capture a feeling that is already somewhat known to the viewer.28 Therefore, the evocative archive Portals and Passageways must draw from the viewer’s own desire for comfort and domesticity; the desire to be free from responsibility and lovingly cared for.

Evocative photographs are rarely about the subject pictured, despite their nature as “records of things seen” and observation made conscious.29 Photographs are innately un-unique, “infinitely reproducible,” and limited to visual objects which preexist the photo.30 This collaborative nature (not to mention the necessity of the audience) actually bolsters the importance of the objects which are so ubiquitous in our lives; “just as we are collectors of things, things are collectors of meanings,” and photographs of things are simple statements that these meaningful things are worth recording.31 These “evocative objects,” often introduced to us as children, generally “represent some unforgettable memories or experiences” and give form to the concept of personal growth. These objects are tokens of importance itself, and are distinct for each individual, but recognizable to all. In the sixth image presented, the dangling ends of beaded necklaces on display, Badhey takes these evocative objects of necklaces and even their individual beads at her family’s generational jewelry store and projects their importance via their physicality. While the viewer may not have had a similar evocative object, they recognize the weighty visual cues which dominate the image: the small depth of field forcing you to behold the intricate beading; the reflection of the jewelry creating an imagined space within the imagined space of the photograph, reflecting the warm gold tones; even the perceived short distance from the camera’s eye to the countertop evoke a smallness reminiscent of childhood. Through her reflection on these objects which clearly mean something to her, Badhey “reveal[s her] connections with the evocative objects and other people in the narratives,” including the viewer as an invited participant in Badhey’s intimate familial experience, and “by constructing the narratives, [she] invites audiences understand the [emotional] story hidden behind the object[s]” and spaces.32 Even without the childhood memory of touching those necklaces, feeling the weight drop through their fingers one glass bead at a time, the “evocative object can [effectively] elicit a hidden story from everyone” who enters and participates in the photo story.33 As stated by Berger, “photographs bear witness to a human choice being exercised in a given situation,” and an effective “photograph makes [that] decision transparent and comprehensible” to any viewer.34 Throughout this archive, Badhey continually chooses the perspective of a child, which provides both a frame for the user’s experience and a motivation to explore the series.

An evocative archive is able to capture a new kind of dataset which has the potential to foster new understandings of the concepts of history and memory. The visualization of childhood itself, being able to distill the feeling of growing up to a certain set of photographic qualities such as contrast and depth of field, implies already that there is something objective (and therefore universally within reach) and communal about the experience. This collection, in a sense, constructs a visual coding for innocence much in the way that iconic American museums such as the Smithsonian have constructed a red, blue, and marble white image of local history. It attempts to preserve the emotional values which are so easily lost with distance and time through an interaction with the audience—the viewer is so necessary to the archive that they can almost be considered part of it. As the archivist “[makes], and continually re-[makes]” their memories in a public setting, sharing those experiences becomes more than “an act of reporting, but rather an act of co-construction of meaning” which is offered freely to anyone willing to engage.35 An archive preserves, bringing aspects of the past into the present to be carried into the future. Badhey’s familial, evocative archive Portals and Passageways preserves the more intimate, emotional data of her family experience which deserves consideration in future knowledge-making alongside the concrete data points of census polls and documents of law. As we construct knowledge and history, it is vital to continually preserve and evoke emotion and ambiguity in order to foster a fuller understanding of humanity.

  1. Please view photographs in Kamal Badhey’s Portals and Passageways on the artist’s website.
  2. K Badhey, (n.d.). Portals and Passageways. Kamal Badhey Photography,
  3. T. Cook, & J.M. Schwartz, “Archives, records, and power: From (postmodern) theory to (archival) performance,” Archival Science, 2, no. 3-4 (2002): 172,
  4. W. M. Duff  & V. Harris, “Stories and names: Archival description as narrating records and constructing meanings,” Archival Science, 2, no. 3-4 (2002): 280,
  5. Cook and Schwartz, “Archives, records, and power,” 181.
  6. Cook and Schwartz, “Archives, records, and power,” 181.
  7. Duff and Harris, “Stories and Names,” 275.
  8. P. Bell, “Content analysis of visual images.” In C. Jewitt & T. van Leeuwen, eds., Handbook of Visual Analysis, 24,
  9. Cook and Schwartz, “Archives, records, and power,” 176-77.
  10. Cook and Schwartz, “Archives, records, and power,” 175.
  11. Duff and Harris, “Stories and names,” 264.
  12. Duff and Harris, “Stories and names,” 271-72.
  13. Cook and Schwartz, “Archives, records, and power,” 182.
  14. Cook and Schwartz, “Archives, records, and power,” 182.
  15. Cook and Schwartz, “Archives, records, and power,” 185.
  16. J. Berger, “Understanding a Photograph,” Selected essays and articles: The look of things (Penguin Books, 1972), 2.
  17. Bell, “Content Analysis,” 27.
  18. C. Jewitt & R. Oyama, “Visual meaning: a social semiotic approach,” Handbook of Visual Analysis, eds. C. Jewitt & T. van Leeuwen (2013), 151, 146,
  19. Jewitt and Oyama, “Visual meaning,” 140.
  20. Berger, “Understanding a Photograph,” 3.
  21. Berger, “Understanding a Photograph,” 3.
  22. Jewitt and Oyama, “Visual meaning,” 135, 141.
  23. Jewitt and Oyama, “Visual meaning,” 141.
  24. Jewitt and Oyama, “Visual meaning,” 146.
  25. Jewitt and Oyama, “Visual meaning,” 145.
  26. Jewitt and Oyama, “Visual meaning,” 144.
  27. Jewitt and Oyama, “Visual meaning,” 149.
  28. Berger, “Understanding a Photograph,” 3.
  29. Berger, “Understanding a Photograph,” 1-2.
  30. Berger, “Understanding a Photograph,” 1.
  31. C. S. Su, & R.H. Liang, “Designing for Resonance by Evocative Objects: An Experiential Interaction Design Method,” A. Marcus, ed., Design, User Experience, and Usability: Design Philosophy, Methods, and Tools, Springer, Second International Conference, DUXU 2013, held as part of HCI International 2013, Las Vegas, NV, USA, July 21-26, 2013, Proceedings, part 1,; Berger, “Understanding a Photograph,” 2.
  32. Su and Liang, “Designing,” 616.
  33. Su and Liang, “Designing,” 618.
  34. Bergen, “Understanding a Photograph,” 1-2.
  35. Cook and Schwartz, “Archives, records, and power,” 172; Su and Liang, “Designing,” 615.
Back to Top