Phantoms of Latin American conflicts loom in Spectres, an exhibition by Fredi Casco, Teresa Margolles, and Rosângela Rennó at Mor Charpentier gallery in Paris. Inspired by Roland Barthes’ seminal text Camera Lucida, the exhibition organizes itself around the concept of the spectrum, as understood by Barthes—who wrote the book while trying to symbolically conjure the presence of his recently deceased mother—as the object pictured in a photograph and a word that brings to mind one of photography’s strongest effects on a viewer: “the return(ing) of the dead.”
In Body of Soul (the state of the world) (2003-2016), Rosângela Rennó amplifies and digitally modifies newspaper pictures that document a diverse range of public demonstrations. From a distance, Rennó’s three large-format photographs show crowds, but are zoomed in to focus on one person who stands holding a small portrait of, presumably, a lost loved one. From afar, the images are crisply legible, but sharpness dissolves as viewers approach the images and the halftone dots that were hard to distinguish from a distance appear outsized when up close. It becomes evident that the dots are not uniformly distributed; there are different densities deliberately arranged throughout the image, with tighter and smaller dots composing the image of the loved one, thus rendering it visible from all distances.
Although in her artist statement, Rennó aims to create a link between the spectator’s reflection in the frame’s glass and the daguerreotype technique of mirror imaging, what is most striking in the context of this show are the work’s titles. Each is named for the image’s original photographer, or the operator for Barthes: Ruben Alfonso from Reuters, Lori Shepler from the Los Angeles Times, and Wania Corredo from O Globo. It is the photographers who are identified—a surprising contrast to their amplified yet anonymous subjects. However, it is not these photographer’s original works we are seeing, but an image cropped and modified by Rennó to highlight a certain feeling; thus the work shifts not only each image’s authorship, but also its original punctum. By focusing on the image within the image, Rennó is altering the photograph’s effect from one that emphasizes the force of collective mobilization to the power of an individualized story, while granting the right of those who have already physically disappeared to not be swallowed in a sea of mechanically flattened visual narratives.
In El Exhumado (The Exhumed, 2016), Teresa Margolles disrupts the safe distance between viewer and image by bringing a piece of evidence—a specter itself—out of the photograph that hangs in the gallery’s wall and placing it in the exhibition space. Concerned by structural violence in northern Mexico, Margolles photographed a dilapidated home in Juárez, a city infamous for its permanently high rate of femicides and drug-related crimes. In the photograph we see a sofa—framed by wooden ornaments and once flamboyant red upholstery highly significant of a middle class status—trapped beneath the rubble of the collapsed ceiling. Exhumed as if it was a wounded body, the sofa now stands stoically in the gallery, its colors and features barely visible under protective plastic that wraps it and keeps it together. By saving this object from its otherwise inevitable demise, the artist refuses to accept what appears to be an unchangeable, doomed fate of Juárez, while also invoking a powerful embodiment of human struggle into the otherwise immaculate exhibition space.
In the gallery’s lower floor, Fredi Casco’s The Return of The Sorcerers (2005, 2011, 2012) is presented in its three volumes, each a separate episode in which the artist uses a different set of photography-based strategies to confront the toxic legacy of Alfredo Stroessner, Paraguay’s dictator from 1954 until 1989. The eponymous horror story by Clark Ashton Smith, written in 1931, seems to have influenced the artist whose dark humor is unmistakable even when dealing with his own country’s most harrowing episodes. While in Smith’s story the unarticulated limbs of a corpse come back from the grave to haunt its killer, in Casco’s work, it is the lost or amputated images—collected by the artist in Asunción’s flea markets—of military men and their enabling cronies that come back to our present day to be identified, if only metaphorically, as culprits in the many crimes of Stroessner’s regime.
Twenty-four black-and-white pictures belonging to Volume 1 of the series line three walls of the gallery. At first sight the photographs appear to document diverse state dinners with middle-aged men and women, older military and clergymen, and what looks like leaders from different countries talking, signing papers, and drinking in official monotony. Upon closer inspection, we see that these characters not only appear homogenous in attire and attitude, but they’ve actually been digitally cloned; some have had their faces interchanged, while the heads of others have been covered with gas masks. The effect is both comical and disturbing, as the artist’s manipulations highlight the fact that in order to succeed in its genocidal enterprise, the Paraguayan dictatorship required—as all repressive regimes do—the compliance of an interchangeable set of minions coming from civil, religious, and political circles, both national and internationally.
From Strossner’s years of cold-blooded rule in Paraguay to present day Juárez, Spectres presents a distressing picture of a continent in which institutions seem to suffer systemic amnesia. The artists in this exhibition prevent their respective specters from vanishing by zooming into appropriated images to get to their symbolic cores, unearthing the symbols of a domesticity interrupted by crime and corruption, and by creating archives and imagining their corresponding stories out of what the system conveniently deems trash.
Written in the first person, Camera Lucida was Barthes’ attempt at grasping the power of photography to invoke the dead in the eyes of the living. For as important as the spectrum was for him, it was the spectator—himself in grieving—who was at the center of his argument. In these images it is again the spectator who is pressed to recognize the power of photography to have effects on things far larger than sentiment, indeed making us see and feel, but also forcing us to remember, think, and even act.
Spectres is on view at Mor Charpentier through December 22, 2016.
 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981).