“Middle Passage”, chapter 3, from Fish Story, 1994

Installation view: Allan Sekula – OKEANOS, Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, Vienna, 2017
Photo: Jens Ziehe | TBA21

22 cibachrome prints, four text panels
Overall dimensions variable

Middle Passage is the third of nine chapters in Allan Sekula’s seminal photo series Fish Story. It comprises twenty-two Cibachrome prints and four text panels; the work follows a formal logic between “discourse and document,” present in many of the chapters. Sekula’s choice to present photographs alongside the text panels reiterates his multidimensional commitment to the documentary as well as to storytelling. In some cases the text accompaniments highlight parts of the photographs that might otherwise remain unnoticed, providing the viewer with the tools to read the photographs through a certain critical sociopolitical lens.
The historical term Middle Passage relates to the triangular trade route in which millions of people from Africa were shipped to the New World as part of the Atlantic slave trade. It is considered a time of in-betweenness, a precarious state of transition from the traditional tribal kinships to the new existences forged under duress for an itinerant oceanic slave nation. 
Sekula’s Middle Passage begins with a panoramic view of the horizon, seen from the deck of a cargo ship, which slowly groans toward a wall of ominous clouds. The photographer stands, firmly planted, on one of the world’s largest cargo ships at the time, simultaneously contemplating the aggressive ocean ahead and surveying the vast collection of cargo containers, which he calls “the very coffins of remote labor power.” With this first photo, Sekula clearly and unequivocally ties the artistic symbolism of the sea to globalization, deregulated markets, and neoliberalism.
While this series does contain photographs that attest to the precariousness and grandeur of working ocean life—the vast, windswept open seas photographed from atop masts of dizzying heights, the cargo ship brimming with seemingly overstocked modular containers, or the rugged and colossal machinery used to load and unload at various ports—the series also contains photographs that expose the delicate minutiae of the everyday and document the unmistakable humanity of the people aboard, as is evident in the photograph of toy figurines of hypermasculine men set atop the engine room control console. Another image shows text produced by an embossing label maker that reads “I CAN NOT BE FIRED . . . SLAVES ARE SOLD.” This photograph references the title of the series and the history of the slave trade but simultaneously identifies the seafarer who made the label as a distinct subject, revealing the brutality of this cruel history but also the sarcastic humor and rebellious boldness of the crew member who printed this label and put it on display. By grounding the work in the individual, he created a stark contrast with the boundless issues of contemporary globalization and international commerce that constituted his larger subject. The act of photographing became an homage to the everyday.
Allan Sekula (January 15, 1951 – August 10, 2013) was an American photographer, writer, filmmaker, theorist and critic. From 1985 until his death in 2013, he taught at California Institute of the Arts.[1] His work frequently focused on large economic systems, or "the imaginary and material geographies of the advanced capitalist world."[2]
He received fellowships and grants from the Guggenheim FoundationNational Endowment for the ArtsGetty Research InstituteDeutsche Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD), Atelier Calder[3] and was named a 2007 USA Broad Fellow.

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