“Disraeli Revisited: Chronicle of an Event in Québec Photography”

In the summer of 1972, four photographers and two researchers received a grant from the Opportunities for Youth federal aid program to spend three months in Disraeli, a small town in the Chaudière-Appalaches region in eastern Quebec. The collective included photographers Claire Beaugrand-Champagne, Michel Campeau, Roger Charbonneau and Cedric Pearson with researchers Maryse Pellerin and Ginette Laurin. The group spent the summer living in a farmhouse just outside of town, getting to know the local population, recording audio conversations with their new neighbours and taking photographs. Over the course of that summer, photographs were taken, printed, gifted to their subjects and, at the end of the summer, compiled in an outdoor exhibition installed on the side of a wooden barn. The collective returned to Montreal after the summer with around 8,000 negatives and 15 hours of audio recordings.

Roger Charbonneau, Matteau Children, Disraeli, 1972. © Roger Charbonneau.

Over the months and years that followed, the photographs circulated in publications and exhibitions. In 1974, a portfolio of photographs from the project was printed in the French-language magazine Perspectives. The publication provoked a spirited response from several prominent individuals from Disraeli who felt that the town had been misrepresented. This reaction in turn elicited counter-arguments from writers and journalists who spoke out in support of the photographers, including several columns penned by writer and journalist Pierre Vallières. Taking this public controversy as a curatorial hook, the exhibition “Disraeli Revisited: Chronicle of an Event in Québec Photography” at the McCord Stewart Museum traced how the project instigated a public conversation about documentary ethics.

Curated by Zoë Tousignant, the exhibition offered a meticulously researched timeline of the “event,” bringing together a wide-ranging selection of the photographs taken during the course of that summer (including many that have not previously been exhibited) alongside archival and printed matter pertaining to the project and its attendant controversy. The exhibition narrated the debate surrounding the work, laying out the relevant texts, authors and stakeholders by means of a series of carefully arranged display cases and a timeline of pointed statements printed in vinyl and installed on the exhibition walls. The exhibition also included a new video project, which brought together the audio tapes compiled in 1972 (which were rediscovered in the course of research for the exhibition) with reproductions of contact sheets and photographs from the project.

The exhibition programming followed the project into the present by inviting the four photographers to reflect on the project in the form of a panel at the museum in February 2023. To varying degrees, all four photographers seemed relatively nonplussed by the criticism they had received about the project in the 1970s, often countering with all the ways their interactions with the community in Disraeli had been reciprocal—from the exchange of photographic prints to the community exhibition at the end of the summer. They also seemed resistant to making easy connections with contemporary conversations about representation and identity. What came across most clearly was that the group didn’t see their work in Disraeli as being different from the work that several of them had already been doing in Montreal, much of which was devoted to portraying working-class urban life.

The collective also reiterated who it was who’d had a problem with their work. In the case of the Disraeli project, the municipal elite lamented that some of the more conventionally beautiful areas of the region had not been photographed, circumventing the touristic and economic engine that a different kind of photography might have supported. But the photographs included in the exhibition show children and families, people at work and at play; in other words, the scenes of everyday life. Looking at these images in 2023, it felt to me like a failure of the imagination to see only poverty in these photographs, to imagine that these figures were somehow exploited or misrepresented by the very act of being photographed.

Claire Beaugrand- Champagne, Henri Gosselin With His Cows, Disraeli, 1972, “Disraeli Revisited.” © Claire Beaugrand- Champagne.

It would appear that many Disraeli residents agreed, as multiple audience members at the panel were eager to affirm, raising their hands to share that they were one of the children pictured; that they’d loved having their picture taken and that seeing themselves in the exhibition was a joyful experience. The photographers all seemed clear on this point, too: that the great merit of the exhibition was to offer an opportunity for a certain rapprochement between the photographers and Disraeli’s residents, if only 50 years later. One of the strengths of the exhibition was that it created an opportunity for intergenerational conversations, between curator and photographers, between children photographed in the 1970s (now adults) and photographers, and between audience and this historical example of the discourse surrounding the droit à l’image.

This historical reflection is encouraged by the structure of the exhibition. Tousignant offered the audience a timeline of photographs, publications, exhibitions and responses, focusing on the unfurling conversation prompted by the circulation of a set of images, rather than the images themselves. By explicitly chronicling the manner in which this “event” unfurled, Tousignant created a compellingly open-ended exhibition, showing how, and why, conversations about representation can emerge, and, crucially, the material conditions from which these debates spring—including government funding programs, municipal economic agendas and publishing platforms, to name but a few structural conditions. The prevailing question left on my mind was not simply who can represent whom but, rather, how these questions are preconditioned by a representational politics that characterizes certain images only in terms of a material lack, despite the human presence, joy and social life pictured. ❚

“Disraeli Revisited: Chronicle of an Event in Québec Photography” was exhibited at McCord Stewart Museum, Montreal, from October 28, 2022, to February 19, 2023.

Emily Doucet is a writer and historian of photography, based in Tiohtiá:ke/ Montréal.