Walter Benjamin goes to Karbala: the proliferation of religious art and the degradation of the image’s power

Walter Benjamin goes to Karbala: the proliferation of religious art and the degradation of the image’s power
Image: Tom Toby

Walter Benjamin argued that in an age of mass technology the increased reproducibility of art objects would degrade their ‘authenticity’ and ‘aura’.  Photographic and video technologies would democratise and open up access to the production of images. This would weaken the ‘cultic’ monopoly of professional artists, so lessening the sublime ‘distance’ between the viewer and the art object so central to the ‘aura’ of art. In the Shia community of Sydney, photographs and moving images proliferate alongside the popularity of pilgrimage or ziarat to the holy sites of Karbala and Najaf in Iraq. Pilgrims from Australia return to share selfies and group shots on Facebook. Huge reproductions of the shrines adorn the walls of Sydney’s Islamic Centres. But does increased access to the production, distribution, and consumption of photography decrease the aura of these images?

I examine this question through the work of Tom Toby, a Sydney artist whose photography has traced the ziarat for a number of years, and whose work has been widely distributed in the Shia community. In this presentation I show how practices of ziarat involve liturgical and ethical practices that break the rules of Copernican space, enabling complex modes of interaction with the sublime across ‘distance’. Paralleling and augmenting these practices, Tom’s photography inhabits a similarly complex approach to space. I show how modes of photographic production and distribution used by Tom, as well as the form and technique of his work, offer an additional long-distance means for the Shia of Sydney to aesthetically and ethically participate in the sublime.

Samuel Blanch is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, ANU. Based on ethnographic fieldwork in Sydney and Iran, his research explores the metaphysics of Shia Muslim communities’ interaction with things in the world; textbooks, school curricula, home budgets, photographs, and more. Samuel has a BA and a JD from the ANU, and an MA in the sociology and anthropology of religion from King’s College, London.

Date & time

Fri 25 Sep 2020, 11am–12.30pm


Samuel Blanch, CAIS Research Scholar

Event series


612 54928


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