The website Faces of the Riot went online within weeks after the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. It gathers the faces of around six thousand people presumed to have participated in the assault on democracy. What makes this material particularly unsettling is that the images were self-generated. Of their own volition, individuals uploaded their images to “alt-tech” social networking sites such as Parler to brag about their exploits to fellow conservatives and right-wing extremists. However, far from serving as a gallery of profiles in courage, Faces of the Riot is reminiscent of medieval pillory or “Wanted” posters. In actuality, the hunters were themselves hounded by a wider public audience as well as investigated by the FBI, which has since relied on the site as a source of criminal evidence. Yet the practice of publishing photographs that are revealing of personal data also raises concerns over the legal overreach of surveillance through algorithmic processes.
Not long after these images were published, the artist Volker Renner browsed Faces of the Riot and selected approximately four hundred for potential sightings, a series that was published in book form earlier this year. With an emphasis on their features, Renner compresses these profiles to produce a panorama of alarm and horror, the inhuman and alien. The phrase “potential sighting” is typically associated with extraterrestrial life, animals, or people who are presumed dead. But here, the failure of facial recognition suffuses the images with a painterly abstraction that recalls depictions of agony in the work of Edvard Munch or Francis Bacon. The shift in context transmutes not only the faces, but the meaning of the original images taken on personal devices as well. These are simultaneously trophies of victory and police sketches, pieces of evidence and works of art, conferring photography as a cultural currency of mutable force.
© 2021 8th Triennial of Photography Hamburg 2022 and the author