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Tanja Verlak

PhD Work

Culturally Determined Shock in Contemporary Photography

The project seeks to unpack photographs of culturally determined phenomenon of shock via applied modes of re-presentation and perception of indexical images. Throughout the project I am considering the media’s formal aesthetic parameters and am touching upon its conceptual notions, such as interpretation, non-narrative and creative process. 

Central to the work lies looking at photographs with no presuppositions, which includes looking at photographs as singular entities of chance and magic. As a practitioner I combine theory and practice and am engaged with theory as a form of my own photographic works, just as my visual research directs my theoretical concerns. 

'Conversely to the prevailing opinion that the (photographic) image is the end stage, the final phase in translating a factual object into its simulacrum, into its reduced model, we are now dealing with a mental process that is running contrariwise: it is only consecutively that what is put on view in all of its empirical aspects as the actual photograph prompts identification of the physical objects and phenomena that served as the source of (chemical or numerical) transformations, on account of which they are perceived as such in concrete instances.' 
– Brane Kovič, for the exhibition Be Thoughtful of Others

A photograph may be experienced more or less shocking even later that when it was first produced and its interpretation is often a result of a socio–political environment in which such photograph has been produced and shown. There are, however no shocking photographs if there are no shocking situations. Besides the questions of what shock means in terms of representation and whether shock stimulates or rejects the viewer’s engagement, I wish to address the assumption that the phenomenon of shock is culturally determined and time-bound. If so, how is the phenomenology of shock to be encountered today and can we retrieve a positive meaning of shock in an ethically informed way? 

My particular research question is, what kind of experience is the experience gained through the visual image, removed from the time and place of the occurrence? In trying to answer the question I am proceeding from the premise that the shocking is manifested and interpreted as a reaction to previous information, knowledge, education and experience. In order to narrow it down to the discursive and the debates concerning visual representations of cultural specificities and symbols, I am focusing on the domain of documentary and art photography only. 

The methodology used includes theoretical research, empirical research, intersubjectivity (as a tool to apply critical analysing), assessing the contemporary art production, interviews and implementing my own photographic practice. 


  • Tanja Verlak
  • PhD


    School of Arts & Humanities


    Photography, 2011–2018

  • Tanja Verlak is currently completing a PhD by practice at the Royal College of Art. Her research focus is the representation of culturally determined shock and the phenomenon of magical in photography. She holds a BA and an MA in documentary photography from FAMU, the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague and an M.Phil., from the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. 

    During her MPhil studies she was a visiting lecturer at the Jamia Millia Islamia University, Mass Communication Research Centre and a speaker at the Devi Art Foundation. She has recently obtained an assistant professorship and lectures on MA Photography Courses.

    Verlak exhibits and publishes widely; most recently her work has appeared in, amongst others, Camera Austria International, Paris Photo, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Siegen, Revolver Revue and at the National Museum of Photography / CZ.

    She has been the recipient of scholarships including the Zois Scholarship and a Tata Grant.