“Images I can’t show” is a photobook without photographs. All images in it can be described, but not shown publicly for various reasons — ethical dilemmas, political danger, concerns about representation. Using those photographs from her own archive, photographer Jana Romanova discusses issues that contemporary photography faces in a rapidly evolving conversation about ethics. 

These are problems related to the vertical market system existing around the product — a photograph — that doesn’t have defined quality standards, but at the same time the expectations for beautiful images; ethics of producing Western beauty stereotypes in images of social problems, and a forced choice between documentary and fiction, although the borderline between the definitions of the two is blurred; a necessity of creating good relationships with subjects, but taking all the decisions yourself for the faster production process; and ethical problems arising from photographing groups or situations where a photographer doesn’t belong, but the existence of multiple projects by Western photographers about Eastern Europe or the Global South; a demand to make work about what is important to society, but talk about what is important to you. 

By using a method of performative writing — thinking while typing — she talks through all these tangled knots of confusion layered on top of her own practice, and offers a possibly productive way of dealing with them in studying the relationships between language and photography: how we describe images that we see, what language do we use to talk about photography and photographers, how we speak to those we photograph. The writing is supported by several experiments: although discussed images can’t be shown publicly, the author demonstrated them to a group of friends in a private conversation and asked to describe them. Each chapter opens with a visual investigation into the difference between those descriptions and ways of seeing.

My warmest thank you to people who helped and supported me during the process of writing and designing this book and working on a project “Chin Up Chin Down” that grew up from it:

Gerlov van Engelenhoven, Shailoh Phillips, Walter Costa, Teun van der Heijden, Will Boase, Donald Weber, Ari Versluis, Sanne Beeren, Anastasija Kiake, Asya Zhetvina, Victoria Chuashyan, Marica Kolcheva, Marina Orlova, Dmitry Kostyukov, Anna Danilova, Batuhan Keskiner, Kata Geibl, Chris Becher, Anders Birger, Karin Kyto

Text by Jana Romanova 

Design by Jana Romanova with the advice of Walter Costa and Teun van der Heijden

This project is created as a thesis at MA “Photography and Society” at The Royal Academy of Art, The Hague, The Netherlands, 2021