“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 created over the course of 20 years as case studies, photographer Jana Romanova discusses dilemmas 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 publication is written as a thesis at MA “Photography and Society” at The Royal Academy of Art, The Hague, The Netherlands, 2021