Exhibition: “Don’t we touch each other just to prove we are still here?”: Photography and Touch

A woman holding a little boy who is holding a black and white cat.A line from the poem “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” (2016) by the Vietnamese American poet and novelist Ocean Vuong inspired the title of an exhibition on view at Art on Hulfish this summer. Threaded throughout Vuong’s poem are feelings of longing, rapture, and pain, the knowledge that it is through touch that we find ourselves—not just our physical selves but who we are, our humanity as well as our vulnerability. We take up the question “Don’t we touch each other just to prove we are still here?” for this exhibition, exploring aliveness and complexity through the conceptual framing of materiality, affect, embodiment, and collaboration in relation to touch and photography.

To touch is always to be touched; our bodies are always responding to our environment in some way. Touch is a mutual tool for social connection and a way to communicate; it is also our means of feeling embodied and the vehicle for intimacy. The haptic is not, however, immediately associated with photography. We propose that it has a significant relationship with the medium, one that can be inclusive and diverse, spanning all kinds of relationships as well as different photographic processes and approaches. As the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty observed, “Since the same body sees and touches, visible and tangible belong to the same world.”

The exhibition can be roughly divided into four themes: familial touch, the body, conceptual investigations, and performance. The works chime with the move toward considering photography alongside other media, such as video and text, and with a revived interest in analogue technologies, allowing the medium to be considered in a broader sensory and material experience.

Familial Touch

Lisa Sorgini’s evocative photographs of mothers and children express the power of touch to forge deep emotional bonds. Her images, which range from tender to playful, are unified in their depiction of physical closeness. Sorgini creates an intimate, timeless mood in which touch speaks of devotion, nurturance, and protection.

black and white photograph of a tree with images of stitching printed over it, then crisscrossing red stitching is over the whole print.The relationship between mother and daughter is also central to the work of Odette England. The photographic elements of the works In the Black, In the Red (2021) illustrate the boundaries of the England family’s farm in Australia, which was lost to bankruptcy. England bent the negatives to match the property’s boundary lines and then mailed these “damaged” negatives to her mother to “repair our past,” as England states. The work is shared between them, each sewing along the suggested boundary lines, which evoke elusive memories as well as familial connections.

Patrick Pounds’s collection of found snapshots of people touching animals highlights the unique kinship between humans and animals and the many ways in which they connect with each other. Pound playfully explores the relationship between people and their pets, inviting us to see past categorical boundaries and to consider existential commonalities with creatures that often mean more to us than our family members or friends.

The Body

Three light skinned men one reading, one braiding the reader's hair, and the third laying holding a cigarette for the one braiding hair.Clifford Prince King’s photographs focus on touch and intimacy within queer communities of color. In the quiet, intimate moments he captures, King reclaims agency and humanity for his subjects in a world where Black queer bodies are heavily politicized and policed. His rich, textured photographs provide a platform for empowerment and visibility, challenging stereotypes with nuance and depth.

In her photobook Absentee (2021), Sayuri Ichida is also concerned with the intimacy of touch—in this case, its absence, which articulates longing and loss. The pictures include urban structures, sculptural objects, and self-portraits, their juxtaposition at times tense and then fragile. Fragility is also key to the work of Phoebe Cummings. In her experimental short films Towards a Flower (2023), Cummings explores the interaction of her own body with materiality. Her fingers tenderly caress and shape clay, the repetitive gestures taking on a meditative, ritualistic quality that emphasizes the sensuality and rhythms of process.

Conceptual Approaches

black and white image with one hand touching another hand with two fingers.What we can and can’t touch, issues of barriers and distance, permeate Tabitha Soren’s series Surface Tension. Her photographic prints bear the faded imprints of anonymous hands, screen swipes that serve as ephemeral traces of human connection. Soren aptly describes her works as exuding “a sense of touch across time.”

This sense of distance can also be seen in the collages of Katrien de Blauwer. There is tension and discomfort within the montaged scenes. Intimacy is perceptible, but the nature of it is left open to interpretation, and her subjects are often depicted alone or fragmented. Joanna Piotrowska also examines the complexities of interpersonal touch and connection. Through her tableaux, she invites us to consider the extent to which human touch may involve an exchange of power, how the crossing of boundaries might both soothe and disrupt.

Boundaries are the key conceptual theme in Richard Renaldi’s Touching Strangers (2013), in which he provokes nuanced debates around consent, exploitation, and reality in photography. Nonetheless, his images evoke a desire for contact and understanding, as well as openness and honesty in overcoming otherness.


A man in a red baseball cap is holding a young girl with blond hair in front of a fountain.Strangers are also the topic of Jeff Mermelstein’s short films, which offer fleeting glimpses into the kinetic energy of New York City streets. Shot on his iPhone and shared via Instagram, his films explore the quieter connections he observes—the caress of a glass in a café, a woman absent-mindedly playing with her hair. These small instances of human interaction with the material world are at once voyeuristic and empathetic, impressions of our desire to connect with something.

This desire to connect is seen in Melissa Schriek’s series Ode (2022). The short films show female friends holding hands or gently resting their heads on each other’s shoulders, each fully engrossed in the other. The ineffable essence of their friendships emerges through quiet moments of contact. In contrast, and here as a historical anchor to the contemporary works, Carolee Schneemann’s influential performance Meat Joy (1969) enacts themes of intimacy, touch, and the liberating possibilities of the body. First staged in 1964, the work features men and women moving sensually together, interacting with various materials including raw fish, chickens, sausages, wet paint, and plastic. Meat Joy enacts communal ecstasy through shared touching, embracing pleasure as an antidote to shame and inhibition, using touch to activate all the senses.

The fact that more than one trillion photographs are taken every day might suggest that our tactile relationship with the environment is diminishing in favor of the visual. But emerging from a global pandemic caused many to reconsider just how vital touch is to our emotional and physical well-being. “Don’t we touch each other just to prove we are still here?” invites the viewer to ponder, to slow down, to consider how their experience in the world is defined by touch.

Susannah Baker-Smith and Susan Bright
Guest Curators

Art on Hulfish is made possible by the leadership support of Annette Merle-Smith and Princeton University. Generous support is also provided by William S. Fisher, Class of 1979, and Sakurako Fisher; J. Bryan King, Class of 1993; the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, a partner agency of the National Endowment for the Arts; John Diekman, Class of 1965, and Susan Diekman; Julie and Kevin Callaghan, Class of 1983; Annie Robinson Woods, Class of 1988; Barbara and Gerald Essig; Rachelle Belfer Malkin, Class of 1986, and Anthony E. Malkin; the Curtis W. McGraw Foundation; Tom Tuttle, Class of 1988, and Mila Tuttle; Nancy A. Nasher, Class of 1976, and David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976; the Len & Laura Berlik Foundation; Gene Locks, Class of 1959, and Sueyun Locks; Palmer Square Management, and Dean and Jill Mitchell.