Power, Consent, and Obligations in Photography

Article main image

One of photography’s most important problems is the power imbalance between someone operating a camera and someone finding her or himself in front of it. Unless there is an actual collaboration going on, it is the photographer whose decisions result in what the subject looks like in the picture(s). I used “actual” in front of “collaboration” on purpose: unlike many other people, I do not think that having some chit chat with a subject makes for a collaboration. A collaboration would be a joint making of the picture, in which photographer and subject talk about how the subject wants to be portrayed, what the photographer sees in her or him, etc.

Obviously, you can take amazing photographs of someone without collaborating with your subject. But you will have to realize and fully own your own role in shaping such photographs. We often do not talk about this aspect of photography, instead focusing only on the (aesthetic) quality of the work in question. And why would we? Especially when we’re dealing with photography that aspires to be art, its maker and her or his vision is what we need to focus on.

And yet…

I often wish that we didn’t conflate someone’s depiction of another person with that other person. In particular, I often wish we would pause for a moment and imagine if we were content with being portrayed this way, were we to find ourselves in front of the camera in question.

In many cases, such discussions fall by the wayside because the photographer obtained consent to do her or his job: can I take a picture of you? Asking this question presents the intended subject with the option to agree or to say no.

Of late, self-awareness appears to have increased, and for sure there also are cultural/societal aspects that play into people’s willingness or unwillingness to be photographed. We are not only surrounded by a lot of photographs, which I can’t help but feel must increase our awareness of their power, we can also take the photographs of ourselves with our smartphones (let’s ignore the debate whether selfies and self portraits are the same thing or not — for me, they are).

In other words, we have a choice: we can have all the power over how we are portrayed, or we can give someone else that power if we are being asked.

Beyond the selfie, this choice sits at the center of many debates around photography, diversity, and representation today. Historically speaking, the white middle and upper classes in the West have always enjoyed the privilege of being able to mostly determine how they were portrayed, with straight white men getting granted most of the privileges. In contrast, poor or working-class white people haven’t been so lucky, and everybody else — people of colour — have mostly been at the receiving end of what a camera can do.

If everybody is given the same rights, this does not only entail erasing political and economical differences. It also means giving everybody the same power concerning the question how they are being portrayed and by whom. Representation matters.

The question of consent has become one of the aspects of photography that I feel we should be discussing: is it a photographer’s duty to obtain consent from their intended subject(s)? In light of what I wrote about street photography years ago, it might not surprise anyone to read that I think it is a photographer’s duty to obtain consent even if the law will provide cover when there’s a lack of consent. For me, an unwillingness to obtain consent is an abuse of the power dynamic that’s inherent in photography.

But it doesn’t necessarily end with consent.  That’s only part of the problem at hand. There’s a different way to approach the topic that is a bit less photography centric. Instead of focusing only on consent, we could ask the following two questions. Who is allowed to or should tell whose stories? What obligations come with telling someone else’s story?

I believe that anyone can tell any other person’s story. But I also believe that they can only do so if they are not only fully aware of their obligations but also take good care to avoid any of the many, many problems we know from the history of photography. This approach leaves a lot of leeway for the making of pictures. But those groups that traditionally enjoyed the most rights (straight white men) are now faced with the largest set of obligations.

As it turns out, this topic cuts across many areas of seemingly unrelated photography. In itself, photoland is highly fragmented, with many of the separate parts hardly speaking with each other (or even using the same language). The “fine art” area usually is the one where previously unrelated material might be discussed anew, as, for example, fashion photographers or photojournalists show their work not in print publications (online or off) that often reach very large numbers of people but on the walls of commercial galleries or museums.

This disconnect between different sections of photoland is unfortunate, since often, the same debates are being held in parallel (possibly using different terms), or the same problems, challenges, or crises arise.

Thinking about consent, there isn’t such a huge difference between, let’s say, the world of street photography and the world of news photography. Ethical and legal issues apply equally; the only difference are the possible consequences someone might be facing if a photograph was taken without their permission (check this out: “Five news outlets, including The Seattle Times, will have to comply with a subpoena and give the Seattle Police Department unpublished video and photos from a May 30 racial justice protest that turned violent, a judge ruled Thursday.”).

I’d even argue that the overall attitude of the photographers is very similar. Street photographers justify their not obtaining consent with the idea that they’re producing art, and news photographers very similarly argue that they’re providing the news which does not allow for any modification. Whatever the details of these two examples actually are, the overarching idea is the same: it is the photographer (and the organizations behind her or him) that decide over the taking and use of other people’s pictures.

It seems obvious that photography professionals do have a deeper understanding of how photographs operate and what they might mean. However, as far as I’m concerned this fact should not be used as a cover to dismiss the concerns by those who are being photographed.

One of the reasons why I re-focused things away from consent to explicitly asking about obligations is rooted in photography’s past. For example, Dorothea Lange got permission from Florence Owens Thompson to photograph her and her children. But Thompson, who was turned into the iconic “migrant mother” ended up being deeply resentful over how things unfolded: “I’m tired of symbolizing human poverty when my living conditions have improved.” You can find all the details in this article (from which the quote is taken).

In much the same fashion, the subjects of Walker Evans’ famed work in Alabama were not happy with how they had been treated photographically. Here’s Phil Burroughs, grandson of Floyd, describing how his father felt about things: Angry, “to be honest with you, I think he had a right to be. I honestly do. You were looking at people that were struggling to put food on the table, you know? It was a simple life. They didn’t have anything. Everybody wants something. That’s probably the American dream. Everybody wants something. So it kind of left a bad taste in everybody’s mouth. Maybe that’s hard for a lot of people to understand, but it absolutely did. It made him upset, it really did. They were cast in a light that they couldn’t do any better, that they were doomed, ignorant. How would you feel if somebody cast your folks, your parents, or your grandparents in that light? Even though I know they were real poor, no doubt about that, but they weren’t ignorant, and they definitely weren’t lazy.” (source)

And let’s not even get started with colonial photography or its contemporary equivalent when Western photojournalists are dispatched to photograph “conflict” (or whatever else) in non-Western countries.

There are many more examples of photographers’ subjects becoming deeply resentful over how they were being portrayed. Your mileage might vary, but I firmly believe that it’s photographers’ responsibility to listen to what people have to say.

For example, when there was an outcry over Annie Leibovitz’s pictures of Simone Biles, you have to make an attempt to understand where that’s coming from and what that means (even if you’re not in the business of making such pictures for magazine covers). I immediately thought of Lorna Roth’s article Looking at Shirley, the Ultimate Norm: Colour Balance, Image Technologies, and Cognitive Equity: There is a part of the history of photography that literally encoded non-white skin looking terrible in photographs.

Coming back to the questions I posed — Who is allowed to or should tell whose stories? What obligations come with telling someone else’s story? — I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all solution, in particular concerning the first question. Circumstances will have to be considered carefully.

I actually think that the main focus should be on the second question: what are your obligations if you tell someone else’s story? These obligations include a variety of different aspects — obligations created by the field you operate in, obligations given your audience, but and especially also obligations towards those who are in your pictures. So far, I’m finding that this latter aspect is all-too-often sorely neglected.

As a photographer, you will have to look outside of your own photoland-bubble. It’s so convenient to convince yourself that what you’re doing is the right thing, given you’ve discussed this with all of those peers (who somehow all think alike and none of whom typically have a foot outside of the bubble). That’s the problem: the groupthink. Jay Rosen, journalism professor at NYU, relies on this term a lot when talking about problems in journalism.

Another term used by Rosen frequently is “the view from nowhere” — the idea that journalists somehow occupy a neutral position, and it’s their duty to report faithfully what’s being said, regardless of how insane one side might turn out to be (you can probably guess how that’s a problem in the Age of Trump).

Most photographers aren’t journalists, but I see variations of this idea applied a lot in photoland. There, it mostly comes down to photographers thinking of themselves as elevated, distinct observers who somehow can distill something about the world in ways that nobody else can. In some basic ways, this is true (it’s true for any profession — I couldn’t do what my dentist does). But the conversation can’t stop there.

In fact, that’s where it should begin: OK, given that this photographer has just made this observation about that person — what follows from that? What does that do? What does it lead to? What does it tell us about that person? And could we imagine that that person might agree or disagree with how s/he is being portrayed?

Consent is the necessary starting point. And then, we need to talk about not just the pictures, but all of their consequences — those inside of photoland and those outside.

I’ve set up a tip jar. If you’ve enjoyed this article (or site), feel free to leave a tip to support my work. Thank you!

Also, there is a Mailing List. You can sign up here. If you follow the link, you can also see the growing archive. Emails arrive roughly every two weeks or so.

Patina in Photography

Article main image

Last week, I had this idea that the world’s patina manifests itself differently in photographs, depending on where you go. I wasn’t going to write about it, initially thinking it would be too esoteric a topic. But the idea kept popping up in my head, and it had me wonder whether it was in fact correct, or what exactly this might mean.

I should say that I’m using my own pictures here because I’ve come to realize that my idea of patina and how it enters pictures was too simplistic. When I started looking at all these pictures from different locations, they were already more than one step removed from what I had encountered. What I mean by this will hopefully become clear in the following. When you look at them, look at them with the idea of patina in mind.

In a very general sense, (lens-based) photography captures light that is reflected off surfaces (exceptions being light coming from a source, whether it’s the sun, a lamp, or whatever else), so to talk about patina is to talk about photography. But I don’t mean the term in that general a sense.

Instead, I’m interested in how someone with a camera might decide to render the world’s patina. That person is going to make certain choices. It’s possible, for example, that s/he might focus her or his camera on those places where there’s a lot of patina to be had: think what often and usually with good reason is called ruin porn. It’s difficult to make a bad picture of a ruin, even though it’s infinitely harder to make a good picture of it.

In a sense, one could trace ruin porn all the way back to the likes of Eugène Atget or Walker Evans. It would be a straightforward exercise to draw a pretty straight line from their photographs of dilapidated buildings, often plastered over with posters, newspapers, or whatever else, to today’s ruin porn.

Even before these gentlemen, there were all those (wealthy Western) photographers who took their cameras to Egypt and other locations in the Middle East. In fact, early Western photographers trekked across the globe to photograph and present foreign places to their own home audiences, and they were drawn by both what interested them, based on where they were from, and what looked good in a picture.

Jörg Colberg — Untitled (Berlin, Germany, 2017)

Obviously, it’s incredibly difficult to define what looks good in a picture. So I’m not going to do that. What I will do, is to claim that there are the things that easily look good in a picture, and there are all those other things that don’t, where, in other words, a photographer will have to do some work to make a good picture.

Again, what is a “good picture”? Staying at a purely photographic level, it’s enormously difficult to describe what it is. It’s usually straightforward to see. A good picture often is a picture that’s aesthetically pleasing. The term “aestetically pleasing” is not an objective criterion, though. There might be some objective criteria that can be defined empirically (rules of thirds), but all in all, it’s too loose to be useful (philosophers have written long texts about it…).

But a good picture often succeeds to show us something very forcefully and in a very visceral manner that we maybe would not have preferred to look at, or at the very least that we might not have noticed. That’s a different approach, one not based on the form (or structure) of the picture, but instead on the form and its content and on their subsequent effect on a viewer. I’m liking this route.

If I had to define a good picture, I wouldn’t define it based on what it might look like or how one might get it (that’s why all those manuals attempting to teach “good photography” ultimately are so bad). Instead, I would define a good picture as a picture that makes a viewer look more carefully, that makes a viewer think.

Please note that with this approach, pictures that confirm expectations or that show us the world we want to see it are not good pictures. For me, they’re agitprop. But still, your idea of a good picture could be very different than mine.

Jörg Colberg — Untitled (Orvieto, Italy, 2018)

Over the past decade I was teaching photography, and I noticed something time and again, whether from seeing guest artists react to pictures or students making them: photographers are drawn to certain pictures simply because they’re easy to make (for them) and they are compelling in an obvious sense. In other words, when photographers make pictures, they often are driven by their impulses to create pictures that immediately conform to certain expectations (whether their audiences’ or their own — or both).

So the path from the world to what I defined as good pictures is iffy. In general, photographers do not leapfrog across that area where there are all those compelling pictures, to get to the pictures that challenge either themselves or their viewers (or both). It’s actually very, very difficult to do so. Here you are, having spent years on trying to figure out how to take good pictures, and now you shouldn’t take the ones that come easy?

If I hadn’t taken up photographing again roughly five years ago, I probably wouldn’t approach the topic this way. It’s one thing to see something in others. But it’s quite another to experience the lure of the easy picture oneself.

When I started photographing again, I realized that I couldn’t easily take a picture without thinking about what I were to write about it if it wasn’t my picture, but someone else’s. If that sounds tedious to you, I can tell you that, yes, at least initially it was. But I got over that problem, and now I actually enjoy interrogating myself.

Mostly I now ask myself whether a picture challenges me. Not surprisingly, most pictures don’t. I still take them. But when I do, I know that I’m going for something that (for me) is easy to photograph, something that I have a pretty good idea of what it might look like in a picture.

(By the way, I’ve never believed in that Winogrand phrase about photographing to see what something looks like in a picture. That sounds good, but it’s mostly baloney. Very few photographers I know actually do that. I bet if you pressed any photographer long enough they’d admit eventually that that’s not how it works for them. The one thing you could take away from that quote is the following: if you want to become a famous photographer, develop a spiel that you can put into one sentence. Then you’ve hit your jackpot. The spiel doesn’t have to be true, but as long as people believe it you’re good.)

Jörg Colberg — Untitled (Northampton, USA, 2020)

I’m really not all that interested in photographs that I know how to make. It’s an unrealistic expectation to think that one can only take all the other pictures — it’s really hard. But for me, that’s the one thing that attracts me to photography. It is as if I could teach myself something about the world: I have to force myself to look a lot harder to see a picture that I would have missed otherwise. Most of the time, it never arrives.

It’s probably not a coincidence that I got fired up to photograph again when I visited Warsaw (Poland) for the first time in 2016. I somehow had expected something very different than what I encountered. I don’t remember what I expected to find and see, but the country’s patina wasn’t all that different than Germany’s — despite the fact that historically, there’s such a huge divide between those two countries.

Had I gone to Japan instead, I doubt I would have felt the urge to pick up the camera again. At least during my first trip to Tokyo in 2018, the city confounded me because it mostly refused to present me with the kind of patina that I was familiar with. I remember walking around Tokyo wondering how one could possibly take pictures there: there was nothing to photograph.

But that thinking was entirely on me — and not on the city. I was reacting to Tokyo with my Western eyes and expectations. I had done the same in Warsaw. But there, I mostly felt pangs of recognition. In Tokyo, I was unable to find pictures. There was a different visual sensibility on offer, and that sensibility made it hard for me, as someone from a completely different location, to relate.

So when I left Tokyo after my first visit, I was completely confused, to the point of being shaken up. I had brought my camera, but I had had no idea how to use it. It was only when I went again that things changed for me. By that time, I had spent more time looking into Japanese culture. I don’t want to claim that I had learned to see beneath the surface. However, at the very least I had realized that there were pictures to be made, and they would require a lot more work on my part: I needed to look at the city in a different manner.

Jörg Colberg — Untitled (Tokyo, Japan, 2019)

The whole idea of patina is very different in Japan: what deserves to be preserved or rather: does something need to be preserved? Why would something need to be preserved when it could just be replaced with something newer? And who cares if one’s looking at “the original” (whatever that might actually be) or at a recent reconstruction? “Every 20 years, locals tear down the Ise Jingu grand shrine in Mie Prefecture, Japan, only to rebuild it anew.” (source)

I’ve been thinking about this aspect of photography a lot recently, especially given all the discussions about who should photograph someone or something. Historically, the vast majority of photographs were made by Western-centric male eyes. We have mostly seen the world through those eyes, and this means: we have seen the world not just with Western male eyes, but also with all the expectations, ideas, prejudices, etc. that guided those eyes.

This is not to necessarily say that all of those expectations, ideas, prejudices were bad. Many clearly were, and some were very, very bad. But even in the best cases, it’s a very limited and limiting way to look at the world.

Much like the male gaze has so far been the guiding principle of how we look at men and women (and everything else), the way Westerners look at the world has come to define the world.

As a Westerner, you can’t run away from that. You might have the most sincere intentions and ideas, the utmost integrity, and maybe you’ve donated a lot of money to just the right organizations, but you’re still looking at the world with these Western eyes. So when people point out that we need to see the world with different eyes, that doesn’t necessarily imply an attack on you as a Western photographer. It means that there are other ways to see the world that you simply couldn’t offer.

So to think of the idea of patina as something that is photographic, that exists in the world independently from ourselves — that doesn’t make sense to me any longer. There is a lot of patina in the world, and it can look different from location to location (or maybe two very different locations somehow have the same patina). It’s there because of people’s ideas and actions.

Crucially, a photographer is not some independent automaton who simply picks it up. S/he will pick it up either because it looks good in a picture or because of what s/he learned to see, given her or his background, culture, society…

Jörg Colberg — Untitled (Warsaw, Poland, 2017)

In other words, if I point my camera at something that I feel has a lot of patina, then I’m making a choice that ultimately says more about myself than about the location that I’m photographing.

As viewers, we think we look at pictures as pictures. But more often than not we look at pictures with specific eyes, looking for recognitions: looking at all the things that look cool or exciting or fascinating or that tell us something we knew or believed in all along. So we might think we look at pictures to see the world. But in reality we often look at pictures to see aspects of ourselves in the world.

That approach is not necessarily wrong if — and only if — we manage to transcend just looking at ourselves. Much like a photographer has to force herself or himself to go beyond the easy pictures, as viewers, we have to force ourselves to go beyond the reads that come easy to us.

I’ve set up a tip jar. If you’ve enjoyed this article (or site), feel free to leave a tip to support my work. Thank you!

Also, there is a Mailing List. You can sign up here. If you follow the link, you can also see the growing archive. Emails arrive roughly every two weeks or so.

China Dream

Article main image

Teresa Eng was born in Canada to Southern Chinese parents who fled to Hong Kong as children. Once you know something, it’s impossible to un-know it, especially when engaging with pieces of art. So when I looked at China Dream, I knew that its photographs had been made not by some visitor, but by someone who for a variety of reasons has a complex relationship with the country.

Having heard many stories about the immigrant experience in the US (where I live) but also in Germany, I know that the experience of those who are first generation in a country has changed considerably over the past century. In my in-laws’ family, people couldn’t become American fast enough after their parents had arrived as immigrants in the early 20th Century. Some members of the later generations in the family now regret having lost the connection to the country their grandparents came from.

As far as I can tell, it’s quite common to run into someone in the US who will tell you that they’re, say, “Italian” or “German”. What they mean is that they’re “Italian-American” or “German-American”, which more often than not means that some distant relative came from there, while they don’t actually speak Italian or German, and usually, they’ve never visited, either.

For a while, this really confused me (Germans tend to operate in very literal ways because that’s how their country works). But I’ve come to realize that most people have a genuine interest in where their ancestors are from, even though they might not pursue it all that much (there is a reason why sites like Ancestry.com are so popular). Eng decided to learn more.

My own experience is one of an expatriate, which is an entirely different matter. As far as I can tell, there are two types of expatriates. There are the ones who refuse to even remotely adapt to the place they live in — those will move back eventually. And then there are those who will adapt as best as they can. For them, the new country is one to be explored, and the home country becomes a country that more and more takes on a mystery as well. Eventually, some of these expatriates will lose their sense of home, to float through the world in an untethered fashion, which makes for a very disconcerting experience.

I’ve mostly written the above because I feel a sense of kinship with the artist. It’s obviously not an exact kinship, because our family histories and cultural backgrounds are so different. We clearly have different experiences. But I sense a longing, a searching, an uncertainty in the pictures in China Dream that I’m very familiar with from my own coming to terms with Germany and my being German.

Now, you might argue that these are very different things, and they are. The reality is that most people’s experiences are different. It is that difference, or rather our way of engaging with that difference that is now hotly contested in many parts of the world.

Whatever we might want to make of the differences that separate us, there also are those things that we share. It is those shared things that might enable us to connect with another person’s experiences even though we could never have them ourselves. If the world currently divides into two groups in many places, I’d define them as those who want to share experiences to understand more — and those who don’t want to share, to dogmatically live out their lives in a pretend-to-be-superior position.

It’s easy to forget this, but this very idea sits at the heart of what we think of as art: to connect with a total stranger and have a private shared experience that exists separately from the rest of the world. For me, this is why I love engaging with art, and this is also where I personally separate good art (which allows me to experience a connection) from bad art (which doesn’t).

Good art tells me something about another person and their experience as much as it tells me something about myself. Good art teaches me to see the world anew and to learn or realize something that I hadn’t been aware of. Good art is a challenge, first and foremost on a personal level. But in its cumulative effect it has the chance to bring about larger change.

I’ve been trying to figure out what it actually is in the photographs presented in China Dream that has me think about the photographer’s experiences. I think it’s the push and pull that is going on throughout the pictures. I’m sensing that Eng was very eager to find out more about what was in front of her camera’s lens. On the other hand, I feel that the photographer was afraid what she might find so often she pulled back.

Some of the pictures I’m not very surprised about. There are photographs of megacities, with their overwhelming structures, that I expect to see being made by someone visiting China. This is not to say that they’re bad pictures. Instead, they’re tempting, and they also speak of something we all know. Things get a lot more interesting in all those moments where the photographer started probing the textures of the surfaces of things presented to her.

After I went to Japan for the first time, I started thinking about how different countries have different textures on their surfaces. In many locations (especially ones with a very old culture that allowed for its old buildings to remain), that texture becomes mostly apparent as a form of patina. I could probably write a long essay about the world’s patina and how it manifests differently in photographs (but that might just be too esoteric a topic).

Focusing a camera on a country’s patina allows a photographer to communicate something about what it feels like to be there. And it is that aspect of the work that I’m most attracted to. I’m seeing a place being explored, with Eng getting closer and then pulling away again — the push and pull I spoke about earlier.

Now, if there hadn’t been anything at stake, there would not have been that push and pull. If you’re comfortable as a photographer, you tend not to probe. In that case, you have to force yourself to probe (and push yourself out of your comfort zone). If you’re not comfortable, your desire to find out more will guide your camera.

Some of the post-production is a bit on the heavy-handed side. This is too bad. I wish the artist had realized that such a device is actually not needed here. I also wish I’d have more pictures of people — I like some of the portraits quite a lot (obviously, I’ve said this about a lot of other books as well, so feel free to discount this comment).

Those concerns aside, after I’ve seen so many books about China made by complete strangers, I’m enjoying the presence of this book, an exploration of what it feels like to be in a place that clearly has a loaded meaning for Eng. In a sense, it’s not a book about China — it’s a book about the artist trying to find herself in it.

China Dream, photographs by Teresa Eng; essay by Vanessa Hua; 112 pages (plus 20 page booklet); Skinnerboox; 2019

Rating: Photography 3.5, Book Concept 3.0, Edit 3.0, Production 3.5 – Overall 3.3

Let’s Talk About King Leopold

Article main image

When I grew up, West Germany’s foundational myth was still in place. It roughly went as follows: there had been terrible crimes committed before and during World War 2 by the Nazis. The responsible party for these crimes had been the SS. Nazi Germany’s army, the Wehrmacht, however, had fought honourably, and it had not had a part in any of these crimes. What is more, ordinary Germans simply had not known of the crimes committed in their names.

Even at the time, it was very obvious that this myth could not have been remotely representative of the actual situation in Nazi Germany. There simply was no way that the SS could somehow kill millions of Jewish people in areas occupied by the Wehrmacht, which not only had no part in this but also had no clue. What is more, pretty much every family had a member in the armed forces, and there’s no way families didn’t hear from their brothers, fathers, or son what they had witnessed.

Starting around the time I was a teenager, the foundational myth was firmly shattered by historians who proved that the Wehrmacht itself had not only supported the SS’s murderous quest, it had also actively participated in them, and a large number of Germans had known very well what was happening in concentration and extermination camps.

I see West Germany’s quest to believe in the presumably honourable Wehrmacht reflected in the defense of the many Confederate monuments in the American South. At the occasion of the so-called Wehrmachtsausstellung, a touring exhibition that presented documents and shocking photographs of Wehrmacht atrocities, there were demonstrations by conservatives and neo-Nazis against what they saw a besmirching of an honourable institution.

What’s crazy to me, though, is to see that as far as I can tell there aren’t any secrets any longer about what the Confederacy fought for (slavery). It’s all out in the open. But somehow, tearing down the statues, we are told not just by neo-Nazis but also by what accounts for respectable conservative voices (at least in the US), amounts to an assault on the South’s heritage and an attempt to somehow erase history (the latter bit isn’t clear to me, but I’ll be honest and say that I don’t feel the need to engage with bad-faith arguments). And one of the craziest bits is how many of these monuments exist. It’s not just one here or there.

Part of the reason why this is all so frustrating to observe is because the idea of American exceptionalism is so firmly entrenched in the country, all across its political spectrum. As a consequence, Americans can’t imagine that other people have already dealt with some of the issues they’re facing; and in any case, (for some completely irrational reason) it’s America that ought to be guiding the world — and not the other way around.

This is not to say that Germany has successfully dealt with all of its past — quite on the contrary. Germany’s colonial genocide in Africa has so far been almost completely ignored. Still, if Germany can learn from the US, why could this not happen the other way around? Here’s an interesting interview with Susan Neiman by Isaac Chotiner that deals with exactly how German history might help the US deal with its own racist past.

But the US’ refusal and/or inability to look beyond its own borders is mirrored in a lot of other countries (no exceptionalism there, either). For example, countries such as Britain or Belgium are each attempting to deal with their own racist monuments.

A new and fortuitously timely book by Oliver Leu entitled Leopold’s Legacy shines a light on Belgium’s on-going attempts to deal with its colonial past, in particular the Democratic Republic of Congo, short Congo (but not “the Congo” because the use of the article is part of the colonial past — compare this with Ukraine also not being referred to as “the Ukraine” any longer).

The book assembles a variety of visual materials in a number of sections that each focus on one aspect of visualizations of Congo and/or its still existing representation in Belgium. There are Google Street View scenes of streets named after colonial-era figures, reproductions of vintage postcards that showcase colonial achievements, photographs of the the Belgian equivalent of Confederate monuments, and more.

Crucially, the book contains a number of in-depth essays that each dive into aspects of what is on view, large parts of which I hadn’t heard of before. For example, in the introductory historical essay, Matthew G. Stanard, professor of history at Berry College in Georgia (US), writes about Leopold II: “If at the time of his death in 1909 he was infamous abroad and little loved at home, by the 1950s, Belgians hailed him as a prescient colonial genius who had acquired a massive, resource-rich African territory for his home country. […] While only one monument was erected in the king’s honor before 1908 […], more than a dozen were unveiled in the decades following his death” (p. 18). Compare this with Confederate statues having been erected decades after the Civil War.

Discussing Belgium’s engagement with its past, in particular the many atrocities in what was called the Congo Free State, Bambi Ceuppens, senior researcher/curator at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Brussels, notes that “Belgian memories of such episodes have long been dominated by narrow, simplified, mythologised forms of cloistered memory” (p. 87). Again, one can’t help but think of how the Confederacy has become what many people in Southern states think of as their “heritage”.

In both cases, as time has past and actual witnesses have died, there has been “a shift from communicative to cultural memory — that is, from the interchange of direct (biographical) memory of the recent past between contemporaries, to recalled history” (Ceuppens, p. 89). How and why this has proven to be complex, Ceuppens explains in her essay.

The essay contains a very important discussion of possibly the worst colonial photographs, which have not been reproduced in the book, photographs of severed hands by British missionary Alice Seeley Harris. These photographs are problematic for a large variety of reasons as Ceuppens makes very clear.

I see a partial equivalent in the statue of Abraham Lincoln and an (anonymous) freed slave that the city of Boston just decided to remove: there clearly is a colonial mindset present in the very depiction. In the case of the Lincoln statue, the emancipated man is on his knees in front of the white man. “What I want to see before I die”, wrote Frederick Douglass about a copy of the statue in Washington, DC, “is a monument representing the negro, not couchant on his knees like a four-footed animal, but erect on his feet like a man.”

As Ceuppens points out, such imagery is designed to make its target audience (white Europeans) feel bad instead of inviting them to try to understand and share the pain of those at the receiving end of violence: “By contrast, artworks, diaries, drawings, mundane objects and photographs that speak about the everyday life of victims […] have the power to remind us of our common humanity.” (p. 93)

History is a complex entity, and it is constant need of being amended or re-written. There is no such thing as fixed history. In my own life time, I have witnessed and experienced very drastic changes, speaking just about the country I was born in.

However much those who defend racist Confederate monuments protest (this group sadly includes the present president of the United States and vast parts of his party), these monuments will have to come down. It’s just a question of time. Their presence is indefensible, and the defenses mounted often are little more than dog-whistle expressions of naked racism.

Of course, there is the argument that taking down a statue amounts to an erasing of history. If there were even a kernel of truth to the argument, Germans wouldn’t know about Nazi Germany: there are no monuments depicting Nazi leaders or Nazi generals. It really is only an argument made in bad faith.

Maybe seeing an outside view — the view of Belgium and its colonial past — will help some Americans to come to a better understanding of their own country, to realize that the presence of Confederate monuments and the idea that Black Lives Matter are mutually exclusive. The monuments are an implicit denial of the latter, and for that reason, they will have to come down: the sooner, the better.

Leopold’s Legacy; images by Oliver Leu; texts by Oliver Leu, Bambi Ceuppens, Matthew G. Stanard; 152 pages; The Eriskay Connection; 2020

I’ve set up a tip jar. If you’ve enjoyed this article (or site), feel free to leave a tip to support my work. Thank you!

Also, there is a Mailing List. You can sign up here. If you follow the link, you can also see the growing archive. Emails arrive roughly every two weeks or so.