Photography in Racial Time

Article main image

In a world dominated by photographs and video, visual literacy is one of the most important skills. To be visually literate means to be able to navigate the world while being able to detect where someone is trying to tell you something about yourself or other people. I called visual literacy a skill because it is that more than anything. It is not just knowing photographs — even though for sure that is a part of it. Beyond that, it’s being able to understand how photographs operate in a given context when seen by specific viewers, how, in other words, photographs acquire what we like to call “meaning.”

Photographs don’t come with meanings, and a photograph’s meaning can change radically depending on how it is used in a specific context. In photoland, many practitioners operate only in one specific context and are puzzled by my insistence on this basic fact. Switch context, though, and what has been taken for granted often takes on very different facets. As a consequence, being visually literate does not necessarily mean being able to read photographs in just one specific context well. Instead, it’s much more important to understand the use of photographs in different contexts.

Seen that way, visual literacy centers on photography only in a very basic sense. It’s not necessarily about understanding photographs (even though that’s a large part of it). Instead, visual literacy centers on understanding visual communication — much like literacy in the world of literature doesn’t just focus on discussing vocabulary. This might sound daunting, but I think it should instead be seen as liberating: if visual literacy is a skill that relies on a method, then that’s something that can be learned, something that can be improved over time through practice.

I’m very drawn to an approach to photography that starts out by looking at pictures, to see what they show and how they show it, and that then examines how pictures are used, given the context they’re in, and how that use, given its time, ties in with larger societal and/or cultural aspects, to form a meaning that, more often than not, is not stable in time. Ultimately, such an approach amounts to cultural or societal or political criticism. A brilliant recent example is provided by Mark Sealy‘s Decolonising the Camera: Photography in Racial Time.

(An unrelated aside: formerly a voracious reader, it took me months to realize how the pandemic has disrupted my habit of reading regularly. Many back issues of the New York Review of Books — my only subscription — have been lying around unread all over the apartment, and the pile of books waiting to be read has only grown since roughly mid-March this year. One of the many books in the pile was Sealy’s — already published last year. So in that sense, this article is late. But then, it’s never too late to talk about a good book, is it?)

In the book’s chapters, Sealy dives deeply into six separate topics. In each case, he starts out with the initial photographs, to then discuss their makers, their dissemination, the original contexts, and how the photographs in their context were viewed their audience. That audience splits up into two group. The first group is the one that might have found itself depicted or that would have identified in some ways with the depicted. The second group is the one that remained an outsiders while at the same time being the intended target.

This dichotomy in audiences is one of the most important aspects in many areas of photography, in particular in photojournalistic or documentary settings. It forms the basis for the most pressing issues in photography, whether it’s the male gaze, othering, representation, etc.

The book explicitly focuses on photography’s colonial uses, so these two groups are those subjected to colonial rule and those exercising that rule. Sealy manages to accomplish a variety of things. To begin with, he discusses in detail some of photography’s most ghastly episodes, episodes that, I suspect, are not as widely known as they ought to be. Photography played a major role in most (all?) of humanity’s most recent atrocities. That role has to be understood especially since its repercussions are still with us.

For example, I don’t think anyone can engage with photography in Africa without taking into account the role photography played in the colonical context. In the first chapter, Sealy discusses Alice Seeley Harris‘ photographs of atrocities in what then was the Congo Free State. These photographs and the accompanying presentations across the UK and the US could easily be seen as the kind of revelatory material that still is being used by photojournalists today. However, the photographs’ and especially their maker’s background and motivations make this topic a lot more complex than one might naively imagine.

Sealy: “What surfaces from the images as we look back at them with the benefit of hindsight is that a multiplicity of meanings emerges, the most obvious being the scopic pleasures in looking at the African as both the exotic Other and the photographic origin of the image of the helpless victim. These historical photographs of violence in the Congo provide the perfect photographic moment for benevolent Christian ideology to work within a continued visualisation and infantilisation of the African subject.” (p. 61)

Photography cannot run away or ignore these facts any more than I, someone born in Germany, could run away or ignore the fact that my grandfathers’ generation brutally murdered millions of people during World War 2.

In this particular case, the “exotic Other” as much as the idea of the “helpless victim” (to quote Sealy’s words) are still with us. Such photographs are still being made as I write this, and they are viewed by their target audience in very similar fashions as Alice Seeley Harris’ lantern slides were by their target audience back then (except that our lantern slides are slide shows online). The onus is on their makers as much as on us as viewers to understand what is going on visually, so we can break out of what often is little more than colonial photography done with digital cameras.

I suspect that some of the chapters in Decolonising the Camera: Photography in Racial Time could serve as the basis for a whole class, given the breadth of the material and background resources covered and given the profundity of insight offered by Sealy.

For example, in chapter 2 — entitled Race, Denial and Imaging Atrocity — the famous 7 May 1945 issue of Life magazine becomes the a jump-off point for a discussion of how to picture atrocities (here: concentration camps in Nazi Germany), how to put such pictures in the context of the actions (or lack thereof) of those who present the pictures, how the pictures of an atrocity can be viewed one way by one group and another way by another, how one atrocity might invite comparisons with another, and much more.

What makes this chapter so strong is that Sealy treats the magazine as a whole, instead of dissecting it into its separate, seemingly unrelated, parts. He connects the depiction of German concentration camps with pictures of US and Russian soldiers meeting up, with pictures of Russian delegates at the landmark San Francisco conference, and more. In some ways, this is a very obvious approach: after all, all these things happened at the time. But much too often, such discussions end up being atomized, being isolated, as a result of which crucial deeper connections and insights are not to be had.

It is the making of connections across time that brings the real value of the book into focus: the reader not only learns a lot about the main issue at hand — photography’s ugly history of serving as a handmaiden of colonialism and racist violence, s/he also learns about how to connect photographs through the larger topics they relate to, which, crucially, includes an awareness of one’s own vantage point as much as knowing about someone else’s (in particular the group depicted).

I’d like to think that reading Decolonising the Camera: Photography in Racial Time will make every photographer more aware of the history of their own medium. It will also enable them to approach their own photography at a deeper level, in particular if that photography centers on other people. For those two reasons, this is an absolute must-read. Teachers in any serious photography program might want to include this book in their required-reading list.

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.