Monday, January 17, 2011

Race And Photography- A (Very) Brief Review

Looking back on this Martin Luther King Day (in a century when Pentagon officials assure us that Dr. King, despite his pronounced anti war activism, would no doubt approve and support their wars), wasn't all that long ago when we had a rather lively discussion on various aspects concerning race and photography, and one of the more positive consequences was that the discussion was to continue on a larger scale on a platform being constructed specifically for an online symposium the following year. Unfortunately, 2010 came and went, along with any further mention of that enterprise...

That said, a few mea culpas from yours truly, for in my initial zeal to gather images for said project which I now display here, I very much neglected to note the sites from which they were appropriated. And so my apologies straight off- and I'll be happy to post their sites of origin if so alerted.

One of the things some people had some difficulty with in our original discussion was why anyone would be so "hyper" sensitive to essays like Nollywood, or the fact that the PDN competition in question had no discernible people of color as judges. What I and several others attempted to explain was that since the advent of photography, "the other" (ie- people of color) was usually displayed and depicted in a variety of demeaning, subordinate, and disparaging poses and situations- and in the control or supervision of their white "overlords." Colonial empires would go into these far away, exotic lands and capture images that would play to the curiosity of those back home. Those in front of the lens had little say in how they would be represented- one would certainly be hard pressed to argue that that basic modus operandi has changed significantly to this day.

Often these photographs would fall into several categories in which the image makers would attempt to portray people of color as: inherently primitive (physically, mentally, culturally), childlike, comical, servile.

  "The Other" as trophy of "The Great White Hunter"

"The Other" as servant born.

"The Other" as physical curiosity.

"The Other" as cultural and physical  primitive (a penny for their thoughts).

"The Other" saved by the sanctity of "The Great White God."

The buffoonish, cartoon "Other."

Intentionally racist imagery today...

Conspicuously absent here are photographs of lynchings. They can be viewed at Without Sanctuary. And with all due respect- viewing them is best done on that site. Ken Gonzales-Day has done a series in which he removes the victims from their hanging trees, I suppose in part to help the viewer concentrate on the faces and actions of the people in the crowd, many who seem as if they are at the long awaited, much anticipated annual county fair. Personally, I never needed such training wheels to direct my attention where most required in this particular "genre."

From Pieter Hugo's Nollywood series- highly charged images such as this can be easily taken out of its intended context, and in turn fall victim to the Black (sexual) predator motif. They also fall into the historical context of presenting the other as primitive, less than human, not worthy of personal identity, and generally out of sorts with "civilized culture."

Of course, many would argue that the historical photos above bear no semblance to today's photojournalism and/or fine art photo essays. All some of us were trying to say was that even to this day, the image of the "The Other" is being controlled, judged and presented by a majority white minority. And that people of color have been overwhelmingly represented in front of the lens, with Whites setting both narrative and context in print and electronic media. The latter two assertions are beyond dispute, they are simply fact- which is why I originally took such exception with the PDN judges- it's a different century, and time to start creating a more proportional balance beyond the mere token presentation (ominously absent even in the '09 PDN judging). They would never have allowed an all male jury to stand in this day and age- the outrage and protest would have been  fast, furious, and all too well predictable and justified.  And yet, not so much as a second thought when it came to creating such an obviously homogeneous racial representation.

It was an observation which initially went unnoticed, until Benjamin Chesterton entered the fray. Yes, it took a white man to bring the issue to the floor- there is hope! Unfortunately, he is one of very few young (white) advocates actively trying to give voice to people of color particularly in developing countries by: a) encouraging young photographers to let those they photograph in developing countries speak for themselves in multi-media presentations, b) encouraging burgeoning photographers in developing countries to document their own people, affairs and environment, and c) to call for more proportional representation of people of color in positions of decision in editing, judging and presentation. And I make due notice of the fact that he is White because people of color have been clamoring about this for years, mostly on deaf ears since the sixties/seventies.

I had hoped that the 2010 online symposium that never occurred would continue to explain, bring light and further this cause through continued exchange and discussion. For those who still believe I am exaggerating a "non issue," and that the racism I speak of  ("passive" or otherwise) is limited to a handful of bigoted whackos- I leave you with this observation (see next to last paragraph of original post).

Remember, that is a renowned white photographer that made that observation. It happened a little less than three years ago, and I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if that very festival organizer would adamantly describe himself as a "Liberal." Now ask yourselves how many of you would have believed his behavior, if one of the Blacks in that audience was the messenger of said incident?  Or had I been the narrator? How many other Whites in that theatre made note of that egregious slap in the face- I'm betting it wasn't the first time for many of the other half of that audience. And that's why while it may all feel well and good for white folk to tell themselves that they just don't see color (particularly when they're in control), we already know how myopic that vision can sometimes be...


Anonymous said...

In 2010 there was the conference "Facing Race":

John said...

Thanks for this, Stan, for reminding us to keep the conversation going.

As you say, people ask us why we're "hyper-sensitive" about the ways in which people of color have been photographed. The photos here go a long way toward answering the question.

Stan B. said...

John, I hope the photos do serve that purpose, and thanks, wideyed- will definitely check that out...

mshaw said...


This is very thoughtful and eloquent. I especially appreciate the continuity here, bringing the 2010 discussion up-to-date and keeping the importance of vigilance, and the idea of a more systematic discussion on the table. Regarding the images, the Pillsbury packages really threw me as I remember enjoying them as a kid. Never having any exposure to them again, it's stunning how overtly racist they were.

Stan B. said...


"Enjoyed" 'em myself as a kid. And how many of us back in the day grew up using the term "Indian Giver" w/o thinking. Talk about the victor writing history...

Eric Rose said...

I think people are genetically predisposed to racism. It's the "difference factor". You are different from me and I'm great so you must be inferior. I have loads of non-white friends and they are even more racist than my white friends. I don't mean against white people, but against their own colour. Some are blacker than others, some taller, some etc etc. Society hasn't forced them to repent and clean-up their act as we have had to do (rightly so) so this form of racism is alive and well.

Look at the caste system. Another form of racism that is not going away anytime soon.

While I applaud your sentiments, please insure you do not leave people with the impression that it is only white people who are racist.

Stan B. said...

Eric, you bring up some good points. Perhaps we are, in fact, genetically predisposed to racism- I certainly can't state that for fact. We are all prejudiced to some extent- no doubt. But I tend to view racism as a larger societal construct with overriding political and economic consequences. Prejudice does indeed exist concerning skin color within Black and Hispanic communities (which I am personally familiar with). And while I certainly don't excuse it (particularly in this day and age), you must also realize that it was something that was nurtured, cultivated and reinforced since slavery days when light skinned slaves were given "better" living conditions, positions of responsibility and generally treated as "above" their darker brethren. Another wonderful historical American legacy.

That's the thing about The Right- they think understanding something means excusing or condoning it.