Law in Contemporary Society

Re-claiming the presentation of Black Figures in Photography

-- By GabrielleStanfield - 23 Apr 2022

On Photography

In her 1977 collection of essays, On Photography, Susan Sontag considered the significance of photography as well as controversial effects tied to the growth of this art form. Considering this analysis as an art history student, I found that the study of photography across periods and cultural contexts revealed the complexity of photographs fueled by their duality as a category of art as well as a tool of documentation. Photographs appear to provide a sense of truth and confirmation, allowing us to see and experience a moment with our own eyes. However, the careful study of the practice reveals a high level of intentionality through the careful selection of the many elements that constitute an image. A photograph presents a composition constructed of fundamental elements of color, line, and vantage point. The photographer takes agency to inform the viewer’s interpretation, sparking an interplay between their intended themes and the viewer’s own values and experiences. The experience of visual analysis is thought-provoking and personal, allowing each viewer to engage with an image in a deeply individualized but subjective manner.

Photographing Black Experiences

My particular interest falls within the depiction of Black figures in photography. In one sense, photography has consistently served as a powerful tool for Black artists to capture the breadth of Black culture —for example, James Van Der Zee’s captivating photographs of Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s. Reclaiming highly regarded traditions of studio portraiture, Van Der Zee’s canon depicting affluence and social life within Black neighborhoods of Harlem set a new standard for the visual presentation of the Black body rooted in dignity, elegance, and sophistication. As Sontag characterizes it, photographing allows the artist to “accord value to their subjects.” Susan Sontag, On Photography 28 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997). Depictions of Black experience through imagery did just that, providing a platform for Black artists to re-cast narrow and stereotypical perceptions of Blackness and reveal the diversity of experience throughout history. Today, contemporary Black photographers continue to use the medium as a tool to explore the diverse characteristics of Black figures, like the work of Ronan McKenzie in her 2015 exhibition “A Black Body”. In contrast to images of exploitation, sexualization, and brutality against the Black body,McKenzie seeks to convey strength, life, and versatility through images that feel personal and authentic, thus emphasizing the empowering capacity of photographs.

Memorializing Violence Against the Black Body

However, for all of the value created through the photography of Black culture, these efforts have continually faced opposition rooted in White supremacy through acts that have stifled the positive and progressive representation of Black culture. Adopting the words of Sontag, “Just as the camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a sublimated murder.” Sontag, 14. From continual stereotypical images of Black figures as the carefree happy negro, mammy caricature, or in Blackface minstrelsy to images of outright brutality against Black figures, photography has served as an instrument of violation itself.

Practices of violence against Black bodies are deeply intertwined with the history of imagery and photography. For example, the history of lynching photography in the 19th and 20th centuries. Shawn Michelle Smith, Photography on the color line: W.E.B. Du Boise, race, and visual culture 112-18 (Duke University Press, 2004) Through the photography of these very public events centered around the spectacle of violence against the Black body, the memory of these events was made accessible to the very same white audiences, drawn to the “spectacle of Black death.” Smith, 118. In recent years, images of racial violence have again permeated our newsfeeds. Stills from videos capturing the final moments of life of Black Americans murdered on camera have captured the attention of mainstream society.

Within this phenomenon, it appeared possible that the documentation of violence at the hands of the police would become the defining factor, generating the necessary momentum in the present-day movement for a reckoning around racism. We hoped that bearing witness to injustice may present a unique challenge to acknowledge our proximity to White supremacy and engage on these issues. But ultimately, we are trapped in a cycle, where proof is not enough.

The same interactive process by which images derive meaning opens them up for interpretation that exceeds what one may see as their expected scope. Thus, the meaning of an image can vary so much so that obvious and blatant racist exercises of violence at the hands of police which appear an objective fact are still subject to debate. An important consideration here is the significance of the audience to these images. As the distribution of images has become more accessible, the subjective exercise of interpreting these stills has opened up as well.

Re-claiming Black Figures in Photography

Considering both the personalization of visual analysis as well as the increasingly public audience for these images in our current society, I do not think that photographs of violence against the Black body serve as a valuable tool in the fight for racial justice. As with images of lynchings, I believe that the repeated imagery of racial violence has contributed more to the historical canon of images of violence that memorialize a harmful history of documenting Black death. In all, images of brutality, murder, and injustice trigger only a temporary shift in priorities. In fact, we have found ways to make engagement with these issues more convenient — simply re-sharing a post, adding a resource to your social media page, or sending a pre-written email to your Congressman. But, ultimately this has not moved the needle.

In conclusion, I believe that photographs of Black figures hold the most power as a tool to uplift images of Black experiences in the context of joy, success, and diversity of experience. However, I believe that we should reject images of violence against the Black body as an instrument of progress. So long as the audience consists of those who are “enthralled by the spectacle of Black death” or even those who are ambivalent to the visualization of racial violence, the harms of engaging with images of violence against the Black body are significantly greater than any potential benefit.

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r4 - 10 Jun 2022 - 19:03:40 - GabrielleStanfield
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