Image as oppressor

February 11, 2010 at 4:18 am 1 comment

Broken Heart, 2005

What if you had never seen a picture of yourself before? What if you had only seen pictures of yourself that someone you barely knew had taken? As someone who has photographed and been photographed all her life, it is difficult to imagine.

But, in that situation, what kind of power does a photograph (and therefore, a photographer) have?

Wik Elder Bruce, 2000

I recently visited the Australian Center for the Moving Image, in Melbourne, and saw their exhibit called “Screen Worlds.” It charts the history of the moving image in OZ, and has one section devoted to the photographic representation of Indigenous Australians. This section, called Dreaming in Colour, has been curated by indigenous practitioners working in the motion picture industry.

The part of it that I found electric was a small panel that talked about the First Australians being documented exclusively by people from outside their community. When you are only shown images of yourself that an outsider has made, said the panel, then your own identity—particularly your visual identity—is being disproportionately shaped by that outsider, and that outsider’s culture.

Particularly when the outsider’s culture is also in the act of oppressing your culture, that imbalance has serious ramifications.

The Mission, 2005

When I have made pictures in situations like this, where I am making the first picture ever made of a person, I have felt, well, weird, but I couldn’t quite explain it. I have felt like there is simultaneously something really exciting about making a first portrait, and something really strange and possibly unethical about it.

The ACMI helped me put these feelings into words. “Since colonization, Western photographers and filmmakers—influenced by the scientific and colonial thinking of the times—came in waves to record the perceived ‘dying race,’ ‘the exotic native,’” said another panel. “These images have historically been constructed for non-Indigenous people both in Australia and worldwide.

“Since that time, Indigenous Australians have taken part in thousands of films and television shows. They were often portrayed in a negative light, sometimes in a positive light, but rarely were they in control of their own images and stories. In the 1970’s, Indigenous makers began to break down this barrier, fighting for their own voice in the moving image.”

Wik Elder Gladys, 2000

If someone is not in control of the way they are being represented at all, and I am, then that strikes me as a problem. And of course, that doesn’t pertain exclusively to indigenous populations. That pertains to anybody, anywhere. Even right this second, if someone were making a picture of me, and I had no control over that image, I would feel threatened.

There are a lot of ways to deal with this. Among them: asking permission; working collaboratively; giving away copies; building relationships; empowering new image makers; and ensuring that the subjects are also part of the audience for the work. Those are just a few. Let me know if you employ a strategy I haven’t mentioned.

Images in this post are by Ricky Maynard, a contemporary, Indigenous Australian artist, originally from Tasmania. The gallery that represents him lauds his “commitment to represent his people and his belief in the value of documentary photography as a tool to effect social change.” I initially learned about him through an amazing doco called First Australians.

The Healing Garden, Wybalenna, Flinders Island, Tasmania, 2000

Entry filed under: artists to look at, ethical questions in photography, Social Change Photography. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Kelli  |  February 12, 2010 at 9:41 pm

    Reminds me of when I would give out polaroids to kids in Mozambique. They hadn’t been photographed before (or hadn’t owned a photograph of themselves) and they thought the process was magic. In a way, it was!


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"In this way his work is more powerful in its moments of creation, when real human interactions are eroding racial stereotypes, than in its exhibition. And if the work succeeds, it is not because Subotzky can use a camera like no one else, it is because his photographs embody his efforts to confront social injustice on a personal level." --Charles Schultz on Mikhael Subotzky

PhotoPhilanthropy’s blog is written by Eliza Gregory

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February 2010

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