Does Race matter in Britain today?

Britain recently voted to leave the European Union, over a number of years there have been calls to close our borders to an influx of nationals from other nations. A situation now exists whereby Britain must establish a unique position in the world in order to sell goods and services to a much wider international audience. The implication is that all aspects of our practice as photographers will require we contribute to uniqueness in the way we develop design, art and other areas of high cultural value that will contribute to our need for relatively high paying employment opportunities. The path we have chosen to tread will force us, as practitioners, to be leaders of thought and cultural comment that is relevant to a world willing to buy into our cultural output.

Yes, I believe Race matters in that we must understand those things that others take offence to, we need to comprehend the needs and desires of those of other nations. Our internal market of Sixty Four Millions of people, compares with a global market place of more than Seven Thousands of Millions of people.

As a starting point to discuss race, Edward Said establishes his perspective and proximity to the issue of race and imperialism in its many forms that must, of themselves be considered and accounted for when reading his text, ‘Orientalism’. He goes on to outline some particular questions raised, I take the view it is possible to use Orientalism as proxy for a wider debate on race and in particular the way different peoples are represented in contemporary photographic practice.

The perspective taken by Said could be construed in many ways as the much maligned ethnographic photography, decontextualised at best, little understanding or desire to show the historical references that might inform any reasoning for the present states depicted.

Orientalism: Edward W. Said, 1978, page 23

“The kind of political questions raised by Orientalism, then, are as follows: What other sorts of intellectual, aesthetic, scholarly, and cultural energies went into the making of an imperialist tradition like the Orientalist one? How did philology, lexicography, history, biology, political and economic theory, novel-writing, and lyric poetry come to the service of Orientalism’s broadly imperialist view of the world? What changes, modulations, refinements, even revolutions take place within Orientalism? What is the meaning of originality, of continuity, of individuality, in this context? How does Orientalism transmit or reproduce itself from one epoch to another? In fine, how can we treat the cultural, historical phenomenon of Orientalism as a kind of willed human work-not of mere ,unconditioned ratiocination-in all its historical complexity, detail, and worth without at the same time losing sight of the alliance between cultural work, political tendencies, the state, and the specific realities of domination? Governed by such concerns a humanistic study can responsibly address itself to politics and culture. But this is not to say that such a study establishes a hard-and-fast rule about the relationship between knowledge and politics. My argument is that each humanistic investigation must formulate the nature of that connection in the specific context of the study, the subject utter, and its historical circumstances.”

Additional Books:

Photography: A Critical Introduction, Liz Wells

Basic Critical Theory for Photographers

The Photograph as Contemporary Art: Charlotte Cotton

Visual Culture

The Tourist Gaze 3.0, John Urry and Jonas Larsen

Aesthetics: Michel Foucault

An Introduction to Visual Culture: Nicholas Mirzoeff

Colonial Spain had a complex Cast system to describe inhabitants of Latin America, as pictured below.

Explanation of Latin America Cast System

Image result for race colonial latin america


Malik Sidibe, Capturing the dawning of a new freedom in West Africa

What strikes me as particularly relevant is the need for Cultural ownership of imagery by those it purports to represent. Over a period of time, the narrative of photographic imagery is being reconsidered as ‘new’ photographers are discovered, having extensive bodies of work that fill gaps. In particular with regard to Photographers such as Malik Sidibe, now widely acclaimed, much of his work was done during a period of euphoria in Malawi due to independence from France. A certain sadness overcomes me as in some ways the characters of his imagery play roles probably noted in and learned from their previous colonial rulers.

Une Amoureuse de The by Malick Sidibé

Seidou Keita, Mali

“It’s easy to take a photo, but what really made a difference was that I always knew how to find the right position, and I never was wrong. Their head slightly turned, a serious face, the position of the hands… I was capable of making someone look really good. The photos were always very good. That’s why I always say that it’s a real art.”

Interesting how Seidou discusses the quality of his images themselves, not an over-analysis of otherness or exoticism. His view that the images stand up in their own right is encouraging.

Untitled 1952/1955  20 x 24 in

Comments by Dayanita Singh

Quote from Dayanita Singh’s Comments

You know, I really dont care how a photograph was made, whether by construction, or by suggestion or by intervention or even by photoshop. I am interested in what a photograph can do, can it transcend its inherent ‘factness’ , can it say the unsayable?

I  don’t understand what the fuss is about Steve McCurry’s photos. By removing a lamp-post or adding one, the meaning of his images does not change.  It’s not as though they somehow become more contemplative . They are magazine photos meant to grab your attention – and so they remain as they were- exotic India images. In fact, I doubt whether he would himself have wanted to make those changes, for they hardly alter his image anyway. Perhaps they were done by an eager lab assistant, or someone showing him what Photoshop could do and then just remained on the file. His gaze was the classic National Geographic gaze, the india of Taj Mahals and Steam trains, of women in dust storms all perfectly aligned, of young boys with painted faces, India reduced to blobs of highly saturated color. The viewer is the fool if they take this to be any kind of reality, other than the photographers. Which is really the point of photographing, you present your version of reality. Steve Mc Curry presented his vision, with the means he saw fit, from his point of view.

Colonialism, Slavery and Visibility: Francoise Verges

The Slave at the Louvre

Cultural ownership appears to be high on the agenda in global matters as it relates to race. In a recent lecture delivered by Francoise Verges at UCLAN Link to introductory note on Francoise Verges, she discussed her work of curating exhibitions at the Louvre in Paris that include reference to France’s colonial past. The view and method used seemed of enormous impact and little explored, yet at the same time so very obvious. Her approach was to use the discourse of objects and items in pictures to indicate the times and relevance to colonialism they represented. As examples she cited men pictured smoking, coffee being imbibed, sugar, various types of fruit and other produce, all of which are an outcome to plantations and places under colonial rule using the labour of slaves and indentured workers. From the lecture, it is notable that any and all photography needs careful scrutiny in Semiotic terms to assure the message imparted by an image is aligned to the brief or idea conveyed.

The notion of viewing cultural perspectives without context and history is almost impossible, this appears to be born out by those from many cultures discussing their view point as it relates to their ‘other’, in particular that of the Eurocentric gaze. This gaze has permeated so many aspects of most nations through multiple initiatives of cultural export from colonisation through more recently to a more USA centric gaze. As Europe attempts to analyse, decompose and put right its various impositions, it is in danger of becoming the caricature of itself through setting in aspic its values and traditions in order to retain the vestiges of its history as part of its present to satisfy the gaze of the influx of people from other parts of the world.

Race in Some sort of context:

Britain has its own history in terms of the race issue, today we spend much time looking at and analysing the imagery and concerns within the United States of America. We are in danger of buying into the construct that all that is of importance is their particular ‘Black Question’. In living memory Britain has suffered racial tension and unrest which appears to ebb and flow with the general economic and political conditions.

During the 1970’s we saw the rise of the National Front, largely the target of their efforts centred on the immigrant community from the Indian Sub-Continent. They were faced down, not by a minority, but by a socio-political movement known as the Anti-Nazi League. The National Front is still active, although it is no longer as visible as it once was.

Race riots have taken place in Britain, 1980, 1981, 1985, 1995, 2001, 2011. How easy it is look at the other side of the Atlantic and disassociate ourselves from the issues we ourselves need to address. The causal pattern of disturbances is somewhat predictable, low social cohesion, unequal employment opportunities, unequal impact of government policy or policing practices.

Presentation slides delivered at Seminar Session 20th of October 2016