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Juliane Strohschein

The Canon Of Images: How Is Structural Racism Embedded In Photographs?

Nihad Nino Pušija | Chayene Teddy Gala 1996 | photograph | Germany | 1996 | pho_00257_41 Rights held by: Nihad Nino Pušija | Licensed by: Nihad Nino Pušija | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: Nihad Nino Pušija – Private Archive

A few decades after its invention in 1850, the metaphor of “the paintbrush of nature” turned photography into an instrument and “a symbol of scientific objectivity which was supposedly able to prevail over every form of human caprice. Belief in this form of objectivity characterized every area of science” (Bredekamp 2004, 18). Photography was thought to enable the production of objective visual representations, as its mechanics resemble that of the human eye. Contemporary arguments considered representations of the “Other” (non-white, non-European people) to accurately portray their “level of development” (particularly as compared to the Western world), without taking the constructedness of representation into consideration. The camera as a technical and thus neutral eye virtually embodied the Enlightenment ideal of objectivity.

The period in which photography emerged was shaped by scientific positivism, based on a belief in empirical truth accessible through visual evidence. As machines were considered more reliable than humans, the photographic process was seen as a more accurate scientific tool with which to represent reality. To perceive a photo as an unmediated copy of the real world is based on the myth of photographic truth (Sturken and Cartwright 2001, 16). Saturated with these discourses, photography and the photographic gaze – as a scientific, objective methodology and mode of reasoning believed to enable access to truth and reality – played a part in establishing power relations.

  • Nihad Nino Pušija | Tuntenball 1997 | photograph | Germany | 1997 | pho_00257_31 Rights held by: Nihad Nino Pušija | Licensed by: Nihad Nino Pušija | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: Nihad Nino Pušija – Private Archive
  • Nihad Nino Pušija | Queen Kenny 1996 | photograph | Germany | 1996 | pho_00257_27 Rights held by: Nihad Nino Pušija | Licensed by: Nihad Nino Pušija | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: Nihad Nino Pušija – Private Archive
  • Nihad Nino Pušija | Komparsen | photograph | Germany | pho_00257_36 Rights held by: Nihad Nino Pušija | Licensed by: Nihad Nino Pušija | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: Nihad Nino Pušija – Private Archive
  • Nihad Nino Pušija | Komparsen | photograph | Germany | pho_00257_37 Rights held by: Nihad Nino Pušija | Licensed by: Nihad Nino Pušija | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: Nihad Nino Pušija – Private Archive
  • Nihad Nino Pušija | Komparsen | photograph | Germany | pho_00257_38 Rights held by: Nihad Nino Pušija | Licensed by: Nihad Nino Pušija | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: Nihad Nino Pušija – Private Archive
  • Nihad Nino Pušija | Martin Knopf 2006 | photograph | Germany | 2006 | pho_00257_39 Rights held by: Nihad Nino Pušija | Licensed by: Nihad Nino Pušija | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: Nihad Nino Pušija – Private Archive
  • Nihad Nino Pušija | Irm Hermann 1999 | photograph | Germany | 1999 | pho_00257_40 Rights held by: Nihad Nino Pušija | Licensed by: Nihad Nino Pušija | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: Nihad Nino Pušija – Private Archive

What does a photo “say” at first on the denotative, representational level? What connotations does it have? Instead of seeking a final “truth”, the question is which meanings are preferred (Hall 1997, 228). On the one hand, an image has a denotative meaning, it portrays a specific event. On the other, it conveys a message, a connotation, that which Roland Barthes termed myth. Context analyses can reveal which meanings are connoted and preferred: titles, descriptions, the historical context, references to our collective memory (of images), etc. anchor and privilege specific meanings.

Photographs are not divine, objective copies. They are constructed by humans from the outset, saturated with intentions, desires and partisanship. We learn who controls the perspectives and the gaze, and who is the object of the gaze (Kaplan 1997, xvi). The question is who has “the right” to a gaze, in the sense of having one's perspective represented. Thus, Gayatri Spivak's question as to whether the subaltern can speak (Spivak 1985a) refers not merely to the ability to speak, but also to being heard within violent discourses which constitute the colonial subject as the “Other”. This process “leads to a hierarchy of knowledge production, which disqualifies and silences certain forms of knowledge and reproduces dominant forms of knowledge”. (Steyerl and Gutierrez Rodriguez 2003, 7) This “not being heard” is equivalent to “not being able to speak” and “not being seen” to “not being able to see.”

Era Trammer | Politics of Photography | Non Fiction | Austria, Germany | 2018 | pho_00054 Rights held by: André Raatzsch — Erika Trammer | Licensed by: André Raatzsch — Erika Trammer | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: RomArchive The images cited in the film were kindly provided by: György Buzás Jánonsé Buzás József Buzás Sándor Buzás Palkó Lászlóné Mária Raatzsch Jürgen Raatzsch György Stalter Jánosné Turkacs Rozália Treiber Chad Evans Wyatt Burt Glinn – Agentur Focus / Magnum Photos Josef Koudelka – Agentur Focus / Magnum Photos Hungarian Film Office - Magyar Film Iroda Museum of Ethnography – Budapest Fortepan – Online Photo Archive Florian Schuh – Picture Alliance Rhein Neckar Zeitung