A truly decolonized photo?

Photographer Alice Seeley Harris is among the many white photographers who have fallen for the temptation to exoticize Africans.
Photographer Alice Seeley Harris is among the many white photographers who have fallen for the temptation to exoticize Africans.
PHOTOGRAPHERS / The "other" must be allowed to photograph himself.


How do we get rid of stereotypes of "the other" and create a real empathy in a picture? This question was the starting point for the British photo historian Mark sealy, who recently visited (digital) Fritt Ord seminar Decolonizing the archive in Oslo. What kind of images exist of people outside the Western Hemisphere? What kind of story is told through pictures of, for example, Africans and Africa? In the book Decolonizing the archive the photo-historian Sealy addresses precisely these questions and concludes that the seemingly "neutral" representation of the African and Africa in photo archives around the world is both Eurocentric and exotic.

During the seminar discussed sealy the book and the issues surrounding it with the photographers Jonas Bendiksen – who was also the moderator – Brian Cliff Olguin, Sofie Amalie Klougart, Javad Parsa and Nora Savosnick.

A key point in both the seminar and the book is the relationship between what we take a picture of and what is outside the frame, outside the picture. There is a great distance between the heroic intention where the photojournalist or documentary filmmaker enters, for example, a poor area in Ethiopia and has to document "the cruel truth", and the actual reality that makes situations like this possible. We need to understand why people are starving, and why these areas of the world end up with such tragedies. He asks, "Do we really have to see emaciated people on the brink of existence to understand how bad they are?"

Sealy undoubtedly has a point, for the exoticism or fascination for them or what is not "us", brings us, as he claims, rather back to a colonial mindset – where the differences between people are further deepened rather than finding a humanistic and democratic core of photography.

The white woman

Both the seminar and the book address almost dizzying questions. The photographers, who for the occasion were sitting a bit in the shadow of Sealy, were probably all a bit guilty of answering, simply because they "revealed themselves": Their projects were, if we use Sealy's ruthless lens – mirrors for themselves rather than mirrors for those they tried to capture with the lens. They lacked the breaking line that manages to tear down the stereotypes in which photo history still shapes our view of people who do not come from the West.

Sophie Amalie Clueless, one of the photographers who presented his projects at the seminar, tried to show us the everyday life of the Masai: where they ate, where they slept, and so on. The challenge with such images is that the Western woman's presence changes the situation to something other than a mirror for what is being portrayed. The white womann is rather reflected in them, how they see her, how the bodies and faces are arranged to adapt – consciously or unconsciously – to colonial stereotypes. Not in its entirety, albeit, in the form of "the African as the other" or other types orientalizationis or exoticisms, but where fragments of the historical connection between photography and white Europeans are combined. Such glances still move in a kind of romanticizing space, Sealy objects, since one fails to create moments that break down or break the historical pressure that the preceding story exerts on each individual image.

Model Emmanuel Levinas

But how to find such moments?

Sealy pointed out that we will never be able to get a fair and truly decolonized photo if we can not take full responsibility for the other without having to take his place. This means that we cannot step in the other person's place or speak for him, as many documentarians do who travel to Africa, for example.

There is something irreconcilable in Seary's project, but I like the almost utopian in that his guideline is what the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas – by the way, his great role model – called "responsibility for the other person's face".

Could we not imagine, Sealy suggested, that the whole structure of the Western documentary filmmaker going to "the other place" should be replaced by a model in which those who are actually at home in the other place create the images? Would not the "exotic" be considered "to be fascinated", but orient us away from the one-dimensional, one-way "monohistory" of photography, as Sealy calls it? Sealy "solutions" are often more abstract than concrete proposals, but the angle he creates is undoubtedly very exciting.

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