The advent of smartphones has granted everyone the power to be a photographer and to capture their stories through the art of photography. Those who take and edit their own photos have perfect control over the images they present to the world through social media and other means of sharing. However, when someone else is behind the camera, this level of control is relinquished and the photo falls subject to many of the photographer’s biases often leaving a lot of room for interpretation surrounding the goals of the photo. It is the disconnect between the photographers intentions whether conscious or not and the resulting photo that makes photography such a unique and useful medium especially for Africana theorists given that this divide is often quite large. The intentions of the photographer are often just as or even more important than the subject of the picture itself and complicating the narratives of the photographers allows for a greater understanding of the moment captured in the photo and of history at large.
The lack of a physical record of the photographer’s intentions means the researchers often have to work backwards basing their work heavily on the physical characteristics of the photo or sometimes a caption. They can use how the photo has been interpreted throughout history in tandem with the photographer’s supposed intentions to draw greater conclusions about the subject matter. Dixa Ramírez in her analysis of the photo captioned “Come into the house honey, dat picture man’ll steal you,” argues that the picture relies on the physical characteristics of what the woman was wearing to draw a connection to the mammy caricature that arose as a result of slavery in the United States despite the photo being taken in the Dominican Republic. The caption is supposedly what the woman was saying to the child and urges the viewer to listen to the photo instead of simply observing it. The caption serves to guide the viewers, but simultaneously limits the room for interpretation. To reconcile this, Ramírez presents an alternative method to examine photos like these which she calls “mote refusal”. In doing so, she is rejecting the initial intentions of the photographers and imposing and sharing hew own ideas and beliefs onto it.
One of the choices that a photographer gets to make is the angle at which the shot is taken. This impacts what is included in the photo, but also how the viewer interacts with it. It is also important to consider what the photographer is willing to sacrifice through using a particular angle. Charles Moore’s photograph of Vera Pigee’s hair salon taken in 1961 seems to simply highlight that there much was more than hairdressing happening in her salon. However, the angle of the photo provides more insight into the intentions of the photographer. There is a poster containing information that dates the photo. It is not the focal point of the photo, but nonetheless provides useful insight to the dedicated viewer. This was included over the bottom part of the room showing that the photographer valued the information present on the poster and would rather include it over what was in the lower part of the room. The photographer also does something interesting where although it was taken in a mirror, due to the angle, the photographer remain unseen. This puts the main focus onto the woman in the chair getting her hair done while Pigee teaches her how to register to vote. It also more effectively transports the viewer into the photo because they are simultaneously receiving a straight on view of the action, but it is also from the perspective of as if the viewer was beside Pigee, involved in the action. Seeing what the subjects would be seeing instead of simply observing them allows for this greater level of connection between viewer and subject and helps to bridge the gap between them. In this case, it was likely intended to encourage others to creatively use whatever resources available to them to fight for civil rights.
The ways in which the gap between subject and viewer has been examined as a result of the photo is also often a topic that should be examined. Kevin Quashie uses this gap present in the 1968 photo of the awards ceremony of the 200m dash to convey his greater message about the importance of quietness as a means of analysis. This photo is taken from a slightly lowered angle which works with the pedestal the athletes were standing on to put the viewer physically below them. This photographer made the conscious decision that their fists were more important than their feet and point the camera upwards. This also creates a contrast between Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ fists the clear night sky. According to the photography technique of leading lines, in this case the viewer’s eye is immediately drawn to the clenched fists due to the high levels of contrast and the slightly diagonal lines of their arm. The viewer then makes their way down through the rest of the photo as opposed to working across the photo. Quashie goes on to discuss the impact of the photo and that it likely went far beyond and maintained a greater cultural impact than expected by the photographer. He critiques how it has been analyzed over the last 50 years, and proposes an alternative way of examining it through the lens of quietness. He is shocked that the interiority of the photo is easily overlooked when it is so clear in the photo in the way that their heads are bowed in prayer and emphasizes the importance of considering all the features of a photo, even the ones that are not as instantly eye catching.
Given that the accessibility of photography has continued to increase, it will likely continue to have a great impact on Africana research. It is important to consider many of the different ways that a photo can be analyzed in order to convey something more than what is directly visible.
Hamlin, Françoise. “Africana Studies and History: Building Archives.” Providence, RI 11/21/2019
Präkel, David. Basics of Photography 01: Composition. London : AVA Publishing, 2006. https://books.google.com/books?id=_kbRUmMrZycC&printsec=frontcover&dq=inauthor:”DavidPrakel”&hl=en&newbks=1&newbks_redir=0&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjb0Obrg5rmAhUjc98KHTvMAEgQ6AEwAHoECAUQAw#v=onepage&q&f=false.
Quashie, Kevin Everod. The Sovereignty of Quiet beyond Resistance in Black Culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012.
Ramírez, Dixa. “Against Type: Reading Desire in the Visual Archives of Dominican Subjects.” Small Axe , July 2018, DOI 10.1215/07990537-6985831.