October 25th, 2017
The Sound of Defiance
How can listening to images reveal the visual histories of the African diaspora?
By Brian Wallis
For too long, those interested in understanding the social uses of photography have lacked an adequate critical framework, beyond the stylistic and aesthetic interpretations inherited from art history. In her new book, Listening to Images (2017), theorist Tina M. Campt proposes a bold methodology for approaching previously overlooked vernacular photographs, particularly those from the neglected archives of the African diaspora. She takes seriously the latent meanings embedded in nineteenth-century ethnographic photographs from Africa, early-twentieth-century prison mugshots from Cape Town, and postwar passport photographs from Birmingham, England. Instead of just looking at these quiet documentary photographs, she listens to them, detecting in them the hum of refusal in small gestures of anticolonialist defiance and difference. By attending to the physical material of the artifacts, and by attuning all of her senses to situating these images and their subjects within specific historical contexts, Campt offers an expansive new approach to the evaluation of photographs.
Brian Wallis: Your new book is provocatively titled Listening to Images. This implies not only a newly subjective approach but also a more physical response to images, based on touch and sound. How does your book challenge an approach to photography based primarily on vision?
Tina Campt: Photographs have an impact on us that is not solely based on seeing. And I argue that we need another approach to understanding photographs, other than simply looking at them. Listening to Images challenges us to move from vision to sound by way of touch. There is no question that images move us. But the question is, how does that happen? Photographs touch us emotionally, but also in a tactile sense through our physical encounters with them. That moment of contact is about a particular level of frequency, or resonance. But to make contact, you have to attune yourself to certain frequencies of encounter that aren’t always available to us in our normal register. This is what I mean by “listening to images.”
In my previous book, Image Matters: Archive, Photography, and the African Diaspora in Europe (2012), I addressed this issue in the context of family photography. With these images we expect to be moved, emotionally, because family photographs establish a relationship between the people in the image and the viewer, even when the viewer doesn’t know the family personally. In Listening to Images, I push this idea a little bit further, to argue that it’s not only family images that touch us or have sentimental value. Photographs construct relationships through genres that are not intended to be moving, like identification photographs, which are documents produced to control, regulate, and classify individuals. The affect of such images—how they move us—can be as profound in identification photographs as in family photos. Yet these affects are even more radical in identification photographs because they work against their intended purpose, which is to control people, to track and categorize them. What I discovered in vernacular identification photography was the way their subjects—sometimes even prisoners—used these images to telegraph statements about themselves that the genre itself was trying to suppress.
Brian Wallis: Are you suggesting that prisoners, for example, could override or subvert the neutralizing power of the mugshot?
Tina Campt: Exactly. Think of the great work of John Tagg and Allan Sekula on the deployment of the mugshot in an archival structure of knowledge. Tagg and Sekula unpacked the instrumental role of photography in fortifying the power of the state over people who acted outside the collective laws. While I agree with and respect that perspective, I have always thought there was another side of the story that was left out. That is: What did the subjects do with those images? If we look at the exact same mugshot, we can look at it from the perspective of a state interested in creating an atomized subject, or we can look at it from the perspective of the sitter. And the sitter’s point of view has always been what interests me.
If you look closely at the early-twentieth-century prisoner photographs from Breakwater Prison in Cape Town, South Africa, or the Civil Rights-era mugshots of the Freedom Riders in Birmingham, Alabama, both of which I discuss in the book, you see subjects acting in ways that push back against what identification photography was trying to do. They push us to ask: Why is this person tilting their head like that? Why is he holding his hands like this? Why does he have a moustache or beard in one photo and not another? This requires us to think about what they, the sitters, were thinking as they confronted the bureaucratic camera. What were their responses? Some rolled their eyes, some looked away. Some registered their responses through the tension in their clenched jaws, which demonstrated a refusal to participate.
I try to reconstruct the subjectivity out of figures who were considered essentially mute. We have no other biographical or documentary information about these sitter/subjects and the social condition that brought him or her before the camera. So I push the limits of the photographs to ask: What does the making of the image tell us about a social practice? Why do we take photographs? What do we do with photographs? And what does that say about our community?
Brian Wallis: Photography is a very literal and mechanical medium, based on visuality and representation, so isn’t the idea of adding additional sensorial receptors, like listening, really a sort of fiction, an intuitive reading into the image?
Tina Campt: There are two things that occur to me when you say that. First, what you are calling a “fiction,” I think of as a performance. I ask: What is this sitter trying to tell us about himself or herself? Even in the most constrained formats of photography—like the mugshot, the ethnographic image, the passport photograph—there is some enactment of a persona. The state would like that persona to be something that can be measured or classified. But every person within that encounter is trying to portray something to the state and to themselves, even if it’s simply a performance of indifference.
And, secondly: what you describe as “reading into the image,” I would describe as “reading out of the image,” enacting an interpretive process that is always already going on. I’m trying to highlight that interpretive process, as well as redefining what we think of as seeing or looking. Ariella Azoulay’s work on the Civil Contract of Photography (2008) is really useful in this regard. She wants us to shift from seeing to “watching,” or actively engaging photographs. In photography, this active engagement with the image means naming the ways in which that interpretation is always already there. There is no literal photograph. There is only what we see, watch, interpret.
We don’t just approach images randomly. Pictures draw us to them and demand a certain type of response. This response could be resistance—“I can’t look at this”—or it could be a response where only one part of the image allows us to engage. That is my method: to peel away those different layers and to keep asking myself what am I actually seeing here and what I am bringing to the image that is signifying on some level. That interaction is what photography as a medium is always tricking us to overlook. Photography appears self-evident, but the question I’m asking is: Are we seeing them same thing, and if so why or why not?
Wallis: This strategy inevitably involves the subjective reuse or reinterpretation of the photograph. A good example is the series of photographs from the Gulu Real Art Studio in Uganda, which are essentially ID portraits with the face removed. These remnants were rescued from the trash by photojournalist Martina Bacigalupo and given a new meaning as art—and documentary—objects. How does this genealogy, this complicated provenance and repositioning, affect how we understand or place these images culturally?
Campt: Every photograph has a genealogy and a context that changes its meaning. The Gulu photographs are one of the best examples of my interpretative method, which is to ask a deceptively simple question: What had to have happened for me to encounter this photograph? In case of the Gulu photographs what happened was this: Someone needed an identification photograph; they went to a photographer who created that photograph and, for economic reasons, cut out only the part they needed, the face; and then the photographer threw away the rest of it. After that, someone else used the leftover part in a completely different and conceptually oppositional way from that which the sitter originally intended. What is the story that gets told when we take the refuse of this image making practice and give it new life?
The result is not so much about art, but about engaging the impact of the seriality of images. What you don’t see in the individual identification photograph is the history of a community. That comes through when the photographs are brought together as a serial archive, even in the absence of their faces. The series raises questions, such as who is required to make this type of photograph, for what specific purpose, and under what political or economic circumstances? For example, was an ID photo required for a bank account, for employment, to receive benefits from the state? Was a passport photo required to travel, to emigrate, to maintain a connection with relatives, children, spouses, or communities in different places? That is the beauty of an archive, particularly a serial archive: it tells us the social history of a community.
I’m interested in what the camera reveals about certain social encounters, not what it documents but what the encounter itself reveals, incidentally, especially on the side of the sitter. How has the sitter come to participate in this practice and wrest if from the person—or, actually, often institution—who uses photography to control them? So, in that way, the camera is the point of contact, and the photograph is the object that allows us to look into that encounter.
Wallis: Even though you are talking about tactics of reading images, your book is really about a global history of racial oppression and the struggles of marginalized people to control their bodies and their representations. You address this in contemporary photographs related to violence against African American youths, including images around Black Twitter and the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, which became popular in 2014, following the death of Michael Brown. How do these contemporary images fit your understanding of the future as seen through black feminist theory? And how does it relate to the notion of photography as a representational system oriented only to the past?
Campt: The idea of photography as only a record of past experiences is something I fundamentally disagree with. If we think about it grammatically, photography is always about positioning yourself in a way that projects you into the future—not necessarily a future that will happen, but the future that you want to happen, the way you want to be perceived in the future. And that future is not decades in the future, it is right now, today, right after the shot is taken.
#IfTheyGunnedMeDown engages in a profound dialogue with these questions. African American youth are confronting death in the present as a future that is robbed from them—it’s that immediate for them. They are saying, “There is a high probability that I will be shot and my picture will appear in the newspaper ‘postmortem,’ so I want to exercise some agency over that posthumous rendering of who I am.” And photography allows them to do this. What is more, “I am going to confuse the ways that I will be projected into the future by giving you two options, both of which are real, both of which are performances, performances I embrace.” First, they project themselves in really amazing and inventive ways as unruly, urban black folk, embracing all the stereotypes: like the thug or the ratchet girl. Those performances improvise on the roles they inhabit in their everyday lives, usually in contexts where they are enjoying themselves. Posthumously, such photographs, taken out of context, would be interpreted as evidence of them embodying a threat. But they combine them with a twin portrait, one that presents them in the guise of social respectability, trying to register what would be perceived as respectable to an imagined posthumous audience. These are images speaking into the future—specifically they are speaking into the future from a presumed early death.
Wallis: This is a good example of what you—and some photographic subjects—are doing with photography: building imaginatively around it and giving some credibility to the active engagement with the performance of the photographic encounter. On the other hand, in the book, you are dealing with rather grim images of African diasporic oppression in which agency is radically constrained. Doesn’t that suggest a rather bleak image of the future?
Campt: Oddly, I’m incredibly optimistic. Where my optimism shows up in the book is in trying to say that black folks look into a bleak future and still see agency even under the worst possible conditions. “Agency” is a really important term; it doesn’t mean “resistance”; it doesn’t mean that I am even acting; it means an individual has the capacity to imagine something outside of their current situation. So, when we’re talking about the prisoners in Breakwater, the workers in Gulu, the Freedom Riders in Birmingham, or even the young folks in the Tumblr series, they are refusing to settle for what they are being offered. They are making a way out of nowhere. Even if it is small. And, to me, that’s where my optimism comes from and remains.
Tina M. Campt is Claire Tow and Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Africana and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies and Director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women at Barnard College.
Brian Wallis is a curator and writer based in New York.