Posted on 21 May 2021 in bulletin, photography, race, race and markets

Brown Girl in the Lens

In this contribution to ISRF Bulletin 23, Zuleka Randell Woods and Anthony Kwame Harrison explore what happens when the photographic gaze meets that of the photographed.

Zuleka Randell Woods

Virginia Tech

Anthony Kwame Harrison

Virginia Tech

Main image edited by the authors. Original image can be found here


In June 2019, when members of the Race in the Marketplace (RIM) research network first implemented the photo-dialogue research methodology in a project focusing on race in Paris, the decision of whether and how to photograph people weighed heavily on the minds of the organisers.[1] We would be photographing the other side of Paris—its historic and recent Black and Brown communities—and were conscious of the critiques against social scientists venturing into such spaces.[2] Ultimately, the decision not to photograph people was more or less made for us by the logistical difficulties and extended timeframe involved with gaining cross-institutional research board review. Nevertheless, the prospect always felt clumsy and morally tenuous. An important dimension of the photo-dialogue process surrounds its different subjective perspectives. We envisioned that one of the most productive distinctions would be between Parisians and people who had never traveled to Paris, let alone France. Naturally, this included many non-French speakers. One idea was to hand out notecards, written in French, explaining who we were and asking for permission to take someone’s photo. But who were we, really? A group of international researchers attempting a new model of photography-based research that we hoped would contribute to the development of more racially just markets and societies? This was certainly the organising mission that brought participants together. But who were we as individuals and what paths would have brought us to that decisive moment of thinking that photographing the person we were handing the notecard to would be valuable?

Admittedly, these are highly subjective and situational questions. But learning more about the person behind the lens and getting some sense of who they recognise (and don’t recognise) as a worthy subject of the photographic gaze enhances our understanding of the relationship between visuality and race. Obviously, race is largely (though not exclusively) recognised through the visual field.[3] But understanding the terms of this recognition—what is seen and how it is interpreted—tells us a good deal about the differing meanings we attach to race.

The photograph of a girl might appeal to anyone as a valuable image to capture.[4] She is young (almost a baby). She is Black. She is outside in what appears to be a roadside village (in Africa or the Caribbean?). She looks like a sugar in a plum. Piled charcoal and people are behind her, but she appears to be alone. Children are often appealing photographic subjects. The little girl, in what appears to be a moment of tranquility amidst a modestly busy scene, seems wonderfully poised. She appears to be curious about the photographer’s gaze, but not overly confident or overly concerned. Is the photographer familiar? Perhaps family? Or is the photographer a stranger? Is the little girl’s Blackness incidental—for instance, is the photographer a Ghanaian shooting street scenes in Ayigya for a national news outlet? Or is Blackness instrumental to what makes an image of this scene and situation valued by the photographer?

Perhaps the photographer has travelled to Uganda to photograph the people. Maybe they have travelled there for other reasons but would not think of returning home without photographing the country and its people. Perhaps this photograph was taken for an intended purpose—to be used in study abroad flyers or possibly charity campaigns. Perhaps it is to be shared with family, as evidence that the photographer was really there: not in the hotel or on an organised tour, but there walking around Jinja in Eastern Uganda. More than ever, people are sharing photographs with family through social media, which usually means they are shared with more than just family. 

How does Blackness—in the at-home context of what might very well be the Continent or the Caribbean—as an instrumental (not an incidental) factor in this photograph come to take on meaning? Was the girl selected, targeted even, for her Blackness? For her African-ness? For the surrounding scene which could easily be (mis)read as symbolising poverty and victimhood (but not so bad as to destroy the photo’s beauty and pleasantness)? Will the photograph be framed as an illustration of Black cultural deficiency or will it generate discussions of the colonialism, imperialism, neoliberalism, and anti-Black racism that underlie what it is presumed to depict? Will it lead to critical conversations about why Westerners are so at ease accepting it as an image of poverty and receiving it as a statement either in support of a cause (i.e. “save the children”) or about the virtues of the photographer? What personal, organisational, and/or virtual networks will this little girl’s image travel across? And would any photographer think to get her informed consent? 

Stand still. Do not smile. Be poised and he might pass on by. It is the evening hours. I can tell because of how the sun hits my dark skin. There is nothing here out of the ordinary besides this White man and his camera. He is what we call Mzungu. The name comes from Kiswahili meaning spinning around or being dizzy. It is quite fitting considering how much they seem to constantly be moving. I wonder if they ever get dizzy. Here I am, just standing by the road enjoying the sun going down when he stopped. Is he intrigued by my Blackness or is it the charcoal? Wait, is that a camera? Of course, it is. Mzungus[5] always have cameras. Why would anyone want to take a photo of everyday things? Perhaps he wants to buy some of the charcoal lying on the road. Or is it the collar of my bright red dress that caught his eye? He seems to be staring directly at me or behind me. I cannot tell but his camera is facing this way. I can only hope he wants the charcoal image and not me. After all, why would a stranger be taking a photo of just a little Black girl standing by the roadside? Is this what people from his country do? Do they not have children where he comes from? That would explain why they often appear lost. If there are no children in his country, maybe he is here looking for them. He must ask someone to help before taking photos. 

The Mzungu with the camera is not the first or the last to stop for a photo. Mzungus are constantly fascinated by everyday things around here. Just the other day, they stopped to take photos of my mother and her sisters walking home. My mother was carrying me on her back and my cousin was on my aunt’s. They were merely talking about everyday happenings on our farm. This intrigued the Mzungus so much, so they stopped their vehicle to take pictures of us. I remembered smiling at my cousin, gossiping with our eyes about how easily these people were amazed carrying their water bottles and cameras. I bet our smiles made for a better story for their friends. Sometimes Mzungus smile at us from behind their cameras in hopes that we will smile back. I often wonder about how they can smile on cue and whether it is genuine or just meant to get their photo. They like photographs with and of children. Something tells me we make appealing subjects!

John Berger, writing about photographs, said, “The thrill found in a photograph comes from the onrush of memory. This is obvious when the picture is something we once knew.”[6] What if any facts does this image bring to the memory of the one who captures it or to their audience? I wonder if they sit around analysing what is missing in the photographs they take. They have this ‘poor, but happy’ theme across their photographs. The idea of poverty or who is considered poor is so subjective. Mzungus like to say that we make them appreciate all that they have simply by our lack thereof. Maybe if they do not come looking for what we are lacking, they might find more than the bliss they frame. To their naive eyes, our smiles in photographs are happiness. Somehow my Blackness on this side of our red dirt road is poverty. Mzungus create their scene and situation. We just sit here in the frame.

In this frame, I stand in serenity watching as this Mzungu takes a photo of me. If you look closely, you will see the wooden bench where my mother was sitting. She walked away to get more bags for the charcoal. This photo only captures me standing here alone. Why didn’t he wait for my mother to return? How would this photo be any different? Perhaps if I looked like the Mzungu, the framing would not be the same. I watch Mzungus walk around here with cameras glued to their hands. I wonder if they have some sort of memory problem. That will explain documenting everyday happenings.

Cheryl Harris and Devon Carbado, in analysing photographs following hurricane Katrina, postulate that people come to see facts by their interpretations of those facts, which contribute to how the story gets framed.[7] This photograph, perhaps, represents authentic African village life. That is the thing about authenticity, it relies on others for validation. Who determines what’s authentic? How is it interpreted? This single moment in time, captured, can become the story of an entire place and its people. That is the magic of framing.

Often, the White man with the camera, outside of the race of his subjects, is motivated with capturing moments in photographs that he (mis)reads from his side of his lens. In the still, with an interest in capturing supposed authenticity, there is often no interaction. The framing of this photograph caters to the gaze of the photographer and the audience he will share it with. John Urry (1990) posits that real-life experiences are often hidden away so that the tourist gaze can find what they expect to see and that becomes authentic.[8] The gaze captured in this frame, in its one-sidedness, plays to the notion of African deficiency or, perhaps, the image of this little Black girl fits the western narrative of the continent. How different will this be if the roadside was somewhere in Iowa and the skin of the girl was not brown? 



Footnotes

[1] Francesca Sobande, Alice Schoonejans, Guillaume D. Johnson, Kevin D. Thomas & Anthony Kwame Harrison, “Enacting anti-racist visualities through photo-dialogues on race in Paris,” Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal 40, no. 2 (2021): 165–179, 165–166. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1108/EDI-01-2020-0019

[2] See, for example, Robin D. G. Kelley, Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America (Boston 1997: Beacon Press); Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, second edition (New York 2012 [1999]: Zed Books).

[3] The perceptual distinctions people make about races are also made on the bases of sounds, tastes, smells, and feels.

[4] Our decision to remove the little girl’s image from the below photo, which is accessible through the website unsplash.com (“The internet’s source of freely usable images”), was made in the interest of NOT participating in the very practice we critique. That is, using a Black child’s image without her consent. Accordingly, this creative, speculative essay projects how such a girl may have responded to the photographer photographing her. Readers interested in viewing the original image can find it at: https://unsplash.com/photos/l8kBCqz-P3o

[5] Mzungu plural varies by location (aBazungu, Bazungu, Azungu, etc). For the sake of clarity in this work, we consistently used Mzungus.

[6] John Berger, Keeping a Rendezvous (New York 1992: Vintage International), 192.

[7] Cheryl I. Harris and Devon W. Carbado, “Loot or Find: Fact or Frame?” in David Dante Troutt (ed.) After the Storm: Black Intellectuals Explore the Meaning of Hurricane Katrina (New York 2006: The New Press), 87–110.

[8] John Urry, The Tourist Gaze: Leisure and Travel in Contemporary Societies (London 1990: Sage Publications).


Zuleka Randell Woods

Zuleka Randell Woods is a doctoral student in the Planning, Governance, and Globalization program and a Master’s student in the public health program at Virginia Tech. She has a master’s degree in Higher Education from Northeastern University in Boston. Her current research interest centers on race and power structures in international programs. She recently published Ba-Ya: An Anthology of Short Stories on gender-based violence in Liberia. She lives in the hyphen of America and Liberia.

Anthony Kwame Harrison

Anthony Kwame Harrison is the Edward S. Diggs Professor in Humanities and Professor of Sociology, with a joint appointment in Africana Studies, at Virginia Tech. He holds a Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. He co-edited Race in the Marketplace: Crossing Critical Boundaries (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019) and Standpoints: Black Feminist Knowledges (Virginia Tech Publishing, 2019). Kwame is a member of the advisory board for the Race in the Marketplace (RIM) research network. He is a dual citizen of Ghana and the United States.