Can Photographs tell the Story of Black History and the Black Present?
Tina Campt is a historian who has turned to photography and visual culture to tell stories of black lives that have been left out of the history books. She spoke to Caroline Molloy about her work.
CM: First of all, I would like to ask you how you would like to introduce yourself for this piece? Your professional self?
TC: My professional self is a little schizophrenic because I come to my position and my research through various routes. I have a PhD in German history and I began my career as an Intellectual Historian who then became a Social and Oral Historian in order to do the work that I did on black Germans. Then, based on those oral histories, I was invited to curate an exhibition that was showcasing those life histories. That led me to photography because I found that photography told their stories even more vividly through a different medium. So I find it important to emphasise that I’m not a scholar trained in either the history of photography or art history or media studies. I am theorist who has come to photography and visual culture because it speaks to people and speaks for people in ways that animate what they think of themselves in a different way than language and text. In my work I engage photography and visual culture as a textual formation but I think it’s a formation that also demands other kinds of engagement as well.
So professionally, that is where I am. I define myself as a black feminist theorist of visual culture. The visual culture that I’ve been trying to understand more recently is contemporary art by black artists. And more formally, I am a professor of Humanities and Modern Culture and Media at Brown University, as well as a Research Associate at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa.
CM: How does it work with your post in America and your research associate position in Johannesburg?
TC: The research associateship is not something that’s remunerated but it’s an affiliation that I find important and useful because it allows me to bridge multiple communities. I’ve been connected with researchers, activists and artists in South Africa through this appointment. Before, you described my work as focused on migration, and I describe my work as focused on diaspora and those are slightly different formations. Diaspora is something that is less about movement and more about connections – across different boundaries and territories and communities. It’s about those connections rather than the movements between those different sites, even though there is movement there. The affiliation with South Africa is incredibly important to me because it allows me to have the kinds of conversations about the value of visual culture for black communities between and among different black communities.
CM: You have published three books that segway together beautifully: The Other Germans: Black Germans and the Politics of Race, Gender and Memory (2004), Image Matters (2012) and Listening to Images (2017). In the first of these you speak about the politics of memory work. Could you tell us a little bit more about this?
TC: That’s the last chapter. The preceding chapters focus on the oral histories of two black Germans, a man and a woman, who lived through the Nazi regime. There I used historical documentation to tell a story about how we are supposed to understand black Germans in this period and then I allow these narrators to tell their own story which in a lot of ways contradicts this. The last chapter, the one that you are talking about, is where I inserted myself into the conversation in ways that made more visible the fact that these were dialogues. I was the person who they were talking to when they were giving their accounts and I did not want to erase the fact that these were conversations they were having with an African American woman. And that that made a difference in how they were representing themselves.
It’s something I call ʻintercultural addressʼ. They would address me as an African American woman in order to make certain things clear about how our lives as racialised and gendered subjects were similar and at the same time quite different. They thought I would understand something about what they were saying, based on being a racialised subject, but at the same time they wanted to make clear to me that there were differences in the way in which we understood our respective experiences. There was always in these conversations this kind of floating unspoken thing that sometimes would get referenced as: ‘Well you as an African American, you might see it this way, I don’t see it this way’, or ‘You as an African American will understand this because we share these things’. I was trying to show in the chapter that in the context of these interviews and in research interviews in particular, there was also another dimension that has to do with how we represent ourselves to our interlocutors. In my interviews my interlocutors made certain discursive representations based on their assumptions about who I am and my experiences as an African American woman, and how best to convey their stories to me. They were creating certain kinds of bridges in order to be able to come to a common understanding of the meaning of what they were saying. The chapter was about how we make that visible within historical accounts and I was trying to show the subjective perspective of the individuals we research has a role in the way we understand history.
CM: In Image Matters you looked at two quite different archives in Europe. Could you explain your thought process and a little bit about the kinds of archives you looked at.
TC: There were no images in Other Germans; it was about their testimony and their memory narratives. But I eventually came into possession of some of their family photographs, as well as those of other Afro-Germans who were their contemporaries. So the starting point of that book was an exhibition I did where I was trying to present their narrative accounts of their lives to an audience that was not reading them. One of the observations that I had was that people won’t listen to something for an extensive period of time unless they have something to look at. To do that, they need a visual anchor. So, together with my collaborators, Nicola Lauré al-Samarai and Keith Piper, we collected some of the images of the people whose accounts we were trying to present. In doing this, I was reminded of the fact that so many times when I present my work on black Germans people would inevitably ask me ʻWhat did they look like?ʼ It was a question I understood to say that what they looked like would provide some kind of verification of their account: whether it was true or false or whether it made sense or not. There was an expectation that some kind of visual manifestation of their race would verify their experiences.
What I found instead was something more complicated. The archive of photographs that I assembled of these black Germans told stories of their families and how these individuals were embraced by their communities. They told stories about how these individuals, both as children and as adults, wanted to be seen in the context of a society that did not want to see that they had a black population. Even under an authoritarian regime like Nazi Germany, these were individuals who claimed Germaness proudly and visibly. It was something that they could narrate, but you saw that story differently through photographs. You saw them embrace their neighbours at a pub or at a christening or at a wedding. You saw them as members of a group and that again is the exact opposite of what you are told we would see in this period. We also don’t see a lot of things. We don’t see their challenges. Photographs invite us to think differently about their circumstances and they tell the narrative of this before it was ever written down.
This was the first archive I wrote about in Image Matters an archive of snapshots, family photographs that people had saved. It was a powerful manifestation of the relationships of these individuals to their communities because not only were they taken, they were given to other people. They were held and they were kept and passed on to the point where they got to me. The second collection I wrote about was an archive that Keith Piper told me about. He was born and raised in Birmingham and he told me about the Dyche Archive which included a vast collection of studio portraits of Afro-Caribbean migrants to the U.K. particularly for the period during and after the Windrush migration. The thing that was most striking to me about them was the fact that they were studio portraits. The practice of taking studio portraits was something that Caribbean communities had embraced long before they came to the UK. When they came over in the post war era, they sought to maintain that particular form of producing images of themselves. It was for this reason that they sought out photographic studios in the UK. But not just any studios; the ones that were affirming to them, that were accommodating to them and would create beautiful photographs of them to share with others – both in the UK and back home in the Caribbean. They made these photos to tell a story of success, a story of respectability, a story of doing well – even if those stories were not true. Photography was really a form of affirmation and a means of creating community in a period of time when the black British community was being treated horrifically in the U.K. But they were staking a claim to their Britishness nonetheless, in order to be able to embrace the narrative and the promise that had been made to them as British citizens in the Caribbean: ʻYou are part of the Commonwealth, and this is part of your identityʼ. So these images were made to refuse the rejection that they faced and to affirm their sense of who they were and to affirm both their relationship to the place where they were – in the U.K. – as well as the places that they came from in the Caribbean.
CM: In your next book, Listening to Images you talk about the audibility of the photograph, could you expand on what that is?
TC: It comes from an idea that certain kinds of photography solicit responses from us and I call those images ʻhaptic imagesʼ. The haptic is a term that is about different forms of touch. Photographs are deeply haptic because they are images that we touch: the actual photographs are objects that were made to be embraced, that were made to be exchanged, that were made to be held or displayed, that we have an embodied relationship to. But the haptic is also about being touched and one of the things I was trying to say is that we need to open ourselves up to the fact that we are moved by photographs. Not simply because of what we see in them but also because of what we are bringing to them. And we have to open ourselves up to other sensory modes to do this – more specifically listening. And the question I pose in order to help us to do this is: what if you background what you see and foreground what you feel when you are looking at an image? If we think about our relationship to sound then we have to understand it as also haptic. Sound is about waves making contact with you and we hear by having physical contact with sound waves. So listening is about sound touching us and about us responding to those touches. So what I’m trying to say in Listening to Images is that there is a multi-sensory, multi-layered sensation that we should allow ourselves to experience in our interactions with images. When we do, we open ourselves up to understanding a more complex relationship to images. What I’m trying to do in the book is to create a methodology for understanding different kinds of photography.
Listening to Images was particularly helpful in thinking about the Dyche collection. It’s a massive collection of studio portraits and a lot of them look exactly alike: they are all standing with the same objects and the same postures. One of the things that I found myself doing was not looking at these individual people, because I didn’t know any of them, but looking at the patterns in the archive and trying to allow myself to respond to the patterns, and the patterns were often almost like music: they had rhythms and they had peaks and ebbs and they had high frequencies and low frequencies. Listening to those images rather than just documenting what we see, allowed me to articulate both my relationship to them and the relationships between them.
CM: I was interested in the example you used on the cover of that book, by Martina Bacigalupo. Do you feel that’s a good example of what you’ve just spoken about?
TC: Martina Bacigalupo took photos, she made art, and she made a show out of the discarded photos of a Ugandan village. A photographer used to take ID photos and he used a format that made it more economical to take a full body portrait and then cut out the face, rather than using the more specific ID photograph format. When she visited his studio, she came upon all of these discarded photographs of just the bodies; everything but the face. She collected them and exhibited them and what they show so vividly is an entire story of what goes on outside an official document of identification. And that’s what Listening to Images is about. Identification photographs are supposed to be silent, the most mute form of photography with absolutely no sonic qualities. Theyʼre an instrument of governance which keep track of people and their movements. Seeing her images took me back to the Dyche collection and took me back to the passport photographs in the archives. I hadn’t written about them because I didn’t think they said anything. I initially found them to be completely lifeless because they were so regimented and the form was dictated by external forces. But after looking at Bacigalupo’s work I went back to them and I started thinking about what was cut out of them and what we might not have seen. And I realised that those photographs were taken to make passports but for people who already had passports. They had to already have a passport to get there, right. So they were taken as another way of thwarting the system, to say ʻYes, I will go anywhere I want to go and I’m going to use this system that’s supposed to regulate me, to work against the systemʼ.
So part of what I’m trying to do in Listening to Images is to think about mute photographs and to think about how they aren’t mute at all. Even in the most rigid forms of photography that we encounter: identification photographs, mugshots, passport photographs, ethnographic photographs – all of which are supposed to impose a story upon those whose pictures are being taken – when you listen beyond what you are seeing, what you recognise is something that’s often quite dissonant with the narrative that the photographic medium itself is trying to get us to understand.
CM: I read that your current research is around the black gaze could you tell us a little bit about this?
TC: The idea of a black gaze is about a shift in my work toward contemporary art rather than vernacular photography. This is a moment of extraordinary violence against black communities and one of the things that I’ve been struck by is how that violence is being communicated through visual media. I’m also profoundly struck by how black artists are creating work that is intervening in these processes and making us look differently at our screens. Their work is requiring us to position ourselves in relationship to blackness regardless of whether or not you are black or not. I’m looking at the work of people like Arthur Jafa, Deana Lawson, Simone Leigh, Dawoud Bey, Okwui Okpokwasili, Luke Willis Thompson, Kahlil Joseph. They are some of the artists whose work I think shifts the way we see our relationship to black life. I’m also looking at the ways black artists are creating different kinds of work that make us uncomfortable and that make us understand how we are implicated in the scenes they are showing us. It forces us to take up a new positionality in relationship to blackness that’s not about identification or about pity or sympathy or empathy. It’s about being implicated in what’s happening to black people and black communities. It is a result of the visualisation of black suffering and forcing people to grapple with that. It is also trying to get us to think about the status of visual culture in our contemporary politics and to embrace the fact that the art world has an extraordinarily important role to play in that reckoning.