The Study of Kin

“Whether conscious of it or not, archivists are major players in the business of identity politics.

Archivists appraise, collect, and preserve the props with which notions of identity are built. In

turn, notions of identity are confirmed and justified as historical documents, which validate

with all their authority as “evidence” the identity stories so built”

 Cook, T & Schwartz, J.M 2002, Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory Archival Science 2, Kluwer Academic: p16.

When embarking on my research I hoped to find images of black people that displayed a superficially impartial aesthetic, like those of Julia Margaret Cameron, and Fred Holland Day in the 19th century, but by black photographers. However, such images showing positive representations of black subjects were not evident in the British national archives.

I was astonished by this lack of visibility and could hardly believe that in Britain, unlike in the USA, representations of black people by black photographers, from the time of the invention of Photography onwards, did not exist.

My search for images relating to the construction of black identity, by non-black photographers, led me to the discovery that historic representations of the “other” do not record and reveal the authentic, but instead, are burdened by political circumstances and colonial conditioning. The images I encountered, like Louis Agassiz’s slave portraits presented uniformly negative (to our contemporary eyes) stereotypes that seem to have produced harmful constructions of black identity.

The title of my work ‘Study of Kin’, balances early photographic representation of the colonial “other” with the scientific, documentary nature of classification. It is based on the visual landscape that has been mapped and codified by other photographers, anthropologists, criminologists, biological racialists and eugenicists, who added to the competing discourses on race during the 19th and 20th centuries. The title refers to the study of man to which anthropological and ethnographical ways of seeing difference/other have often been associated, in this case, my family are the ones being looked at, hence the use of the term ‘Kin’.

Throughout the colonial and post-colonial period, photography was used as a powerful instrument for measurement and surveillance. Nudity was used as a visual marker of primitive and underdeveloped races – seen as akin to animals. This primitiveness was one the markers used against black-skinned peoples to prove their ‘inferiority”. This allowed the gaze of the white viewer to survey the bodies of the “other” not as individual people but as objects to examine, to use, and to own.

I have visualized the sitters, in particular in the portrait work, as carriers of that past. The bare back, a powerful symbol of the whipping of slaves, suggests the view of the black person as “something” to be controlled and managed. The semi-nude double portrait could reflect the attitude of the anthropologist’s need to look and document. The image in which the face is partially hidden employs the artistic yet emphatic view of the other. While at the same time it has a hidden political agenda, like in the images of Prince Alamayou by Julia Margaret Cameron. The showing of the shoulder hints at the colonial mode of power in which control of the body is central, denoting ownership.

I have chosen to use the formal, scientific, colonial style of image making, to emphasie the relationship of historical image representation to our contemporary lives. This involves use of the ‘studio type’ backdrop which (historically) transforms those photographed into specimens by dehumanizing them from subject to object. I have chosen to add an aesthetic intimacy and/or romanticism that shows not only familial connections but also a displacement of the ethnographic patronizing frame, as employed by Prince Roland Bonaparte, Edward Curtis and Sir Everard Im Thurn.

My smaller images aim to recreate the frenzy of collecting, classifying and ordering that gave rise to the introduction of the album in the 19th century. The small size of the prints in 'The Family Album' aims to reflect the carte des visite of the time especially in its political role in distancing the “superior” classes from the ‘other’ and maintaining their imperial notion of superiority, by showing spectacle (through exhibitions fairs), and “otherness”. I, in turn aim to show diversity by mapping the bodies of my family members; enabling a cataloging, a classifying which is personal, instead of institutional.

The collectable nature of cartes des visite, was linked strongly with the idea of possession. This can be seen to have allowed the fetishistic nature of the photograph to emerge, as explored later by Freud and Christian Metz. For example, the sexual representation of black (female) bodies for repressed Victorian society, as exemplified by the Hottentot Venus, produced the stereotype of black women as having bestial sexual appetites. I have used the body parts in my images to propose similarities between the family members, generating them as a system of types, looking for similarities. I am suggesting, by the quantity of the images and by the content of the body parts, a need to capture, document, control and order my family in such a frenzy that shows that I want to control how they are seen, both now and for future observers.

I am hoping that the portraits and the smaller images compliment and complete the ‘family album’ and show me as a contemporary ethnographer, anthropologist and archivist by capturing and controlling what I hope to be historical documents of identity. I hope that it allows the viewer to think about what is shown in archives (private and public) and how the history of representation has been determined by control. I have placed them in this manner, hoping that the personal archive that I make appropriates and subverts negative methods of the past to create something new and celebratory. In this way I hope to bridge the gap between historical visual vocabularies and present day representations.

Marcia Michael gained an MA in Photography with Distinction from the London School of Communication Here you can download and read her essay entitled - Photographic images of black persons: Do the photographs of Prince Alamayou by Julia Margaret Cameron, and the Girl with white collar, by Fred Holland Day; offer an alternative to the accepted Victorian view of black people?