Author of Decolonising the Camera: Photography in Racial Time and Director at Autograph ABP
For the latest instalment in our Interview series, Caroline Molloy speaks with British curator and cultural historian Mark Sealy MBE on the occasion of his new book published by Lawrence & Wishart Decolonising the Camera: Photography in Racial Time. Since 1991 Sealy has held the position of Director at Autograph ABP, the London-based organisation championing the work of artists who use photography and film to highlight issues of identity, representation, human rights and social justice. Here he discusses the importance of challenging the matrix of colonial epistemic power that surrounds the reading of photographic images; how the history of photography can only be completely encompassing if the ‘voice of the subaltern is made critically present within it’; and the need for artists to be brave and to work in the knowledge of what has gone before but to not allow oneself to be chained to the past.
Mark Sealy would like to dedicate the text to Peter Clack “a brilliant Project Manager”, a friend and friend of Autograph ABP. Also to Bisi Silva, Alanna Lockward and Okwui Enwezor, all great decolonial curators and activists who have passed away during 2019.
Caroline Molloy: Thank you for agreeing to add your voice to this publication. To open the conversation for our readers it would be good to introduce how you hope the book adds to, and moves forward existing post-colonial literature, following on from the likes of Homi Bhabha’s The Location of Culture (1994) and Stuart Hall’s ‘New ethnicities’ essay in The Post-Studies Reader (2006), to name but a few.
Mark Sealy: I think it’s important for us to keep working through new and established ideas all the time. We must stay in dialogue with critical theory and make sure we work in multiple directions at once. These days I’m as much influenced by the music of John Coltrane because of the way he makes me feel and think along with work produced by some cultural theorist. The brilliance of scholars such as Professor Stuart Hall and Homi Bhabha is that they have gifted us some wonderful tools to work with. Hall’s text titled New Ethnicities, for example, is as critical now as it was when it was published 30 years ago. Part of the work I wanted Decolonising the Camera: Photography in Racial Time to do is to encourage the reader to challenge the matrix of colonial epistemic power that surrounds the reading of photographic images.
CM: A main argument in the book seems to highlight the need to understand and acknowledge that the history of photography can only be completely encompassing if the ‘voice of the subaltern is made critically present within it’, as you put it. Could you share your thoughts about how it redresses notions of cultural erasure?
MS: Within the book I suggest that decolonising the photographic image is an act of unburdening it from the assumed, normative, hegemonic, colonial conditions present, consciously or unconsciously, in the moment of its original making and in its readings and displays. This is therefore a process of locating the primary conditions of a racialised photograph’s coloniality and, as such, decolonising the camera works within a form of black cultural politics to destabilise the conditions, receptions and processes of Othering a subject within the history of photography. I guess in short what I am claiming is that there can not only be one cultural perspective on reading the work an image does in culture. I think a plurality of cultural voices amplified in the world helps us all work towards a greater understanding of the different ways of being and signs of recognition. Emancipation of the mind also means learning to unlearn and allow different knowledge systems into the realm on thinking. I like the idea of thinking with images rather than thinking for them.
CM: In your introduction you write: ‘A key function of decolonising the camera is to not allow photography’s colonial past and its cultural legacies in the present to lie unchallenged and un-agitated, or to be simply left as an unquestioned chapter within the history of the medium.’ In tandem with this, how would you describe the act and processing of decolonising the ‘image’?
MS: There is no one correct way of decolonising or reading an image. That notion, or prescription, works as being counter to what has been said over many years by scholars working against the grain of colonial aggression. I agree with Walter Mignolo and the late Alanna Lockward when they encouraged us to delink thought from the academy and to encourage new ways to re-exist and resist the aggression of colonialism in all its forms.
CM: I am intrigued to read the critical complexity with which Alice Seeley Harris’ photographs, documents of the violent atrocities inflicted on the Congolese people at the end of the 19th century, are unpacked within the book. Accepting the shift in the reading of these photographs, and what it illuminates within a contemporary socio-political context, do you think there is a need to re-read photographs from the past at different historical moments (those relating to race, rights and human justice, or otherwise)?
MS: I absolutely think we have to begin a re-reading of the past, especially concerning the work historical and contemporary images do on us in the present. There is so much for us to learn and unlearn, so many knowledges systems to engage with and new ways of seeing, being and listening that I think a reading of the past concerning photography is both essential and exciting.
CM: There is a politic to how all the photographs are discussed in this book. I am particularly interested in the analysis of Wayne Miller’s Chicago’s South Side 1946-48 that were eventually published in book form in 2000, within the context of (consciously or unconsciously) white privilege. Miller, an experienced war photographer, funded by the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1946 and 1948 spent prolonged periods photographing Chicago’s African American communities. Given the long overdue publication of this work, do Miller’s photographs still have value for the viewer?
MS: Miller’s photographs are really important documents. We have to recognise that Miller was working in one time and his subjects were caught within another. They meet only for a short period of time. This moment is key, it’s a sentence in a much wider visual chapter. I like to think about photography as being part of the journey, a story or a visual puzzle that has so many missing pieces. As human subjects I am convinced that we are not in the same space-time dynamic that’s why we have to read the work of Miller both within and outside of the frames he made. He has to be positioned within the privileges he had and we also have to look at what he photographed as an opportunity to discuss the place of race in the world immediately after WWII.
CM: This book offers an important contribution to the histories of photography and representation of the Other. Within this frame of reference, could you explain the milieu that locates the following sentence? ‘The black gaze is a radical oppositional act that has its location in many different origins associated with power.’
MS: The idea of a black oppositional gaze is located in the work of many important photographic histories from the work of James Van Der Zee to Carrie Mae Weems. From Vanley Burke to Joy Gregory. From Frederick Douglass to Kobena Mercer. From Rotimi Fani Kayode to Zanele Muholi and many others in different times and locations. It’s clear however that there is an on-going battle over the dignity of black lives and the fight over images of black people and the right to be seen with dignity is very real. This battle spans centuries and there are clear lines of affiliation that can be drawn into and across the history to these radical acts of decolonial photography dialogues.
CM: Having built an argument across the book for decolonising the camera, a linear connection can be made between the decisive turn in Stuart Hall’s Reconstruction Work: Images of post war black settlement (1984), and the concluding chapter Rights and Recognition in the Late Twentieth Century, both of which shape arguments concerning the construction of black subjectivities in the face of Western visual culture. You assert that the 1980s was a ‘critical decade’ for black British photography, while the 1990s should also be read as a ‘transformative period that heralded the arrival of the Other as photographer within mainstream Western cultural institutions’. Given these conditions, how does this discourse continue in the 21st century, in terms of the politics of representation and market for black subjects or identities?
MS: We have to now consider that we are in an image sphere. Images circulate around the globe faster than ever before. This image velocity is creating cultural heat and this heat is producing a new energy flow of images especially from those who are designated as being ‘new’ to the means of production. This image flow or production of meaning is being interrupted and that turbulence is what I believe we are now witnessing. Work from outside of Europe and North America or from designated marginalised communities is now part of an unstoppable flow of image meaning that is transforming the traditional way photography has been understood this is a massive challenge to the museum and gallery world.
CM: Finally, it is fascinating how the work of conceptual photographers, such as Rotimi Fani-Kayode and Joy Gregory are discussed within a decolonised framework. Having constructed this framework, what advice would you give emerging BAME artists when thinking through and developing their own practice?
MS: I invite all artists to be brave and to work in the knowledge of what has gone before but do not allow oneself to be chained to the past or simply replicate what has been done. I think we have to think about the Jazz of it all and make work that is multidirectional, pluriversal and hybrid in nature. Most importantly, I think we have to make work that has generosity at its heart that is open and inviting to make images that help us out of the matrix of colonial violence. ♦
Image courtesy Mark Sealy. © Elina Kansikas