A yummy day with a book delivery from Duke University Press. Seriously, by this point, I should have shares in the company; that’s how many books I buy from them. Today’s haul includes Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life, Elspeth Probyn’s Eating the Ocean, and Eli Clare’s Brilliant Imperfection, all of which are destined for this fall’s iteration of the graduate feminist theory seminar. But it also included Tina Campt’s Listening to Images, an extended meditation on the counterstories that images of black diasporic subjects, ostensibly meant for surveillance purposes – identification cards, passports, etc – might tell. As she observes in the introduction, “identification photos are not produced at the desire of their sitters. They are images required of or imposed upon them by empire, science, or the state” (5). And because of the rigid rules that have often governed their production, such photos have rarely been studied in great detail. But by listening closely to them, different stories might emerge, stories that challenge the logics by which they were originally created.
In her book, Campt gets at the heart of my own archival discomforts in this project: how do I work with material designed expressly to dehumanize? And how can I read that material differently? But it also gets at another element of this project: the visual archives that remain of colonial lives and experiences. The online archives in the Rijksmuseum’s Rijksstudio, for example, include many photos of the so-called Coolie Depot where all incoming indentured labourers were brought to be processed. The Flickr stream of the Surinaams Museum, meanwhile, offers photographs of plantation life. But most of these photos were taken not to support those who toiled on the plantations, or those who were brought – often under extreme duress – to Suriname, but rather, to document the activities of a colonial system. How, then, to read them differently?
I’ve written previously about ethnographic refusal, and Campt, too, draws on the notion of refusal. For Tuck and Wang, refusal is about an approach to research; it’s about methodology. For Campt, however, refusal lies in the photographed subjects themselves: what are they doing – in the way they sit for the camera, in the way they dress, in the very fact that they’ve had their photos taken – to resist the narratives that have been carved out for them.
It was just over ten years ago that I found a stack of old black and white photos in a used bookstore in London, Ontario. All neatly packaged in clear cellophane wrapping,, they were gathered together under a single heading: “Instant ancestors.” I was with my mom at the time. We poked through them, holding up particularly intriguing photos, and had a good laugh. But as I think back to this collection, it strikes me that the ‘family photo’ itself as a particular series of conventions attached to it, and it is these conventions that allow us to find the humour in the photos. These conventions made it possible for us to laugh.
But these photos were out of context. Completely divorced from their ‘real’ families, their stories are much more opaque. How can we read them? And what stories might they tell?
Photographs appear in the most random of places. As a first year university student in Victoria a few decades ago, I found a photograph of a toddler with round cheeks in the middle of a book that hadn’t been taken out in twenty years. More recently, I found another, in an interlibrary loan from the University of Toronto. They’d functioned as bookmarks, I imagine, and then the borrower had come up against a due date, stuffed the books into a bag, and completely forgotten about the photos.
Like the London photos and the discarded passport photos Campt analyzed, these photos were accidents, bits of stories that somehow got away, that ended up in completely different contexts.
Instant ancestors, indeed.
[and yes: p.s., I purposely chose not to include photos.]
Campt, Tina M. Listening to Images. Duke UP, 2017.
Tuck, Eve and K. Wayne Yang. “R-Words: Refusing Research,” in D. Paris and M. T. Winn, Eds. Humanizing Research: Decolonizing Qualitative Inquiry with youth and Communities. Thousand Oakes, CA: Sage Publications, 2014.
Tuck, Eve and K. Wayne Yang. “Unbecoming claims: Pedagogies of refusal in qualitative research.” Qualitative Inquiry 20.6 (2014): 811-818.