Seeing whiteness

Seeing whiteness

This blog returns to a topic discussed in relation to some books on apartheid in an earlier blog of 7 January 2016 (Seeing: Apartheid in words and pictures). This proposed that the power of visual representation in photographic accounts of apartheid wins out over the written word alone because it involves the seeming collapse of ‘now’ and the moment of seeing, and ‘then’ when the photograph was taken. It seduces the person looking at a photograph because of,

“that conjuring trick of photography as a medium, of seeing ‘there and then’ both through the frameworks and understandings of the present moment of looking, and also and simultaneously as though through the camera’s lens at that past moment of seeing.”

But this is indeed a conjuring trick, and the dissimlitude involved has been known and widely acknowledged since John Berger wrote on ‘ways of seeing’, Roland Barthes on the ‘camera lucida’ and Susan Sontag ‘on photography’ and ‘regarding the pain of others’. Also, when looking at photographs that are not part of our own lives and histories, we necessarily regard them in denuded ways because lacking the reference points of insider knowledge that give them their richest meanings. Time, too, always stands between us now and them then, so there is a kind of haze covering the represented picture, a milky film across the eye that reduces the perceived sharpness of what is represented  – who are they? what are they doing? why has the photograph been taken? who was it given to and why? and the questions go on.

Whiteness and blackness as we presently understand them are part of the mind-set that we inhabit now. But they are not invariants in a natural order, but present-day social constructions of alarming simplicity that cover by summarising and reducing some of the complexities of human relationships and social settings. And what did these things mean back then, in a time long gone that was once the ‘now’ in which a photograph was taken 100 or 150 years ago?

A photograph in and of itself cannot provide the answers to this, but can perhaps start us out on the journey of finding out more. Take a look at this photograph, for instance.

caption-lessTake a really good look at it, then describe to yourself precisely and exactly what is there, what it shows. And in doing this, add nothing more to what you can actually see, although the information that the photograph comes from South Africa and was taken in 1908 might be helpful.

This is what I see:

There is a man stood on the left, perhaps in his 30s or so; he  is as my Mum would say bonny; he is black; he is wearing a scout-like garb that is almost a uniform or perhaps a bit like a safari suit and also polished boots and is holding a solar topee; he appears if not at ease then fairly confident; and he is looking out towards, but not quite four-square at, the viewer. There is a woman stood on the right; she is perhaps in her 40s or 50s; she is white and homely-looking; her clothes are drab and serviceable; she is holding an umbrella (protection from the sun rather than rain,  most likely); and she is looking right at the viewer. The two people have expressions that seem solemn or guarded, perhaps due to the exposure time needed to take the photograph, although by 1908 this would not have been prolonged.

Who are they? Why have they been photographed? Was it usual that a black man at that time in South Africa would have been dressed in such stylised Western clothes, almost a parody of the Imperial presence in Africa? Was it out of the ordinary that a black man and a white woman should be photographed together? They appear in the photograph around co-presence and in postures of equality – they are stood side-by-side, both are solemn or guarded, both are drably dressed, both stare out, and so on. There are no clues shown in the photograph as to the whys and wherefores here.

But I have cooked the books! The original photograph appears with a caption at its foot, for it was taken and was distributed, not as a private photograph, but as a public document recording a public and political event. So please look at the photograph below with its caption restored, and then consider whether the information that this provides adds to or subtracts from the description of what is going on in the photograph that was arrived at before.

Image 09-05-2016 at 12.14

What do the names Dinizulu, Cetshwayo, Colenso, mean now to those who look at this photograph? While the idea of a trial immediately raises legal proceedings and judgements, what was this particular trial about?  Which of the two people, if either, were on trial and why? And what was the outcome? With their names restored, can something of the relationship between them be recovered? And if so how, for this is not shown other than that they are standing side-by-side?

And, what about whiteness here, what does the photograph show about this? The black man and the white woman are together in the photograph, but can unpacking the relationships going on proceed much further than this?

Time has made almost everything about this photograph elliptical in quality. We now lack the reference points and situated knowledges that would give it its full meaning, the meaning that it had then, in the time and place of having been taken.

In fact, the books here have been cooked twice! A Trace which discusses this photograph and another one which also raises complicated questions about whiteness in relationship with blackness in the South African context is being published on the WWW website. It ‘tells all’ about the trial, who these people are, who kept the photograph and why, as well as a similar range of now forgotten histories concerning people and circumstances regarding the second photograph.

To read this Trace, on ‘Whiteness, now you see it, now…’, please go to:

Last updated: 12 May 2016


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