Decolonizing research and photography

“From the vantage point of the colonized, a position from which I write, and choose to privilege, the term “research” is inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism.  The word itself, ‘research,’ is probably one of the dirtiest words in the indigenous world’s vocabulary.  When mentioned in many indigenous contexts, it stirs up silence, it conjures up bad memories, it raises a smile that is knowing and distrustful….  The ways in which scientific research is implicated in the worst excesses of colonialism remains a powerful remembered history for many of the world’s colonized peoples.

So begins Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s book, Decolonizing Methodologies:  Research and Indigenous Peoples (New Zealand: University of Otago Press 1999).  Smith, who is Maori,  could just as well be talking about journalism and photography.

I was reminded of this recently while reading Trading Gazes:  Euro-American Women Photographers and Native North Americans, 1880-1940 by Susan Bernardin, Melody Graulich, Lisa MacFarlane and Nicole Tonkovich.  Trading Gazes examines the life and work of four women photographers who courageously left behind their prescribed gender roles as well as the safety and comfort of their privileged communities to frequent, and sometimes live in, Native American communities. In many ways their motives were admirable. Some sought adventure, to be sure, but they also hoped to bring attention to and humanize “the other” in an era of much misinformation and stereotyping.  Their photographs often focused on human interactions and activities that male photographers neglected.  They “traded gazes” and often artifacts with the people they interviewed and photographed.

Yet the exchanges were often unequal.  In Trading Gazes the authors “explore the asymmetries of power that made these images possible in their own moment and that have preserved (or obscured) them for our own age.”  By reinforcing stereotypes their work contributed to the colonizing policies of the era.

Just how this works is described by American journalist Amy Wilentz in “A Place Called Haiti” (Aperture, Issue 126, 1992).  She begins her article by describing behavior that American observers often find bizarre – but which is entirely logical once you’ve “learned something of the grammar of Haiti’s reality.”  Even when we are socially aware, we bring with us certain expectations and assumptions and those affect what and how we photograph.  “Obviously, a photographer makes pictures of subjects that strike her, and those subjects may often be ones that, for some reason – often, the wrong reason – resonate in her mind.”  Likewise, she notes, a “good photograph is one that can be understood by its intended viewer because it reflects received wisdom and stereotype.”  In doing so, it confirms our assumptions and justifies our actions.

There is a often great contrast between the photographs of Haiti made by foreign and by Haitian photographers. Haitian photographs show a place they know as home and their photos tend to be truly documentary.  White photographers, Wilentz argues, are showing a place full of mystery, that they don’t fully understand.  “This makes their pictures mysterious, dense and attractive, but also keeps intact that wall of incomprehension that has long existed between Haitian subject and non-Haitian viewer.”

Dianne Haagaman explores this in her book, How I Learned Not to be a Photojournalist. Working as a newspaper photographer, she soon learned that there were templates that governed what editors wanted and how photographers photographed.  Faced with the need to organize messy reality in ways that get attention and communicate simple ideas, “Photographers…as a matter of efficiency, shoot from an implicit script, using standard forms to say standard things about standard topics.”   These powerful but simplified images often confirm stereotypes and assumptions.  They also ignore and obscure power dynamics.  Haagaman left conventional journalism and experimented with ways to use photography that would reveal and help analyze underlying power relationships.

How do we address these pitfalls?  One step, of course, is to be as aware of the hidden biases and the power dynamics in our  approaches.  Another is to immerse ourselves as much as possible in the context.  But none of this is likely to avoid the trap.  As I have discussed in earlier entries, what is required is that we change the relationship from researcher/photographer and subject to a reciprocal relationship of mutual collaboration. We must give as well as receive.  Above all, we must commit ourselves to deliberate accountability to those whose stories we tell and whose images we use.