A tintype of an African sculpture from the artists home

‘Decolonising the Camera: Photography in Racial Time’: Mark Sealy’s decolonial perspective on photography

By Maya Campbell

Artwork by Maya Campbell

Edited by Ketaki Zodgekar

In comparison to older visual languages such as painting, the relative newness of photography as a creative medium and the vast quantity of images it generates for consumption can be disorientating, especially when we want to evaluate the history of photography. As a tool, the image is highly flexible: historically, images have been digested by the public as a representation of social realities, despite their highly subjective and malleable nature. During my second year studying BA Photography at London College of Communication (UAL), we started to delve into theory surrounding contemporary photographic issues and practices. However, there was a noticeable vacuum in our lectures and recommended reading lists when it came to post-colonial critiques of images depicting the ‘Other’ throughout history. Though fascinating, all of the main thinkers whose theories our curriculum centred were greatly limited, their concepts produced through the prism of whiteness, masculinity and economic agency. 

Three of the primary theorists featured in our ‘Cultural Machines’ module were Lacan, Deleuze and Derrida. I was particularly drawn to Lacanian concepts such as the mirror stage, the imago and the difference between the real (the state of nature from which we have been severed by our entrance into language), imaginary (the fundamental narcissism by which the human subject produces fantasy images of both himself and his ideal object of desire) and the symbolic realms (the social world of linguistic communication, intersubjective relations, knowledge of ideological conventions, and the acceptance of the law). Through the concept of the ‘mirror stage’, Lacan argues that to recognise oneself as “I” is to identify with your own self-image, a pre-verbal creation of narcissistic phantasies within yourself, occurring from 6-18 months of age before entering into language. Over time, the fantasy image fills with the visages of others who we may want to emulate in our adult lives, the people we set up as a mirror for who we want to be – this is the Lacanian concept of the ‘imago’, the image with which the infant identifies. However, these theories had huge shortcomings when applied to Black photographic subjects: the same Lacanian rules and assumptions cannot apply in the same way to the Black subject, who has only been truthfully represented in photography in recent years, outside of the lifetime of the theorists that we were taught. The theories of Lacan, Deleuze and Derrida rest on the assumption that all children are provided with sufficient examples of potential role models and are surrounded by images of people who they can easily identify with, and hence do not provide a complete analysis of Black photographic subjects. 

Decolonising the Camera by Mark Sealy (2019) was gifted to me by my partner’s mother. It is a pivotal post-colonial critique of photography that not only further shaped my views on the genesis of the black body within image-production, but profoundly influenced my own photographic practice. For me, it theorised an intuitive truth that I have always known, highlighting the power of the black self-image as an antidote to the oppressive work that photography has performed historically on the bodies of people seen as ‘Other’ by colonial powers. Sealy proposes that “it is necessary to recognise photography as an active agent of Western colonising authority at work on the body of the Other, both in the past and in the present.” 

Father stares at the hand and foot of his five-year-old, severed as a punishment for failing to make the daily rubber quota, Belgian Congo, Alice Seeley Harris, 1904

Highlighting the powerful role of photography in mediating the barbaric abuse of human rights during the Congo Atrocities from 1885 to 1908, Sealy analyses the work of English missionary and early documentary photographer Alice Seeley Harris whose images relay a glimpse into the full extent of violence enacted under the rule of King Leopold II in the Congo. Despite acknowledging the agency of Seeley Harris’ photographs in spurring people to challenge King Leopold, he also links them to the broader “legacy of this visual desire for African flesh” which is “still very much alive and is clearly evidenced today through the outputs of Western media and charitable institutions that use broken black bodies to raise funds for their causes.” 

What Sealy describes here continues in the present day, in the scenes of African American death at the hands of white police officers that are shared virally across social media platforms. Despite their potency in rallying people together to protest against injustice, these videos are also re-appropriated by brands, performative activists and individuals who passively disseminate these disturbing and traumatic images of racialised subjugation, without committing to any real sustained decolonial study. Sealy’s ideas about historical and contemporary shifting Western perceptions of Africa are highly important tools with which to understand the present day landscape of image-production and consumption of imagery depicting the Black body. 

Sealy shrewdly unpacks the political and historic consequences of the violence depicted in Seeley Harris’ work: 

“They created a seismic shift in the Western viewer’s perceptions of Africa, moving past the staged fantasy of the cannibal, shifting away from the exotic or pornographic postcards and towards a new domain of visual pleasure, one that engages in the spectacle of horror and violence enacted on the black body as a form of consumption. Seeley Harris’s images introduced a degree of pathos within the photographic rendering of the African subject; they aimed to generate viewers’ sympathy above their curiosity.”

Not only did these photographs provide irrefutable proof of the atrocities occurring in Congo, but they also veered away from the exoticisation of African people and generated a completely new way of seeing the African subject, as a victim of violence.

Beyond critiquing images’ brutal potential to entrench and embed dehumanisation and racist violence, Sealy writes richly about the ever-growing field of Black self-portraiture. In sensitive and resonant passages, he gives voice to the potential of the lens to provide visual agency and opportunities for truthful self-expression to photographers and artists from marginalised communities. Lyrically and poetically, Sealy theorises the transcendent importance of imaging ourselves:

“Black self-portraiture, in this historical moment, has broken many of its links with the dominant ‘western’ humanist celebration of self and has become more the staking of a claim, a wager. Here, the black self-image is, in a double sense, an exposure, a coming out. The self is caught emerging.”

My most recent audiovisual piece ‘Adding A Face’ was highly influenced by this study, drawing on my mixed heritage and the ancient practice of mask-making in both my Nepali and Jamaican lineage. The short poetry film utilises the language used to describe the ‘Other’ in Western culture – creating a rhythmic chant, a ritualistic fiction in which the Self of the Other is fragmented and divided between past, present and future tenses: acknowledging ancestral links to where our heritage traces back to, places that may also be ‘Other’ to us in a sense. In a post-Brexit society, I found myself reflecting on what it means to be both Black and Asian, living in London but retaining a strong link to both of those cultures. This piece also addresses the colonial history of museums, particularly looking at the spiritual function of indigenous masks, that are seen to be not fulfilling their true purpose when in stasis behind sterile glass displays in countless collections across Europe and the UK. My piece ‘Adding A Face’ won the ‘Windrush Waves’ competition held by the Black Cultural Archives and can be viewed below, along with an extended artist talk.

Adding A Face, Maya Campbell, 2020

Rotimi Fani-Kayode’s practice is beautifully referenced by Sealy, who explored the friction between sexual, racial and cultural identity through highly composed self-portraits. A pioneer of the 1980’s Black British and African contemporary art movements, Fani-Kayode drew upon ancestral rituals and archetypal motifs from both European and African cultures. The son of a well-respected Yoruba family, they left Africa in 1966 as political refugees to escape the Nigerian Civil War – his methodology is inspired by what Yoruba priests refer to as ‘the technique of ecstasy’.

Image result for rotimi fani kayode four twins
Four Twins, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, 1985

We are in a time when the power to create imagery has largely been democratised.  Photography as a medium no longer only belongs to the ruling and middle classes, it is no longer only accessible to those able to afford expensive film cameras with access to developing studios. The emergence of smartphones and new ways of sharing images via social media has made photography a highly accessible and desirable form – allowing for a whole host of people who in the years following its creation in 1839, would never have been seen worthy of being photographed, let alone possessing the power to capture an image. Sealy highlights the sometimes neocolonial and violent, sometimes radical and empowering effects that photography can have. Every student that works with images – whether in art, photography, literature, history or medicine – would benefit from reading Sealy’s work, and reflecting on the power images can have in both dehumanising and empowering those seen as ‘Other’.

Works cited

Sealy, Mark. Decolonising the Camera: Photography in Racial Time. Lawrence & Wishart, 2019.

Alice Seeley-Harris. Father stares at the hand and foot of his five-year-old, severed as a punishment for failing to make the daily rubber quota, Belgian Congo. Rare Historical Photos, 2016. https://rarehistoricalphotos.com/father-hand-belgian-congo-1904/ .

Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Four Twins, Artsy, 1985. https://www.artsy.net/artwork/rotimi-fani-kayode-four-twins-1 .

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Maya Campbell (@mayajcampbell) is a South London based visual artist and writer who draws inspiration from femininity, nature and her dual cultural heritage. She is currently studying Photography at London College of Communication and running an online bookshop (@prajnabookshop) with her partner. Maya is presently researching the ancient practice of mask making, particularly the fetishisation within the African mask market and writing her dissertation on black feminist performance artists of the 60s, 70s and 80s. 

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