Mark Sealy – Decolonising the Camera: Photography in Racial Time

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Notes from Sealy’s book:

Throughout this text I suggest that a photograph of a racialised subject must be both located in and then de-located from the racial and political time of its making and not solely articulated by its descriptive (journalistic) or aesthetic (artistic) concerns. I maintain that it is only within the political and cultural location of a photograph that we can discover the coloniality at work within it, and only then, through understanding this, can a process of enquiry begin into the nature of its colonial cultural coding. A key aspect of decolourising 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 the given norm within the history of the medium. 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, such, decolourising 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‘. (pg. 2)

‘Throughout this text, I examine the visual and structural complexities at work within a given photograph’s social and political formation, which I refer to as its ‘racial time’. Racial time enables us to consider a photograph’s function as a sign within the historical conditions concerning the ‘relations of representation’ that Hall discussed in ‘New ethnicities’. I employ the idea of racial time to signify a different but essential colonial temporality at work within a photograph’. (pg. 3)

‘The legacies of colonialism and racism worry the history of photography. They enable the fractures of enlightenment and humanitarian thought to haunt the present’. (pg. 5)

I maintain that photography is dominated by the legacy of colonial consciousness repressed in the present‘. (pg. 6)

The story of Alice Seeley Harris and her Congo missionary work, lantern slide shows in the UK. Whilst this work was done with the best of intentions, and it profoundly affected informed public opinion especially against the Belgian colonial power, it also underlined English (white) superiority and the (Christian) civilising mission.

The photos’ original display and reception was as theatrical lantern slides, which functioned within a specific set of scripted performative narratives working to service and expand the objectives of British Protestant missionaries based in the heart of the Belgian Catholic Congo. Locating them back within this context deepens their significance, enabling us to consider missionaries with cameras as people uniquely situated on the front line of the British empire, fuelling with their ‘knowledge’ the wider enterprise of British colonialism. On the surface, these ostensibly benign photographs ‘humanise’ the African subject by exposing King Leopold II’s regime of violence. But they can also be read as rallying calls, not for the liberation and freedom of African subjects, but for the construction of a higher, morally colonising authority that was understood as uniquely British and therefore just’. (pg. 7/8)

Alice Seeley Harris. 1904. Nsongo District. Nsala of Wala with severed hand and foot of his five-year-old daughter murdered by BAIR militia. This was all that remained of a cannibal feast following the murder of is wife, son and daughter.

Seeley Harris’s images hold a unique place within the history of photography. That she was one of the first women photographers to pick up a camera in the cause of humanity represents a critical turn in the history of photography, and forces us to rethink how it has been written in relation to gender, religion, race and empire. Her photographs also show important early images of African victims of violent direct colonial rule. The work they perform across the history and visualisation of violence in Africa is fundamental to the visual, physical and political pressures to which the African body has been subjected in colonial and postcolonial encounters. Seeley Harris’s images demonstrate European photography at work in Africa and trace the genealogy of photographic practices and representations that frame the African subject in crisis‘. (pg. 12)

Alice Seeley Harris. 1905. Congolese Children.

Slavery as a period of shame rest and advocates of the abolition movement well celebrated and honoured. Seeley Harris’s photography produced emotive rememory work, by reawakening the spectre of European slavery. The images critiqued the Western world’s sense of progress and, as archival records of Western endeavour, now allow us to peek into the dark side of Enlightenment thought‘. (pg. 34/35)

There has been much discussion about photographs and their capacity to trouble the subconscious, as well as the unfixed nature of their meaning and reception. photograph might be a fixed image but its meaning is much less stable’ (Campany 2007, p.20), and its reception cannot be guaranteed Hall 1973). do not carry universal meanings. ‘Rather, an image speaks” to specific sets of viewers who happen to be tuned into some aspect of the image, such as style, content, the world it constructs, or the issues it raises (Sturken 2001:45). It is important to recognise time, place and emotive voice in the location and reception of photographs, especially when looking at the Other, and the cultural positionality of the different people in the imagination of those doing the looking‘. (pg. 34/35)

The story of Ota Benga, a Congolese Pygmy who was exhibited in a New York zoo with apes (pg. 42).

One of the key points of ignition for this debate was the now seminal work by Susan Sontag, On Photography, in which she stated: ‘The ethical content of photographs is fragile. With the possible exception of of those horrors, like the Nazi camps, that have gained the status of ethical reference points, most photographs do not keep their emotional charge’ (Sontag 1973, p.l6). Sontag here suggests that most photographs are temporarily and culturally charged with ethical power at the time of their production and initial consumption, but then later become transformed into petrified moments of atrocity whose ethical power is degraded. The exception to this rule, for Sontag, are photographs from Nazi concentration camps. Perhaps such images resonate across time whenever mass acts of violence are shown to us, but the context of their original display and meanings produced will always be open to deconstruction. It is clear that there is a degree of memory management at work when we consider what constitutes the central motif of discussions on the theme of atrocity‘. (pg. 66)

Nazi images were known since 1935 but Life (and others) paid scant attention until the opening of the camps (pg. 68/70), as this tended to be seen as Soviet propaganda until the Allies actually saw for themselves. (pg. 72). The Russians were even seen as terminators rather than liberators, as that was the Allies role / right (pg. 75). Yet, despite huge outpouring of sympathy for the Jews who were murdered, there was little overt sympathy for the slaves or other camp victims.

Note that the Allied Victory Parade in Paris was all white (pg. 89).

In Life’s ‘Atrocities’ feature of 7th May 1945 (pg. 81 onwards), race was totally omitted. Rather the article aided US foreign policy.

The editors of Life can therefore be charged with a large degree of misrepresentation and race management through the use of the from the death camps, because they did not provide their readers with the critical information concerning the majority of the victims. The ‘Atrocities’ photographs, which flow seamlessly into those taken at the San Francisco Conference, can now be read as working more to aid American national and foreign policy during the conference than as working to highlight the core violent and racial realities of the death camps. If had seen fit originally to position these images within the context of the racist violence to which they now belong, then it is possible that those campaigning for the rights of the black Americans and subject peoples at the conference would have had a powerful visual tool to assist their cause. They aimed to enshrine anti-racist clauses fully within the formulation of any new universal declaration, but anti-racism and colonial freedoms were omitted from the outcomes of the San Francisco Conference. This created despair among key black political activists such as Max Yergan and Walter White. The latter commented that ‘the San Francisco [UN] Charter provided “scant hope for liberation” for the 750 million people in non-self-governing areas’ (Anderson 2003, p.56). Life had the opportunity to explain that race was integrally part of the concentration camps, but they did not. And thus, even with the increasing amount of visual evidence that was emerging from the camps, the dominant powers driving the formation of the United Nations failed to recognise the catastrophic disasters of race -orientated violence‘. (pg. 105)

Archival photographs are a message from the past. They open and adjust our understanding of the the way we were (pg 106)

Azoulay (2015: 195) suggests that the impact of the archive can be dulled (pg. 108).

The archive of the world image bank has built fortunes by trading in malign images of the Other.

The mass of photographs taken in Africa by Europeans, such as the one made in 1923 and sent back to England as a colonial Christmas card from the African Oil Nuts Company and Miller Brothers, based in Nigeria, illustrates the debasing approach by colonials to taking photographs of Africans as a form of trophy image-making.

The full caption reads: ‘Christmas photograph of staff at the African Oil Nuts Company and Miller Brothers. Three rows of bare-chested African workers pose for the camera, each man’s chest painted with a letter spell out ‘1923, Badagry, Merry Xmas’. Four Europeans dressed in white sit on a makeshift bench up front beside three African children, possibly domestic servants. Badagry, Nigeria, circa 1923 Badagry, Lagos, Nigeria, Western Africa, Africa’. (Bristol Archives)

This seminal photograph now forms part of a permanent exhibition at Liverpool’s Slavery Museum. It is on continuous public display, because it highlights the colonial cultural arrogance that was at work visualising the black body in the early part of the twentieth century. (pg. 110)

Racial time does not tick along in a fashion that produces seconds, minutes, hours and days. It works more like a cultural pulse in which the political conditions around it cause it to quicken or slow down. (pg. 115)

Churchill saw Empire as both Britain’s right and means of survival until US joined WWII (pg 122).

Black people (from the Empire) featured more favourably in UK war effort posters ((pg. 126) to encourage more of sense of working together, united.

US Army had issues with segregation (see Olusoga) Also ran ‘together we win’ campaigns (pg. 138)

1960s – independence of African states from Colonial rule (pg. 160)

Wayne Miller, war photographer who was at the Camps, turned his attention to US social conditions.

Miller’s Chicago project for his Guggenheim Fellowships was formally titled ‘The Way of Life of the Northern Negro‘, drawing on St Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton’s title ‘Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro in a Northern City’. The specific use of the word ‘Northern’ in Miller’s title helped to define the parameters of his photography culturally and politically. It also signified an important characteristic in Miller’s approach to the project: he, like Drake and Cayton, recognised that in 1946 black Americans living in the north were distinctly different. These people, who had established themselves in Chicago, could no longer be framed as being culturally from elsewhere, transient Others, from a generic, southern US, alien space. They were not migrants but were rather individuals within a large, settled, permanent community that was now fundamentally ingrained within the social fabric of Chicago and other northern cities. Black citizens of Chicago had contributed fully through the workplace to the industrial success of the city. The riots of 1919 played an important part in anchoring the black presence in the north: ‘Anchorage in a space is an economic-political form which needs to be studied in detail’ (Foucault & Gordon 1980, p.149). Miller’s use of the term ‘Northern’ effectively closed the gap in relation to the hierarchy of migratory claims over Chicago and demanded parity for the black presence within the city’s migrant story.

Miller’s photographic intentions in 1946 echoed the historic photographs commissioned by E. B. Du Bois in 1900 for his American Negro’ project, which won a gold medal at the 1900 Paris Exposition. Du Bois organised over 350 images into albums entitled the ‘Types of American Negroes, Georgia, USA and Negro Life in Georgia, USA’. The central idea behind his project was to visually unlock black US citizens from the burden of scientific racism that, at this time, dominated perceptions of black people, suggesting that they were inferior human subjects. There is correlation between [Wayne] Miller’s and Du Bois’ projects in their shared intention to use photography as a tool to disrupt ingrained cultural hostilities towards black Americans. This moment of international acclaim for Du Bois (who should also be recognised as probably the first curator of a black photography exhibition) at the Paris Exposition acted as a significant cultural and visual indicator’. (pg. 195)

Miller’s Chicago project was part of a longer radical tradition within the US to mobilise photography in an attempt to humanise their black, American subject for the wider, racist public’. (pg. 196)

1948 British Nationality Act paved the way for Empire Windrush, which arrived 22 June 1948. Ship carried 492 workers from Caribbean. (pg. 206)


Historical notes – Wikipedia:

The Race Relations Act 1968 was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom making it illegal to refuse housing, employment, or public services to a person on the grounds of colour, race, ethnic or national origins in Great Britain (although not in Northern Ireland, which had its own parliament at the time). It also created the Community Relations Commission to promote ‘harmonious community relations’. The Act made amendments to the Race Relations Act 1965. It was superseded (and repealed) by the Race Relations Act 1976. The Act was criticised for poorly translating ‘new standards of behaviour’ into an effective legal document.

The ‘Act was the focus of Enoch Powell’s infamous Rivers of Blood speech, delivered in Birmingham to the West Midlands Conservative Association on 20 April 1968. The speech strongly criticised mass immigration, especially Commonwealth immigration to the United Kingdom and the proposed bill. Whilst known as the ‘Rivers of Blood‘ speech, Powell always referred to it as ‘the Birmingham speech‘.

Powell was sacked from Ted Heath’s shadow cabinet the following day.

Note: This is also a backdrop to the work by Gian Butturini, on London, and the current controversy


Sealy: Early 1970s, black youth crime (fanned by the media) affected public perception of race.

1981 Brixton Riots … then the Greater London Council (GLC) set up new programs. From 1981 to 1986 this majorly influenced UK cultural policy and it is arguably from that the ‘concept of Black British photography could grow’ (pg. 207)

Neil Kenlock & Charlie Phillips. 2005. Roots to Reckoning Exhibition. Museum of London.

Crucially, we look through these three bodies of work, we can see clearly that as documentary photographers Francis, Kenlock and Phillips collectively rejected making work through the prism of racial conflict, nor did they draw out clichéd moments of austerity when photographing the black subject. Their contribution within the field of black representation effectively comes from a place of cultural familiarity, affinity and reflection. They aimed to be at the service of their community rather than simply observers of it. They were separately but simultaneously documenting the black subject, trying to capture tenderly, through photography, the unobtainable essence of black Britain’s humanity. They were attempting to create a new image of black life that would work to reframe their communities’ affectionately and make these communities visible on the terms of their own individual perspectives or ideas of what constituted a black life.

In practice, these communities were, to some degree, romanticised through photographs. People are shown, for example, in their Sunday-best clothes, or at work, smiling at the camera, masking the realities of their hardships through a willingness to participate in the recording of their lives. On reflection, within this type of essentialist documentary focus it is evident that a rather conservative construction of a homogenous black subject is at work’. (pg. 210)

The work produced by practitioners such Armet Francis belongs to a radical form of engagement, an engagement that works on its black context. In this, the (B)lack British photographer must be insightful chronicler of black people’ experiences. In discussing the act of taking a photograph from within the places and spaces defined as ‘the black community the core theoretical dialectic at work was whether the epidermal schema of the photographer made a difference to the making and reception of the work. The preferred politically-correct answer during the late 1970s and early 1980s was an essentialist and defining ‘yes’. Vanley Burke, the Birmingham-base photographer who is of the same generation as Francis, Kenlock and Phillips, claims that his work is a form of ‘histograph‘:

A histograph, capturing the personal, social and economic life of black people as they arrived, settled and became established in British society The ‘histograph° metaphor makes the camera and the photographer appear to be a sensitive recording machine, making a template to the life being lived in black communities. It throws the emphasis away from the photographing process itself – the practice of representation which the photograph always represents – onto the photographed subject. It is the people and their lives, it seems to be saying which are important. (S Hall 1993, p.13)

This mode of positive template-imaging photographic practice was typical of the work that attracted support from the GLC. This is illustrated most effectively by one of the last photographic exhibitions that the GLC supported in 1986, which opened just a days before the GLC itself was finally shut down by Margaret Thatcher’s government. The exhibition was shown at the Brixton Art Gallery and was titled ‘Reflections of the Black Experience’. It showed the works of nine photographers operating across the documentary tradition: Marc Boothe, Vanley Burke, Sunil Gupta, Mumtaz Karimjee, Dave Lewis, Zak Ove, Ingrid Pollard, Suzanne Roden and Madagi Sharak.’ (pg. 212)

Unfortunately ‘Reflections of the Black Experience’ commissions rather suffer from being too generic and lacking clear photographic narration. Quite observational. Difficult to locate feeling and mood. Compare Dawoud Bey (pg. 214) who was much more intimately engaged with his subjects and their lifestyle. (pg. 213/4)

But it did signify a new context of Black photography becoming a political act.

BBC Black & White Minstrel Show only stopped in 1978 … Wikipedia

As the 1980s progressed, a typical example of the contestation over this difficult political and cultural terrain, which were unfolding within photography in Britain, was the verbal mauling by black delegates that the feminist photographer Spence received in 1987 at the National Photography Conference, in Salford, Greater Manchester. This was the city in which, just a year before, a thirteen-year-old Bangladeshi boy named Ahmed Iqbal Ullah was stabbed to death in the school playground by a white pupil.

After Spence’s keynote speech titled ‘Questioning Documentary Practice? The Sign as a Site of Struggle’, arguments within the conference raged. She had infuriated some of the black delegates by not addressing the question of race. George Shire, a young Zimbabwean scholar, led the outrage that split the conference for the rest of its duration along the lines of gender and race. According to Sunil Gupta, a photographer and gay activist who was present at the event, Spence had ‘skirted around the issues of race and there was an uproar, she finally left the conference’. Gupta puts the politics at work during the conference into a wider context when he states that, ‘in retrospect, those were also the days when folks were pretty territorial about work, women did women and blacks did blacks’ (Gupta 2015). It was at this conference in Salford, funded by the Arts Council of Great Britain, that black British photographers came politically into full view on the national stage of photography for the first time’. (pg. 219)

It was difficult to locate a ‘Black aesthetic’ which frees the Black photographer from the burden of representation, yet also allow the question of race to enter the work. It’s not just Black photographers … (pg. 221)

Ten 8 and Joy Gregory .. pointed the way with auto-portraits.

Rotimi Fani-Kayode (1955-1989). Black, gay, self-exiled from Lagos, Nigeria.

Working during the height of the AIDS crisis and responding to the homophobia of both Thatcherite England and his home country of Nigeria, Fani-Kayode produced images that exalt queer black desire, call attention to the politics of race and representation, and explore notions of cultural identity and difference. He wrote, “On three counts I am an outsider: in matters of sexuality; in terms of geographical and cultural dislocation; and in the sense of not having become the sort of respectably married professional my parents might have hoped for”. Guggenheim.

Seydou Keïta (1921 – 2001). Bamako, Mali.

‘It’s easy to take a photo, but what really made a difference was that I always knew how to find the right position, and I never was wrong. Their head slightly turned, a serious face, the position of the hands … I was capable of making someone look really good. The photos were always very good. That’s why I always say that it’s a real art’. 1995/1996 © André Magnin.

 Back to Sealy:

It is doubtful if African photographers are economically and institutionally able to currently drive trends in the appreciation of Africa’s photographic history, and the benefits gained from such a project, both financial and cultural, need careful consideration. Long before 1991 and the ‘discovery of Seydou Keita’ and the establishment of Rencontres de Bamako in 1994, trends were fixed through specific cultural and curatorial displays of African photographic subjects and practices were managed by strong market-led interest in African works from Eurocentric private collectors, galleries, government-funded cultural agencies and philanthropic entrepreneurs. These trends disproportionately dictate, even today, the terms of African photographic image reception, and dangerously reproduce the historical, cultural, hierarchical and political disavowal embedded within the histories of photography and its associated and problematic colonialities. These are in need of deeper forensic enquiry concerning the colonial conditions of power that surround the history of reading African photographic production and display’. (pg. 240)


Header: Mick Yates. 2002. Malawi.


HALL, Stewart. 2013. Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. 2nd Edition. London: Sage.

PINNEY, Christopher & PETERSON, Nicolas. 2003. Photography’s Other Histories. Durham: Duke University Press.

SEALY, Mark. 2019. Decolonising the Camera. London: Lawrence & Wishart.

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