A conference on race and photography

Pieter Hugo - Escort Kama. Enugu, Nigeria, 2008

Prison Photography‘s started a great conversation on the possibility of holding a conference on the subject of race and photography. I think Pete may be on to something. We’ve had no shortage of discussion on the issue in the past, and it’s flaring up again as the conversation erupts around Pieter Hugo’s work. Prison Photography brings up a problem I have with this critical response to Hugo’s portrayals of Africans. I understand the concerns, made quite clear in Sebastien Boncy’s treatment of the pictures on Amy Stein’s blog. However, I am fanatically interested in these pictures. They have shown me something, an aspect of culture, that I didn’t know existed. So long as the photos are not completely contrived, and Nollywood and other works might be completely contrived, I have learned from these pictures.

Sebastien Boncy’s central concern with Hugo’s imagery is that its purpose is to allow white people to look at “weird, highly stylized, meticulously crafted images of crazy looking niggers doing crazy looking shit.” Toning down the accusation, he accuses Hugo of “othering” black Africans. That, I can see, and it isn’t a good thing. But I’m not convinced that the opposite is any better. Would Boncy have us look only at pictures of subjects with which we are familiar? Photography is at it’s best when it forces the viewer to confront and understand (or start to understand) the unfamiliar. Perhaps that’s where Hugo’s work is most deficient. The viewer confronts the strangeness, but has no invitation to understand those differences. The importance of diversity lays not solely in the concomitance of disparate cultures or ideas, but in what teases out from their mingling. But in their concurrence, differences must be preserved and celebrated, if cultural diversity is to provide any value. Only pointing a finger at those differences, as in Hugo’s work, does little to achieve that goal.

The discussion surrounding his work, though, is of real importance.

A conference might do well to provide structure and gravity to the debate. A conference on the subject may be ambitious at first, so perhaps the organizers of the New York Photo Festival or PhotoNola or the next Look, could integrate a panel discussion on the subject. Invite curators to create an exhibition addressing notions of race in contemporary and historic photography (both from the developed world looking to the developing world and from the developing world looking to the developed). Involve influential photographers, editors, and curators, from varying genres of photography; photojournalism has much to discuss, but so does commercial photography and fashion photography (especially after Vogue’s blackface…) and art photography.

8 Responses to “A conference on race and photography”

  1. Stan B.

    I have never thought Mr. Hugo’s work was specifically “racist.” The problem however is how it is portrayed and exhibited in various venues, particularly when done out of context. We live in a country where a photo of Obama in traditional African garb was presented in Right Wing publications as “proof” that he was a Muslim extremist. That’s how ludicrous and malicious things can get.

    There is a long history of demeaning and dehumanizing photographic images in Western society in regards to “the other.” The photo that heads your post is visually fascinating, and I too love it on that level alone- but it also SCREAMS with much of the racist imagery and symbolism that has been used to dehumanize African Americans and scare the Bejesus out of whites here in the US and around the world! Again, that would be (should be) pretty obvious if you’re familiar with US history- and I don’t suspect Mr. Hugo or his subjects are…

    • M. Scott Brauer

      Indeed, Stan. All the more reason for a structured lecture or conference on the subject of contemporary and historical visual conceptions of race and racism. Thanks for the comment.

      • Stan Banos

        All for it guys, only concern is… (and no disrespect) is this gonna end up just another gathering of white guys talking to eachother as in most photo anythings? Particularly concerning this very subject matter.

        Plane fare, car fare, conference fees and hotels- this should be as all inclusive as possible, not just for those that can afford it. Perhaps some techno youngbloods can offer up some suggestions on how we can all participate in some manner of live format during, or at least, in addition to…

        • Pete Brook

          Stan and Scott. I am in conversations with more folks to see what the meet would look like. I plan to post an update on discussions – offering some clarity, more plans and actin items for us to consider as a group. I hope the breadth of interest continues to expand. At this point I am very encouraged. Everyone seems to see the necessity for in person debate and everyone shares concern about fostering respect and understanding throughout. More to come.

  2. Pete Brook

    And of course there is this. Which changes the nature of our plans … possibly.


    Stay Tuned

  3. Update: conversation on race, diversity, and photography | dvafoto

    […] up on earlier talk of a conference on race and photography, Pete Brook has spearheaded the effort to create an online […]

  4. Simon

    Hugo photographed dead Africans and showed them as ART – do you think that dead person would love to be showed in public –
    Guys get serious Hugo is real racist or looking for money from Africans

  5. Anna

    I have never enjoyed any photos from Hugo – he is so mean to humanity

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