Two things came together. First, I stumbled across a hackneyed review of a photographic exhibition. Its faults, and they were many, could easily be traced to an over-reliance on the writings of Susan Sontag, who, for all her brilliance, saw photography as something to be distrusted and contained. I wrote a tweet, saying that "Nothing would do more to revitalize photo criticism more than to retire Sontag for a decade or so" that drew a fair number of amens. I didn't have to say more -- people immediately knew where I was coming from.
Second, Andy Adams of Flak Photo sent out a tweet noting that the 125th anniversary of the Kodak No. 1 Camera was upon us. I seconded Andy and added that the Kodak democratized photography. That simple statement generated a lengthy debate (lengthy in Twitter-time, that is).
I wasn't surprised that people disagreed with me. The timing of photography's democratization and whether it's been democratized at all are debatable points. Instead, what took me aback was the reminder that I can't take certain things for granted. In this case, after I said that the democratization of picture making was especially important to the poor and the oppressed, I was reminded that many people who are deeply engaged with photography have never read a photo historian, critic, or theorist who isn't white.
The marginalization of writers of Asian, African, Latin American, and Native American descent in the North America and Europe is an old story, of course. It can't be separated from the West's history of colonialism and racial oppression and from inequality in our own time.
Things are changing, no doubt about it. But I had hoped they'd changed more than they apparently have -- that people like Deborah Willis, with her many books and exhibitions and her MacArthur award, the curator and writer Okwui Enwezor, cultural theorist Stuart Hall, and hooks would be found on photography reading lists as commonly as Sontag or John Berger. After all, it's not that black and brown writers are addressing only their own communities. They're challenging everyone to understand photography in richer and more complex ways.
What does all this have to do with the democratic camera? Back to hooks.
Her essay, "In Our Glory: Photography and Black Life," is a powerful evocation of the importance of photography -- of making photographs -- in the lives of black Americans, now and in the past. It's fundamentally shaped my understanding of photography as it has for many others. When I think about how photography works in the world, about its democratic potential, I'm thinking, in part, about this essay. It's a classic and should be a basic part of any photographic education.
Let me quote a few lines:
As I work slowly on a book of essays... I think about the place of art in black life... the impact of race and class... the presence in black life of an inarticulate but ever-present visual aesthetic governing our relationship to images [and] the process of image-making. I return to the snapshot as a starting point to consider the place of the visual in black life -- the importance of photography.
Cameras gave to black folks, irrespective of our class, a means by which we could participate fully in the production of images. Hence it is essential that any theoretical discussion of the relationship of black life to the visual, to art making, make photography central. Access and mass appeal have historically made photography a powerful location for the construction of an oppositional black aesthetic. In the world before racial integration, there was a constant struggle on the part of black folks to create a counter-hegemonic world of images that would stand as visual resistance, challenging racist images. All colonized and subjugated people, who, by way of resistance, create an oppositional subculture with the framework of domination, recognize that the field of representation (how we see ourselves, how others see us) is a site of ongoing struggle.
The history of black liberation movements in the United States could be characterized as a struggle over images as much as it has also been a struggle for rights, for equal access.
From: bell hooks, "In Our Glory: Photography and Black Life," in Deborah Willis, ed., Picturing Us: African American Identity in Photography (1994).
Some afterthoughts. The list of writers above is very far from exhaustive. It reflects my present concerns. And I don't expect everyone to agree with everything hooks has to say any more than I expect them to believe that Sontag is infallible. But if you're going to speak, write, or tweet convincingly about photography, you need to come to terms with what she (and many others) have to say.
Finally, if more photographers spent some time with hooks and company -- if they understood, for instance, the politics of representation -- they'd have a better chance of avoiding the embarrassing circumstances that surrounded a highly respected Chicago photojournalist did last week. Stan Banos tells the story, here.