It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness, -- an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
I went to bed thinking about Hannah Price and her photographic series, City of Brotherly Love. I woke up thinking about W.E.B. Du Bois. Late last night, someone tweeted a link to an interview with Price and a selection of images from the series. The photographs pack an emotional wallop. And they made me very uncomfortable.
I knew immediately that I was worried more about the photographer's audience than the photographer herself. Du Bois helped me to figure out why.
The Morning News, "My Harasser." (Photo copyright Hannah Price.)
City of Brother Love is Price's response to the sexual harassment that she experiences on the streets of Philadelphia. As she said in an interview with The Morning News:
Once a guy catcalls me, depending on the situation, I would either candidly take their photograph or walk up to them and ask if I can take their photograph. They usually agree and we talk about our lives as I make their portrait.
The interview and the gallery of photos that accompany have electrified social media -- at least those parts of it that I see. For instance, my Twitter timeline, today, has been overrun with people linking to Morning News story while expressing awe and admiration for Price and her portraits.
I understand where people are coming from. Price, a very young woman, showed considerable courage in confronting the men who harassed her, and the images she produced are extraordinarily powerful.
But -- and you know there's a "but" coming.
But I worry that most of her audience, which is likely to be overwhelmingly white and affluent, will applaud this series as a righteous feminist gesture (which it undoubtedly is) without reflecting on the ways in which it can reinforce stereotypes about black men, about "psychologically 'fucked up,' dangerous, violent, sex maniacs," to quote a classic bell hooks essay.
Now, it's certainly possible to cheer on efforts to expose sexism in the black community without indulging in racial stereotyping. Possible, not easy. It won't happen without some effort from Price's fans. These stereotypes are so deeply embedded in American history and culture that, for many people, they seem simply to describe the world as it is.
This is why, for instance, Trayvon Martin could be murdered because of who he was, not for anything that he had done. And why his killer could walk out of court a free man. Many white Americans look at young black men like Martin and see the stereotype -- the supposed danger and criminality -- and not the individual -- the teenager and somebody's son.
Ideas have consequences, not only for our Trayvon Martins. For working-class black men -- like the men in Price's photographs -- the stereotypes affect every aspect of their lives, particularly when it comes to education, employment, and imprisonment for a minor, non-violent offence or for no offence at all.
It also affects the black middle class (usually in less dramatic ways). As Barack Obama said after a Florida jury had acquitted Martin's killer:
There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.
And there are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me, at least before I was a senator. There are very few African-Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.
And you know, I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.
I should lay my cards on the table and say that everything that Obama described has happened to me, too. These things shape the way I understand my country and the way I see photography.
I guess I've worked my way back to Du Bois. There's a reason that those lines at the top of the page are the most quoted in all of African American literature. They rang true in 1903, and they ring true today. It's almost impossible for black Americans -- not just black men -- to escape the "sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others."
So, when I look at Price's portraits, I wonder what white folks see. Do they see individuals, or do they simply see confirmation of their ideas about black masculinity? When I read their praise of Price's courage, I wonder how conscious they are of living in the age of Trayvon Martin.
Part of the answer is that white people will read the photos in a multitude of ways. Some of them will indeed be aware that we live in the age of Trayvon Martin. What I'm really wondering is not how these photos will affect individual white people, but how they will impact broadly shared ideas.
I'm happy that Price made this series. City of Brotherly Love is an impressive achievement. But it places a heavy burden on white people who see it and especially on those who admire it. I hope they're up to the task.
Reading about Price on NPR's Code Switch blog, I discovered this video in which she talks about the project:
Sometimes you get a comment that's so good it deserves to be in the body of the post. This is from John MacPherson (lightly edited):
Striking work John. And a thoughtful and thought-provoking response from you.
I'd been mulling over all of this recently for several reasons (one of which I'll ping you about offline) another was having noted a short news article in one of our small local papers which knocked me somewhat, because I like to think we're 'better' informed and more accommodating of 'incomers' up here. It has to be viewed in its entirety so I'll send it to you. It ties in with this article very well -- perhaps you can embed it if you think it appropriate.
But back to Price's work: wow. Strong stuff and a bold response to her 'abusers'. The 'control' that's being exerted over these individuals through the appropriation of their image is powerful. But..... (like your 'but' there's always one)... but the web and the bias of ignorance, will likely appropriate these images in a way that may actually take that control away from Price, for all the reasons you mention.
Had a brief discussion with Zun Lee over his important and striking work on African-American fathers which I found profoundly moving. Like this work of Price, I could see that Zun's images although ostensibly about 'black' fathers, has a universality to the message it delivers. But sadly it's a message that I think many (white affluent males) will not admit to -- because its a damn sight easier to make the issue it portrays one of race rather than what it actually is -- one of gender. And that's a huge problem, and one I see looming over Price's work also.
I guess we just have to continue to confront these stereotypical responses and highlight their narrow-mindedness whenever possible.
Another comment that needs to be seen. From Tiffany:
This was my concern about the photos too. They do reinforce stereotypical images of black men as leering and threatening. And I am also uncomfortable with the class tensions between the highly-educated Price and the seemingly poor men she photographs.
At the same time, as a black woman who has experienced such harassment, I appreciate Price's turning of the tables. We want to be able to inhabit public space in the same way men inhabit it. These photos in a way claim that power even as -- or maybe because -- they objectify the men who objectify her. They capture what it's like to be ogled in public, both in the sense that she is capturing their facial expressions as (or soon after) they ogle, and in the sense that she is holding them up for viewing.
And maybe that tension is precisely why they're so powerful.
PS (24 October 2013): In a blog post, today, over on BagNewsNotes, Michael Shaw talks about the power of racial stereotypes in photography. Very often, we can't see past them. In making his point, Shaw comes up with a wonderful phrase: "...a certain kind of picture, in our culture, can be looked at but cannot be seen." These photos conjure up racial stereotypes that are so powerful that they -- not the photographer or the audience -- determine the photos' meaning. The stereotypes stop viewers in their tracks, imposing the photos' meaning on them. Overcoming this is something that the audience can't do without extraordinary, self-conscious effort.
Shaw might be overstating things a bit, but his fundamental point is sound, I think.
In this post on Price's photos, I've clearly been preoccupied with my concern that her viewers won't be able to see past the stereotypes that her images evoke. Having read Shaw's piece, it occurs to me that I'm having trouble of my own -- that is, seeing past my preoccupation.