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In Black and White: Race and Photography

‘We should be counted and certainly counted on to write our own history and validate our own existence’. - Zanele Muholi

by Madeline DeFilippis | 28 January 2021

Photography holds a privileged place in visual media both for those educated in the history of art and the general public. In the digital age, photography is democratised and democratising – more people around the world can see more of the world itself. It can be used as evidence, as a physical memory, as a joyful reminder of what once was. However, the history of photography is complex. It is both theatrical and static, and although it is now one of the principle methods of self-protection (think of recent videos including ones where Black people are harassed by white racists), there is an argument to be made that black and white photography is inherently violent to people of colour. It is important to take a look at a brief history of photography first. Of course, at the scientific level, photography uses light exposure to capture a moment of reality onto a piece of light-sensitive paper. Early pioneers of photography include Louis Daguerre, Henry Fox Talbot, David Brewster and women artists such as Julia Margaret Cameron are now studied for their nineteenth-century projects. Cameron’s works were planned, staged and rehearsed, as photography at the time required an intense amount of stillness in order to allow the exposure to take hold.

Julia Margaret Cameron, 'For I'm to be Queen of the May, Mother', May 1, 1875.

Once it was discovered that multiple exposures could create double images on one print, photographers such as William Mumler tricked his clients into thinking that their dead loved ones would be photographed with them – he even included President Abraham Lincoln in a photo! In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there was another phenomenon at work – that of the mechanically reproduced image. Improvements and progress in mechanical imagery meant that the subjectivity of professionals was now seen as intrusive bias. X-ray machines, for example, were lauded as the pinnacle of truth, and microscopic images meant that the world was finally being revealed to scientists, one plate at a time. Subjectivity, in other words, was reviled. Anonymity was no longer possible in a world where documentation was the name of the game. The black-and-white image took its place as the prized possession of mechanical objectivity (see Daston and Galison, The Image of Objectivity). As photography became more readily available to the public, families of reasonable means could venture out to have their photos taken as memorabilia. Young sweethearts took portraits and the men took them off to war – my own grandparents did this in the 1940s. But there is an important history which photography has manipulated and, in some cases, excluded. Photography was, as most areas of life were, dominated by white practitioners. This meant that what we now view as photography, that is, the smiling families, the quiet moments of joy in life, were not available to people of colour. Instead of willing subjects, they were often photographed as objects. This difficult history can be seen in an 1863 photograph showing a man named Peter’s lashed back. However, it can also be seen in controversial photographs such as in Robert Mapplethorpe’s famous Black Book of 1986. In one image, Man in a Polyester Suit, a Black model is wearing a three-piece suit, but all the viewer can see is his exposed penis. This equation of ‘race=sex’ is reinforced through Mapplethorpe’s focussed lens on an anonymous person’s sexual organ – the anonymity of this photo renders the subjectivity, the identity, of the model null and void.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Man in a Polyester Suit, 1980

So, you can understand why I was excited to see the exhibition at Tate Modern of South African artist Zanele Muholi’s work. Muholi (they/them) self-identifies as a ‘visual activist’, a photographer whose oeuvre consists of documenting the lives and realities of LGBTQ+ people in South Africa. My immediate reaction to Muholi’s work is that it is intensely humanising. In the first room of the exhibition, an image called Katlefo Mashiloane and Nosipho Lavuta, Ext. 2, Lakeside, Johannesburg (2007) shows a couple laughing at something off-camera, their limbs intertwined. They are at ease, content with their surroundings and safe from the world around them (the LGBTQ+ community in South Africa are often targeted as victims of prejudice). In another image, two naked women undress and laugh. Far from imposing a white, colonial gaze on a queer, Black couple which would seek to sexualise and anonymise them, Muholi has been invited into this small part of the universe which they seek to share with us. Much like in ZaVa I, Paris, we are given a peephole through which to look at these worlds; but the subjects stare back, assuring us that they know we are there.

Zanele Muholi, Katlefo Mashiloane and Nosipho Lavuta, Ext. 2, Lakeside, Johannesburg (2007)

Zanele Muholi, Zava I, Paris, 2013.

In the largest space of the exhibition, Muholi showed a range of self-portraits which explored their various subjectivities. Somnyama Ngonyama (translated into English as ‘Hail the Dark Lioness’) is an ongoing series through which Muholi explores race and Black imagery through the exhibition of their own body as canvas. This is where the history of photography, especially black-and-white photography, comes to the fore: traditional photography privileges those who are light-skinned and causes people of colour to fade into the background, into a muddled version of themselves. Light design still has a long way to go, says photographer Syreeta McFadden, who experienced as a child the discomfort with being photographed because her complexion was ‘dulled’. Sarah Lewis, a Harvard professor of Art History and Architecture who is Black, has said that when she was being professionally photographed an interaction with a technician insinuated that she was ‘unsuitable’ for the camera and its machinery. It is this type of situation which Muholi acknowledges and seeks to remedy through their self-portraits. Muholi utilises objects and costumes to create images which are almost sculptural: they make crowns out of combs, sticks into headdresses, and what stood out to me above all was the sculptural quality of their hair. In Somnyama IV, Oslo (2015), Muholi stares defiantly at the camera, somewhat reminiscent of Manet’s Olympia. Their exposed left breast does not confirm their saccharine femininity; quite the opposite. The fierceness here has no gender, but that does not make it any less powerful. This series is meant to challenge racism, Eurocentrism, sexual politics and more. This ongoing series, along with Muholi’s entire oeuvre which celebrates and archives the existence of LGBTQ+ people in South Africa, serves to reinforce their commitment to the validation of their presence and their own culture.

Zanele Muholi, Somnyama IV, Oslo, 2015

Qiniso, The Sails, Durban, 2019, a self-portrait by Zanele Muholi. Photograph: Courtesy of the artist and Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York


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