1.How do snapshots function for her? What does the photograph provide for her relationship with her dad?2.In what ways is the wall of photographs she describes more than a mere collection of family photos?3.What does hooks’ dad’s role as the photographer say about cultural production, especially at that time?4.What is a hegemony?5.How do photographs function in the context of hegemonic power? (provide an example if you can)6.I’ll assume that you have encountered a hegemony in your life. What was (is) it? How did you encounter it? How did you respond to it? If you don’t believe you’ve encountered a hegemony, how did you think you’ve avoided them?
From The Photography Reader, edited by Liz Wells, published by Routledge in 2003. The original
essay was first published in 1995.
Wikipedia: Gloria Jean Watkins (born September 25, 1952), better known by her pen name bell hooks, is an
American author, feminist, and social activist.
IN OUR GLORY
Photography and black life
L WAY SAD ADD Y’ S G I R L. I was not surp rised that my sister V. becam e
a lesbian, or that he r love rs were always white wom en , Her worship of daddy
and her passion fo r wh iteness appeared to affi rm a movement away from b lack
wo manh ood , and of co urse, that image o f th e woman we did not want to beco me
– our mo the r. The only famil y photograph V. displays in he r house is a picture of
our dad, looking young with a mustache. His dark skin mingling with the shadows
in th e photograph . All of whi ch is highlighted by the while T -shirt he wears.
In this snapshol he is slanding by a pool tabl e. The look o n his face co nfid e nt,
seductive , cool – a look we rarel y saw growing up . I have no idea who took th e
picture, only that it pleases me to imagine that he cared for th e m – dee pl y. There
is such bo ldness, such fi erce openn ess in the way he faces the came ra. This snapshot was take n before marriage , befo re us, his seven children , before o ur prese nce
in his Life fo rced him to leave behind th e ca refree masculin e identity this pose
The !’act that my sister V. possesses this image of o ur dad, one that I had ne ver
seen before, me rely affirm s t heir romance, the bond betwee n the two o f th e m . They
had the dream ed -abo ut closeness between fathe r and daughte r , or so it seemed . He r
possession o f the snapshot confirms this, is an acknowledgm ent that she is allowed to
kn ow – yes, eve n to possess – that private life he had always kept to himself. When
we were childre n, he refused to answer our qu estio ns about who he was , how did
he act, what did he do and feel befo re us? It was as tho ugh he did no t want to reme mber or share th at part of himself, that remembe ring hurt. Standing before thjs snapshot, I come closer to th e cold, di stant, dark man who is my fath er , close r than I can
e ver come in real life. Not always ab le to love him there, I am sure I ca n love this
version of him , the snapshot. I give it a title: in his s lor),.
Before leaVing my sister’ s place, I plead with he r to make a copy of’ this picture
for my birthday. It docs not come, eve n tho ugh she says she will. Fo r Christmas,
then . It’s on th e way . I surmise that my passion for it surprises her , makes he r
hesi tate . Always ri va ls in childhood – she winning, the possessor of Dad’s affection
– she wonders whether to give that up, whether she is ready to share. She hesitates
to g ive me the man in th e snapshot. After all, had he wanted me to see him this
way. ‘ in his glory,’ he wo uld have given me a picture .
My younge r sister G. calls. Fo r Christmas, V. has sent her a ‘horribl e photograph ‘ o f Dad. There is outrage in her voice as she says, ‘ It ‘s disgusting. He’s not
even wearing a shirt, just an o ld white und ershirt.’ G. kee ps repeating, ‘ ) don’t
know why she has sent this picture to me . ‘ She has no difficuhy promising to give
me her co py if mine docs not arrive . Her lack o f interest in the photograph sadd ens
me . When she was th e age our dad is in th e picture she looked just like him . She
had his beauty then – that same shine of glo ry and pride. Is this the face of herself
that she has forgotten. does not want to be reminded o f, beca use time has taken
such g lo ry away? Unable to fathom how she cann ot be drawn to this picture, I
ponder what this image suggests to her that she ca nn ot tolerate: a grown black man
ha ving a good time, playi ng a game, hav ing a dri nk ma),be, enj oying himself without
th e co mpany of women .
Altho ugh my sisters and I look at this snapshot and see the same man , we do
not see him in the same way. Our ‘ reading’ and experi ence o f this image is shaped
by our relationship to him , to the wo rld of childhood and the images that make o ur
li fe what it is now. I want to rescue and preserve this image of our father , not let
it be forgotten . It allows me to understand him , provides a way for me to know
him that makes it possible to love him again and against past all the oth er images.
the o nes that stand in the way of love.
Such is the power of th e photograph, of th e image, that it can give back and
take away, that it can bind. This snapshot ofV eociis Watkins, our father, so metim es
called Ned or Leakey in his yo unger days, gives me a space for in timacy between
the image and myse lf, between me and Dad . I am captivated, seduced by it, th e
way other images have caught and held me, ern braced rl1 C like arms that wo uld not
Struggling in childhood with the image of myse lf as unwo rthy of love, I co uld
not see myself beyond all the received images, whi ch simpl y reinforced my sense
of unwo rthin ess. Those ways of seeing myself came from vo ices of authority. The
place where I could see myself, beyond the imposed image, was in the realm of the
snapshot . I am most rea l to myself in snapshots – there I sec an image I can love.
My favorite childhood snapsho t then and now shows me in costum e,
masqu erading. And long after it had disappea red I continued to long for it and to
grieve . I lo ved this snapshot of myself beca use it was th e only image availab le to
me that gave me a sense of prese nce , of girlhood beauty and capacity for pleas ure.
It was an image o f myself I could ge nuinely like . At that stage o f my life I was crazy
about W esterns , about co wboys and Indi ans. The cam era captures me in my cowgirl
outfit, white rum ed blouse, vest, fringed ski rt, my one gun and my boots. In this
image, I became all that I wanted to be in my imagination .
For a moment suspended in this image: 1 am a cowgirl. There is a look of
heaven ly joy on my face. 1 grew up needing t his image , cherishing it – my one
reminder that there was a precious li ttle girl inside me ab le to know and ex press
joy . I took this photogra ph with me on a visit to the house of my fathe r ‘s cousin ,
PHOTOGRAPHY AND BLA C K LIFE
His was a ho me where art and the image mattered . No wond er, then, that I
wanted to share my ‘ best’ image. Making my first big journ ey away fro m home.
from a small town to m)’ first big cit)’. I needed the securit), o f this image. I packed
it carefull y. I wanted Lovie , cousin Schuyler ‘s wife, to see me ‘ in my glo ry. ‘ I
remember giving her th e snapshot for safekee ping; only, when it was ti me for me
to return ho me it co uld not be found . This was for me a terrible loss, an irreco ncilable grief. Gone was th e image of m),self I could love. Losing that snapshot . I
lost th e proof o f m)’ worthiness – that I had eve r bee n a bright-e),ed child capable
of wond er , th e proof that th ere was a ‘ me of mc. I
The image in this snapshot has linge red in my mind ‘s eye fo r years. It has linge red
there to remind of th e power of snapshots, of th e image . As I slow ly work on a
boo k of essa),s titled Art on JI;(r Mind, I think about the place of art in black life .
connections betw een the social constructi on of black identity, the impact of race
and class, and the presence in black li fe of an inarticulate but ever -prese nt visual
aesthetic gove rning o ur relati onship to images, to the process of image making. I
return to th e snapshot as a starting point to consider th e place o f the visual in black
life – th e importance o f photograph),.
Cameras ga ve to black fo lks, irrespective of our class , a means by which we
could participate fu ll ), in the production of images. Hence it is essential that an )’
theoreti cal discussion o f th e rel ationship of black life to the visual, to art making,
make photograph), centra l. Access and mass appea l have histori call y made photograph y a powerfu l locati on fo r the constru ctio n of an oppositional black aestheti c. In
the world beforc racial integration, there was a consta nt struggle on the part of
black fo lks to create a co un ter -hege moni c wor ld of images that would stand as visual
resistan ce, chall enging racis t images. All coloni zed and subjugated people who , by
way of resistancc, crea te an o ppositi onal subculturc within th e Framework o f domi4
nation, recogni ze that th e fi eld of representation (how we see ourselves, how othcrs
see us) is a si te o f o ngoing struggle .
The history of black liberation movements in th e United States co uld be char4
acteri zed as a struggle over images as much as it has also been a struggle for rights ,
fo r cCJual access. To many reformist black civil rights activis ts, who believcd t hat
desegregation wou ld o fTer th e humanizi ng context that would challenge and change
white supremacy, the issue of representati on – cont rol ove r images – was never as
important as eCJual access. As time has progressed, and the face of whi te sup rcmacy
has not changed, refo rmist and radical blacks alike arc more like ly to agree that the
field of representation remains a cru cial realm of struggle , as impo rtant as the question of eCJual access, if not morc so. Significant ly, Roge r Wi lkins cmphasizes this
point in his recent essa), ‘ White Out’ (published in the Nove mber 1992 iss ue o f
Mother Jones). Wilkins co mm ents:
In those inn ocent days, before desegregation had reall y been tri ed ,
befo re the Ne w Fro ntier and the Great Society, man y of us blacks had
lovely, na’ivc hopcs for integration …. In our na’ivctc, we believed that
th e powe r to segregate was th e grcates t powe r t hat had been w ielded
aga inst us. It turn cd out that o ur expectations were wrong. The grea test
power turned out to be what it had always bee n: the power to defi ne
rcali ty where blacks arc concerned and to manage perce ptio ns and th erefo re arrange po litics and culture to reinfo rce those definitio ns.
Though o ur po litics differ I Wilkins’ o bscrYatio ns mirror my insisten ce, in the
opening essay of Black Looks: Race and Representation, that black peo pl e have made
fe w , if any , revo lu tionary inte rve nti o ns in the arena of re presentations.
In part , racia l desegregatio n, eq ual access, oflercd a vision of racial progress
t hat, however limited , led man y black peo ple to be less vigilan t abo ut the (Iuestian
of representation. Concurrently, contemporary commodifi catio n of blackness
creates a market contex t wherein co nve ntional, even stereoty pical, modes o f representing blackn ess may receive the greatest reward. This leads to a cultu ra l co ntext
in whi ch images that wouJd sub ve rt th e status qu o are harder to produce . There is
no ‘perceived market’ for them . Nor sho uld it surp rise us that t he erosion of oppositional black subcultures (many of whi ch have bee n destroyed in the desegregation
process) has deprived us o f those sites o f rad ical resistance where we have had
primary contro l ove r representation. Signifi cantly, nationalist black freedom movements were o ften onl y concern ed with gues ti ons of ‘good ‘ and ‘ bad ‘ image ry and
did not promote a more expansive cultural und erstanding of t he poli tics o f representatio n. Instead they promoted notions of essence and identi ty that ultimately
res tri cted and confined black image production.
No wond er , th en , that racial integration has created a crisis in black li fe, signa led
by th c uttcr loss o f critical vigilance in the arena of image making – by our being
stuck. in endl ess debate ove r good and bad imagery. The aftermath of this crisis has
been devastating in t hat it has led to a rel inguishment of collective black interest in
th e production of images. Photography began to have less signifi cance in black life
as a means – pri vate or public – by whi ch an oppositional standpOin t co uld be
asse rted, a mode of seeing difTerent from that o f t he do minant cultu re. Everyday
black fo lks began to see themselves as not having a major ro le to play in the
produ cti on o f images .
To reverse this trend we must begin to talk abo ut th e significance of black image
produ cti on in daily life prior to rac ial in tegration . Whcn we conce ntrate on photography, t hcn, we make it possible to see the walls of photographs in black ho mes as
a criti cal in tervention, a disruptio n o f whi te contro l of black images.
Most south ern black fo lks grew up in a contex t where snapshots and the morc
styli zed photogra phs taken by professional photographers were t he easiest images
to prod uce. Signifi ca ntl y, d isplaying those images in everyday life was as ce ntral as
mak ing t hem . T he wa lls and wa ll s o f images in southern black homes were sites of
resistance . They co nstituted pri vate, black-owned and -o perated, gallery space
where images cOllJd be displayed , show n to friends and strangers. T hese wa lls were
a space where, in the midst of segregation, the hardshi p o f apartheid , dehum an izati on co uld be countered . Images could be criti call y considered , subj ects pos itioned
according to indi vidual desire.
Growing up inside these wa lls, many of us d id not, at the time , regard them
as impo rtant o r va luable. Increasingly, as black fo l1o; li ve in a world so techn olOgically adva nced that it is possible for images to be produ ced and reprodu ced instantl y,
it is even harder fo r some of us to emoti onall y co ntextua li ze th e Signifi cance of the
camera in black li fe during the years of raciaJ apartheid . T he sites o f co ntestati on
PHOTOGRAPHY AND BLACK LIFE
were not out there, in the world of wh ite power I they were within segregated
black life. Since no ‘white’ galleri es displayed images of black peo ple crea ted
by black folks, spaces had to be made w ithin di ve rse black communiti es. Across
class, black fo lks struggled with the issue of representation. Signifi cantl y, issues of
representation were !.inked with the iss ue of docum entation, hence th e importance
of photography. T he cam era was the centra l instrum ent by w hi ch blacks co ul d
disprove representations of us created by white folks. The degrading images of
blackn ess that e me rged fro m racis t w hi te imagination s and ci rcul ated widely in th e
dominant culture (on salt shakers, cookie jars, pancake boxes) co uld be co untered
by ‘ t ru e- to- li fe’ images. W hen th e psychoh isto ry of a peo ple is mark ed by ongoi ng
loss, when entire histo ri es are denied, hid den , erased, docum entation may become
an obsession. The camera must have seemed a magica l instrum ent to many of the
displaced and marginali zed groups t rying to create new destinies in the Ameri cas.
More than any other image-making tool, it offe red African Ameri cans disempow cred in white culture a way to empowe r ourselves th rough representati on. For black
fo lks, the camera provided a means to docum ent a reali ty that co uld , if necessary,
be packed, stored , moved from place to place. It was docum entation that could be
shared , passed around . And ul ti mately, these images, t he worlds they reco rded ,
co uld be hidden, to be discovered at another time. Had the cam era been there when
slave ry ended , it could ha ve provided images that would have helped fo lks searching
for lost kin and loved ones. It wou ld have bee n a powerful tool of cultura l reco very.
Half a century later , the ge nerations of black fo lks emerging from such a histo ry of
loss became paSSio nately obsessed with cameras. Elderl y black people deve loped a
cultural pass ion fo r the cam era, fo r the images it produ ced , because it ofTercd a way
to co ntain memories, to ove rcome loss, to keep history.
Though rarely articulated as such, th e camera became in black life a po litical
instrum ent, a way to resist misreprese ntation as well as a means by wh.i ch altern ati ve images could be produ ced . Photography was mo re fascinating to masses o f black
folks than other fo rms of image making beca use it offered th e possibility of’ immediate intervention, useful in the producti on of counter-hegemo ni c rep rese ntatio ns
eve n as it was also an instrum ent of pleas ure. Prod uci ng images with the camera
allowed black fo lks to co mbine image making in resistan ce strugg le with a pleasurable experience. Taking pictUl’es was fun!
Grow ing up in the fifti es , I was so mew hat awed and frightened at times by our
extend ed fami ly’s emphaSiS on pict ure taking . Whether it was th e images o f the
dead as t hey lay serene, bea utiful , and still in open caskets , or th e cndl ess portraits
of new born s, every wa ll and co rn er of my gra ndparents’ (and most every bod)’
else’s) home was lined with photograp hs. W hen I was yo unger I never linked this
obsession with images of’ self-rep resentation to our histo ry as a domestica ll y coloni zed and subjuga ted peo pl e.
My perspecti ve o n pict ure taking was mo re info rm ed by the wa), the process
was ti ed to patri archy in o ur househo ld . Our father was definite ly th e ‘ picture takin ‘
man.’ Fo r a long tim e cam eras we re both mysterious and o lT-limits fa r the rest o f
us. As the onl y o ne in the famil y who had access to the equipm ent, who could lea rn
how to make the process work , he exe rtcd contro l ovc r our image . in charge o r
capturing o ur famil y histo ry with th e camera , he called and took th e shots. W e
constantl y were lined up for picture taking, and it was years befo re o ur house hold
co uld e xpe rience thi s as an e nj oyable acti\’it)’ . befo re anyo ne else co uld be be hind
thc ca rn cra. Befo re th e n , pi ct ure ta king was se ri o us business. I hated it. I hated
posing. I haled came ras. I hated th c images they produced . When I slO ppccl li ving
at ho me, I re fu sed to be captured by anyone’s ca me ra. I d id not long to docum ent
my life, th c changes, thc presence
diffe rent places . peo pl c, and so on . I wa nted
to leave no trace. I wanted tll crc to be no wa lls in 111)’ life that wo uJ d, like gigantic
m aps, chart 111 )’ jo urn ey . I wan ted to stand o utsid e hi sto ry.
That was t wenty years ago. Now that I am pass iona te ly in vo lved w ith thin king
critica ll y about black peo pl e an d represe ntation , I can co nfess that th ose wa lls
photographs empowe red me and t hat I feci th eir Jbscncc in my life. Ri ght now, I
long fo r those wa lls, those curatorial spaces in the ho me that ex press Qur will to
make and displJ)’ images.
Sa rah O ldham , my mother’s moth er , wa~ a kee per of wa ll s. T hro ugho ut ou r
childhood, visits to her house we re Like t rips to a gall ery o r museum – experiences
we did no t ha\’e beca use of r
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