Take a look at this picture. Take some time with it. What do you see? And beyond that (or under it, or past it) what do you see?
This is what I see. I see a black man, wearing the collar and garb of a slave. The collar is of a type, I think, intended to deter escape attempts, used on slaves who have already attempted to escape. Collars of this general type were certainly used in the United States, and some sources suggest that similar or identical collars may have been used in Africa on slaves who had not yet been traded to foreign parts.
The photograph is modern. While it could, in technical terms, have been made any time after, say, 1851 or so, it would not have been. Setting aside the specific subject matter, simply in terms of technique, of method, this is a photograph that is extraordinarily unlikely before 1970, improbable before perhaps 1980. The combination of modernist sharpness with painterly styling, especially the black background and the empty space right would have been extremely weird in anything before the modern era.
The man in the collar makes eye contact with us, with the camera. But he is not aggressive, nor cowed. He offers neither defiance, nor supplication. His expression is neutral, perhaps slightly proud. While we know almost nothing of how a genuine slave might have appeared in a photograph of this sort, certainly any modern man playing the role of a slave would offer some intense emotion: fury, fear, supplication, something. The subject here is not playing the role of a slave, although he is dressed like a slave.
His left hand appears slightly active, as if perhaps it were arrested mid gesture, as if he were about to lift his hand, or has just brought it down. Otherwise, he is more or less at ease, his hips slightly cocked. Look at the line of his body, classically curved. He is a man standing as comfortably as possible while wearing the probably heavy, probably awkward, collar. He is looking at the camera, occasionally moving.
The light accentuates the slave accouterments, ensuring that we see all eight points of the collar, the heavy padlock, the fabric of his rude garment. We are supposed to notice these, to focus on them.
The lighting, the subject's energy and posture, and and the large empty space to the right speak loudly of "fashion." The space on the right could be something symbolic, a compositional choice, or it could as well be space for copy. Most of the time when we see this design, the intention is: space for copy.
I think it is inescapable on inspection that this is essentially a fashion photograph of a man modeling the clothing and equipment of a recalcitrant slave. Astounding. Grotesque. How on earth?!
The photographer is Fabrice Monteiro. He is half Belgian, half Beninese. Born in Belgium. Raised in Benin. Lives and works in Dakar. He was a model, and now he is a photographer. He is certainly African, although also Belgian.
You may well not know this, but Benin is a country in Africa, and its modern boundaries encompass the former Kingdom of Dahomey which was a major player in the slaving side of the infamous Triangle Trade. Is Monteiro the descendant of slavers, or of slaves? It turns out that that the Fon people, who ruled the Kingdom of Dahomey, were both, as were some of their neighbors. Slaves being big business, they seem to have raided one another with enthusiasm. On the other hand, there were people from the interior of Africa who were routinely enslaved but not themselves slavers. The situation is complex, and probably not entirely knowable. Much has likely been lost, or obfuscated beyond hope of recovery. Regardless, the country of Monteiro's childhood was ground zero for the African slave trade.
At this point we are, I think, likely to wonder who could, and who could not, take this picture. I certainly could not. Not particularly because I fear the army of angry twitterati, though they could in desperate extremes bring harm to me. No, the largest reason is that I would not cause such a collar to be placed on a black man. I was not raised to do that, I rebel from the very notion at a visceral, unreasoning, level. An African can maybe take this picture, though? Evidently one can.
Does the picture even deserve to exist? I consider it likely that the artist intends us to wonder exactly that. We, I think it likely, are supposed to wonder exactly that. I consider it likely that this picture, and the others in the same series, are a direct challenge to our sensibilities. My position is that no picture deserves to exist, or to not exist. While I would not take this one, I do not object to its existence. It's just a picture.
As a reminder or a warning, it would be virtuous. As a fantasy for the future, it would be appalling. As shown to us by Fabrice Monteiro, it is neither, we are left to make something of it ourselves.
Is it intended as an offense? A challenge? A reminder? An object of grotesque but real beauty? I think all of the above. But, I am not Mr. Monteiro.
At this point I think perhaps I will wander well afield of what one might reasonably agree upon about this picture, and move on to my own ruminations.
It occurred to me, as I wondered about Monteiro's Beninese ancestors, what the ethnicities of the models are? To my inexperienced eye, there could be several different ethnicities here. Monteiro works in Dakar, more than 1200 miles from the closest point in Benin. Where would he have gotten access to these implements? Did he shoot this in the USA, in Dakar, in Benin? In Belgium, somehow? Are these people of the same ethnicities as American slaves were? Are they descendants of slavers? Are they entirely unrelated? Africa is a big place.
Note that by ethnicity I mean a fairly vague term. Something like family, something like tribe. I mean whatever group or groups Monteiro and his models identify themselves as being of. But, I don't really mean race as such, that bankrupt term built around a randomly assembled group of heritable features designed to separate an Us from a Them.
It occurs to me, or I am reminded, that it is on the trip on the slave ship from Africa to the The Americas that the slave loses his or her ethnicity and becomes an interchangeable member of a mere race. I am old enough to have seen Roots and, flawed as that miniseries event may have proved to be, I do recall that central lesson from the show.
So there you have it. Look at some of Monteiro's other work. I love it all, although much of it alarms me. He's throwing up some challenges.
My blog is maybe not stalled but merely slowed, we shall see.