Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Agency, Identity and our Response to a Photo

There has been a mild social media shitstorm generated by the usual tiny cadre, featuring among other pictures the one I talked about in these remarks earlier.

One of the oft-repeated claims in these things is "you'd never see white people photographed this way" which is sometimes true, but often not. Therein lies an interesting observation.

In this case, for instance, we're talking about rape survivors. We would, we are told, never see pictures of white rape survivors. The pictures of dark skinned rape survivors are, we are told, inherently exploitive. We are told that the subjects lack the necessary visual literacy and understanding of media to truly give informed consent. Not everyone says all these things, but these things have all been said.

Put all together, though, these remarks paint a remarkable picture of the attitudes of these warriors for justice, and their attitude toward the people in Africa.

Africa, I have been informed by trusted sources, is not just a gigantic jungle thinly populated by naked savages. It has cities, culture, civilization. It even has media, gasp. The idea that someone with brown skin lacks visual literacy and an understanding of media isn't just wildly racist, it's completely fucking insane.

In reality, we see tons of pictures of white rape survivors. We literally have books by rape survivors with jacket photos right on the book. This is totally a thing. The survivor bravely testifies to her struggles etc etc. This is also precisely the theme of the controversial photos, that these survivors are voluntarily and with courage testifying to their trauma, their struggle, etc, in order to serve a greater good.

I think that what is going on is a pretty nasty dive into our human psyches.

The truth is that I, and many others, are far more willing to accept a narrative of exploitation, of lack of agency, of ignorance, when we see a photo of a brown person than when we see a white person.

I don't know which of the Justice Warriors, if any, are consciously exploiting this, but it is certainly their method: present a photo of a person of color, essentially without context, and then simply state as a bald fact that the subject was exploited by the photographer, is ignorant of media, and lacks agency. Broadly, people will accept this as simply true.

Seeing functionally the same photo of a white person, we're much less willing to accept this story, and will tend to apply a story of agency, of knowledge, of informed consent.

We tend to see the photos of African woman literally as in a different category as functionally identical photos of white women. We believe the story that we would never see "these" photos of a white woman. In a sense it is true, because when we see the white woman, we do not experience it as one of "these" photos but rather as one of "those" photos, which photos we consider as completely different. The difference, though, lies within us not in the blobs of color and tone that we see on the page or screen.

This is a real effect, I think, but it's not clear what the photographer is supposed to do about it.

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