Earlier this week I read an amazing book by professor and scholar Melissa Harris-Perry titled Sister Citizen - Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America. Though this book is not a photography book, but one that examines and critiques the experience of Black women in America by analyzing everything from stereotypes through perceptions via literary parallels (by the likes of Zora Neal Hurston, bell hooks, and Toni Morrison) and how that affects politics, it was an amazing and important read for me. This is not just because I am a Black woman, because this book is no more only for Black women than one written by a man is only for men, but also because it speaks to my experience in America, and many of my photography clients, being that Black women are a major part of my client base. Sometimes the best photography learning occurs outside of photography. (The cover photograph does give me life though...simply amazing.)
Anyway, this post is not to review that book as I feel that it is better to just read it! It was truly an experience, so much so that I finished the book in a little less than 2 days. I have read so many books this year, including some of which were photography ones that I mentioned in a previous post titled 2011 Photography Reading, and among all of the ones I have read thus far, this one is the best.
What I wanted to point out in this blog post was the way in which Perry critiques a photograph of Michelle Obama...her official White House photograph that was made in 2009 by photographer Joyce N. Boghosian. Sure, she could have simply mentioned that the composition was nice, it is well lit and Michelle looks beautiful. That is what most people would say, photographer or not, and that is all true. However, Perry, in her usual modes of critical consciousness took another path. She examined the photograph through the socio-political angle, with historical context and in a way that really makes the photograph mean more to me than it already did.
"Michelle Obama is actively using her role as First Lady to cultivate a particular representation of femininity that is meant to push back against a number of racialized gender stereotypes."
"For example, she chose President Thomas Jefferson's portrait as the backdrop for her official White House photo. There she is, the first Black, First Lady, in a sleeveless dress, and behind her is Thomas Jefferson, who raped a teenage bondswoman, Sally Hemings (the half-sister of his wife), and enslaved his own children. Michelle's photo executes a self-conscious taunting that reaches across the span of history to repudiate the violence and brutality suffered by so many enslaved women. Michelle stands boldly in a White House where she is a mistress, not slave. Her body is for her. She is not reduced to a mule or a breeder. Her children belong to her, and she is free to love and protect them. It is an act of resistance for a Black woman to demand that her body belong to herself for her pleasure, her adornment, even her vanity, because in the United States, Black women's bodies have often been valued only to the extent that they produce wealth and pleasure for others. When Michelle insists on audacious, sleeveless femininity, she strikes back against the reduction of Black women to hypersexual breeders or asexual laborers. Hers is as important departure from the dissemblance strategies of twentieth-century club women who sought to prove their respectability through prim sexual ethics. Michelle refuses to be ashamed of her distinctive Black woman's body and all the attributes and anxieties it evokes. Rather than shrouding herself in shame, she shows her body with surprising, self-confident ease."
Now certainly, this is not for the feint of heart. Some people, even photographers are unwlling to think about anything that might make them "uncomfortable." I see this in the social media space often. Some people expect photographers to tweet flowers and kittens and nothing with even a remote substance beyond that. I discussed that in a previous blog titled "Why Are You Tweeting That?" If I am afraid of discussing the historical and cultural ramifications of a photograph through a socio-political lens, why am I even photographing people then? Because they are pretty? Sure that is fine too, and I do that as well. But I am also willing to go beyond that.
We see amazing photographs all of the time. Behind the Gare St. Lazare. Afghan Girl. As photographers, are we willing enough, perhaps even brave enough to discuss what is really going on in the photo? Why is a photograph poignant? Is it more than following the rules or even evoking an emotional response? What events...what catalysts occurred during the time the photograph was made that led the people to be in the places that they were to even be in the photograph? Why are those things relevant? And, how do such photographs become memorable or even iconic much later on, revealing relevance a year later or even 100 years later?
These are the types of things I like to think about with some photographs, especially photojournalism and portraiture of notables and even unknowns. Every photograph means something. Something moved a person to create it. But only when we are willing to move past how pretty or how sad a photographs are and think about them in genuinely contextual terms, if relevant, are we able to fully realize the meaning and the power of photography.