Through photography, the author asks questions about the meaning and nature of liberation.
“Particular images can have, in themselves, political and social effects.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Jennifer Bajorek. Bajorek is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and Visual Studies at Hampshire College and Research Associate in the VIAD Research Centre, in the Faculty of Art, Design, and Architecture at the University of Johannesburg. Her book is Unfixed: Photography and Decolonial Imagination in West Africa.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Jennifer Bajorek: My book looks at what particular photographs did, or meant, at the moment of decolonization in Africa—a historical moment when, like today, the world was in the midst of rapid political and social transformation. So it is about images that are both in and of the world, and it explores how particular images interact with their world, how they can have, in themselves, political and social effects. I look at the images and experiences of African photographers in the years leading up to and following independence from French colonial rule (1960) in four cities in West Africa: Saint-Louis, Dakar, Porto-Novo, and Cotonou. Through photography, I ask questions about the meaning and nature of liberation; about our capacities to connect and find solidarity across difference; and about the tools that we have to seize or create spaces of collective action and imagination that are not bound by geography, nationality, language, or by imperial or colonial histories. These spaces are always shaped by these forces and these histories, but they cannot be bound by them.
By focusing on images made by African photographers, my book is about images in, and of, a distinctly African world. The photographers with whom I worked in my research (it is also their research) were members of what is called the “independence generation” in West Africa. They understood themselves as making images and participating in practices that were global, cosmopolitan, and hyper-connected to other places. They also understood these images and practices as African, and that photography allowed them to produce a distinctly African vision of the world. To ask what it means to modify, subtly or dramatically, the meaning of Africanness or of blackness visually, and how such visual experimentation might be linked to liberation—this is, of course, also a totally contemporary project, and one that is not confined to the diaspora. It also has a history on the continent, as my research shows.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
The imaginative dimensions of the photographs I write about cannot be overstated. These images, and the stories that accompany them, bring us closer to a moment in African history that challenges us to imagine a world, and life, beyond both colonialism and capitalism. The first thing I hope that readers (and all the better if they are activists and community organizers) will take away is a feeling of being a bit closer to this history, and a reflection on the power of these imaginative acts. At the same time, we know that decolonization was not, in the end, a huge success. The events and the period I write about are associated both with this euphoria, this sense of limitless possibility, and also with bitter failure and disappointment. I hope that through the book and the photographs in it, readers will sit with those conjoined feelings of euphoria and disappointment, which I believe can be experienced through photographs in a heightened way. An image can contain both this sudden opening and this sudden narrowing of a horizon. I think, again, that we are all very in touch with this dual temporality in this moment. My students and my friends who are going out into the streets to protest the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, in our heightened awareness of these multiple pandemics, we are all very in touch with this. In a way, it is the only thing we are talking about right now.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
Almost everything we ever hear about photography is totally Eurocentric, how it was invented, what it is supposed to be, what it can become. I hope that readers will unlearn this Eurocentrism. That said, my work is not primarily an argument about, or with, this Eurocentrism. I seek instead to show readers a glimpse of these other histories of photography, specifically African ones, to which we have—thanks to this Eurocentrism—been blind. Temporally, materially, photographs are unique: they elicit aesthetic responses, affective and embodied responses, forms of memory, and stories that differ from those elicited by other images and other historical sources. These responses are often culturally specific, and they are grounded in particular places and times. Methodologically, my book asks what can happen when we tell and listen to African histories in a way that counters this Eurocentrism, by centering African images and practices.
In addition, in the scholarship, there has been an overwhelming focus on how European colonizers used the camera to do violence in Africa. There has been a particularly strong focus on ethnographic and anthropometric photographs, which were used by European colonizers to rationalize racist and white supremacist ideologies, and to produce and reproduce anti-blackness as a visual artifact. This history is real, and it is most definitely not over yet.
“European colonizers used the camera to do violence in Africa.”
Anti-blackness, primitivizing and dehumanizing images of people of African descent, images of black death, these continue to be produced and to function, very powerfully, in contemporary culture, and photography has most definitely played a role in this. But this is not the whole story. These visual logics of colonial and white supremacist domination have, until recently, eclipsed the richness and complexity of African photography histories. Without wanting to diminish or distract from these histories of visual and photographic violence, I want to fill in the gaps of these other histories, which are less familiar. There are other images, and other practices, that are not oriented either by a colonial gaze, or an anti-black ideology, or even necessarily by a response to it. We need to learn other ways of looking and of seeing, and I think these photographs can teach us some of these ways.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
My intellectual heroes are, first of all, the photographers and families who shared their photographs and knowledge with me. I name them all in the book. It is a truly astonishing thing to go and knock on someone’s door and ask if they will share with you, a total stranger, something intimate and cherished from a lifetime ago, and they say “Yes.” This willingness to share their images and memories and to think with me, with us, across cultural, linguistic, racial, generational, geographic, and geopolitical divides, to point out sources for further research, to broker introductions, even to train me as a researcher—this, to me, makes them intellectual giants. To be sure, these transactions are complex on both sides, and I write about some of these complexities in the book (on my side, I am a white scholar, gender plays a role, language is an important factor, people always expected me to be or assumed that I was French, but I am not French, I am not an art historian, and I have a different relationship to the market from most art historians, etc.). But the bottom line is, they did not have to say yes. They always said yes.
“It is a truly astonishing thing to go and knock on someone’s door and ask if they will share something intimate.”
My debt is also profound to several generations of museum and cultural heritage professionals, who are the most immediate inheritors of these collections. Their struggles to preserve West African collections and ensure that they will be available to future generations are truly daunting, yet their openness and will to collaboration are unparalleled: El Hadj Adama Sylla, Fatima Fall, Karim Fall, Ismaïla Camara, AbdouKhadre Sarr, Djibril Sy in Saint-Louis; Franck Ogou, Alphonse Olibé, Sonia Mahamé, and their colleagues in Porto-Novo. I could list the names of other writers and thinkers whose names you would recognize, and whose books your readers are likely to have read, but I would prefer to give credit, here, to our colleagues in Africa, whose work remains unsung. I conclude the book with a list of recent preservation initiatives, led by African curators and cultural heritage professionals, that open new pathways for thinking about the future of photographs and photographic collections in Africa—and, really, all over the world. We are standing on their shoulders. They are light years ahead of us.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
Every photograph that I include or discuss in the book is just such an imagining. What I write, the stories I share, can provide context for or elaborate on this imagining a little, but it is actually the photographs themselves that do this imaginative work, and that invite us to continue it.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA, and an Affiliate Scholar at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, where he directs the Race, Bioethics, and Public Health Project. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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