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march 2010

Image as oppressor


by Eliza Gregory


Left: Display of the photographic representation of Indigenous Australians at the ACMI exhibition Screen Worlds

What if you had never seen a picture of yourself before? What if you had only seen pictures of yourself that someone you barely knew had taken? As someone who has photographed and has been photographed all her life, it is difficult to imagine. But, in that situation, what kind of power does a photograph (and therefore, a photographer) have?

I recently visited the Australian Center for the Moving Image, in Melbourne, and saw their exhibit called "Screen Worlds." It charts the history of the moving image in Oz, and has one section devoted to the photographic representation of Indigenous Australians. This section, called "Dreaming in Colour," has been curated by indigenous practitioners working in the motion picture industry.

  The part of it that I found electric was a small panel that talked about the First Australians being documented exclusively by people from outside their community. When you are only shown images of yourself that an outsider has made, said the panel, then your own identity — particularly your visual identity — is being disproportionately shaped by that outsider, and that outsider's culture. Particularly when the outsider's culture is also in the act of oppressing your culture, that imbalance has serious ramifications.
Next When I have made pictures in situations like this, where I am making the first picture ever made of a person, I have felt, well, weird, but I couldn't quite explain it. I have felt like there is simultaneously something really exciting about making a first portrait, and something really strange and possibly unethical about it.
  The ACMI helped me put these feelings into words. "Since colonization, Western photographers and filmmakers — influenced by the scientific and colonial thinking of the times — came in waves to record the perceived 'dying race,' 'the exotic native,'" said another panel. "These images have historically been constructed for non-Indigenous people both in Australia and worldwide. Since that time, Indigenous Australians have taken part in thousands of films and television shows. They were often portrayed in a negative light, sometimes in a positive light, but rarely were they in control of their own images and stories. In the 1970's, Indigenous makers began to break down this barrier, fighting for their own voice in the moving image."
  If someone is not in control of the way he or she is being represented at all, and I am, then that strikes me as a problem. And of course, that doesn't pertain exclusively to indigenous populations. That pertains to anybody, anywhere. Even right this second, if someone were making a picture of me, and I had no control over that image, I would feel threatened.
  There are a lot of ways to deal with this. Among them: asking permission; working collaboratively; giving away copies; building relationships; empowering new image makers; and ensuring that the subjects are also part of the audience for the work. Those are just a few. Let me know if you employ a strategy I haven't mentioned.
  This op-ed is a reprint from my weblog PhotoPhilantropy's Blog (February 11, 2010), which as part of the wider website PhotoPhilanthropy aims at promoting and connecting photographers with non-profit organizations around the world to tell the stories that drive action for social change. To see some excellent photographs made by a contemporary Indigenous Australian artist, I encourage you to look at the work of Ricky Maynard. The gallery that represents him, Stills Gallery, lauds his "commitment to represent his people and his belief in the value of documentary photography as a tool to effect social change." I initially learned about him through the amazing historical documentary series First Australians (2008).
  2010 © PhotoPhilantropy / Soundscapes