Friday, November 6, 2015
Ayana V. Jackson and the Photographer's Gaze
The December 2015 issue of Photo District News (not on their website yet, but will update when they upload it) brings to our attention the photography of Ayana V Jackson, who was born in New Jersey, attended Spelman College in Atlanta, and now resides in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Based on what I've learned about Jackson's photography, its clear to me that she is an Honorary Southern Photographer, because her work brings to our attention significant questions about the practice of Southern photography.
Jackson's work challenges us to consider basic questions about who makes photographs in the South, and for whom, and what the consequences of those choices turn out to be.
Jackson recently had a show of her work at the Mariane Ibrahim Gallery in Seattle, which recognized in her photographs Jackson's desire to explore the response of African and African diaspora societies to the history of their depiction in photography.
Jackson's work, in the words of the Ibrahim Gallery, "combines honed technical skills with richly laced historical allusions to create hauntingly candid portraits that depict varying constructions of African and African-American identities."
Jackson's images are striking, arresting, challenging, absorbing, bringing us back over and over, as strong photographs do.
More than that, however, they ask us to contemplate the consequences of the fact that most photographs of people of color have been taken by white photographers for mostly white audiences.
Jackson is concerned, as Brienne Walsh puts it, in her PDN essay, "with reconstructing the history of black bodies as captured by white photographers and photojournalists throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries."
This means that images of people of color made by white photographers -- even those made "to raise awareness," to document racism or oppression, or affirm our common humanity -- operate "within the colonial lexicon of 'otherness.'"
Jackson's images do not function in a simple world of binary opposition. Its not that images of people of color made by people of color are simply "better" than images of people of color made by white photographers.
Jackson is instead interested in the consequences of work by white photographers in constructing images of, and therefore, value judgements about, people of color.
To explore this, Jackson re-stages historic photographs of people of color, such as the one at the top of this blog post, which recreates one of the many surviving photographs of a person of color being lynched, somewhere in the American South.
Another example of Jackson's rephotographing practice is the her recreation of the photograph directly above, of an image made in Africa in the 1890's of a fully clothed Alice Seeley Harris, an English missionary, surrounded by a group of semi-nude Congolese children.
Jackson's re-staged image is below; Jackson says, of the original, that "This was one of the first images a European may have ever seem of an African body. Look at how the missionary is clothed, and the 'savages' are unclothed."
Now, she says, "Look at my image, and tell me, who is civilized, and who is savage?"
Jackson uses herself as her model in many of her images, especially those involving the nudity of her subject matter.
Perhaps remembering that since 1896, National Geographic has been one of the very few mass market American magazines to feature photographs of nude men and women, but only if they were black or brown-skinned people, Jackson makes images that foreground the relationship between clothed and nude bodies.
For more on this subject, go here.
Jackson uses herself for this work rather than models because she believes that if she worked with models she would be recreating rather than critiquing the practice of exploiting the body of another in the name of truth-telling or social commentary.
As Walsh says, "in Jackson's images, there are no 'others' -- there is just the artist, and the discomfort in seeing a black woman pose in a manner that, even today, could be considered exploitative."
This is powerful, effective, and deeply original work.
I do not see this work as a call for white folks like me to stop photographing people of color, but for people like me to think more deeply about what we are doing, and how we are doing it, when we do so.