Addressing racism and issues of representation through photography

Written by British Journal of Photography

Published on 3 June 2020

All the Boys (Blocked 2). 2016 (printed 2019) © Carrie Mae Weems, courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, NY.

Carrie Mae Weems, Dana Scruggs, Lola Flash and Mark Sealy invite us to look and consider — to acknowledge and act upon injustices that pervade the past and darken the present. In light of recent events, we return to interviews with them from our archive

George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, US, on 25 May when a police office knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes. His death amplifies the terrifying extent of the racism that pervades the US and the world at large. It has sparked global outrage, protest, and debate.

What can photography offer amid all of this? Carrie Mae Weems, Dana Scruggs, Lola Flash, Mark Sealy, and the many photographers with who he works, employ the medium to educate and empower. For them, photography provides a space to reclaim and reshape representations of Black culture, identity, and experience. They challenge prejudice, whether it is conscious or not, which may be manifest in the pre-existing perceptions of their viewers.

“How do you employ elements of beauty, lyricism, and gentleness, to bring an audience to a difficult subject?” asks Mae Weems, whose work, along with that of the others featured here, and many others aside, opens up urgent avenues for contemplation, education, and change, now, and in the future. 

Below, we return to excerpts of interviews with them from our archive, along with examples of their powerful work. 

Carrie Mae Weems: “If my work encourages you to ask ‘what is that and what does it mean?’ Then, I think I have done my job”

Slow Fade to Black – Abbie Lincoln. 2009-2010 © Carrie Mae Weems, courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, NY.

“I have always tried to resist the term [race]. I am aware of its dangers and limitations, and what it actually does – the way in which it divides us. [Growing up], when you described someone you might call them that ‘caramel coloured girl, or that coffee-coloured girl, or you know, he is like a blue-black boy. [In my work] I take it to the absurd, and the fun, and the effervescent – high yellow, lemon meringue, burnt orange, and violet. I start to become whimsical with the idea, not only to express the beauty of notions of colour, but also the absurdity of notions of race in relationship to colour.”

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Dana Scruggs: “You don’t have to be a white supremacist to uphold white supremacy”

© Dana Scruggs.

“Being a Black woman who’s getting attention from the art world for documenting and creating art with Black men is very important because, historically, white people are given more acclaim, credibility, and funding for making work centred around — and in many cases fetishising — Black people. Major institutions and galleries have historically ignored Black artists who create work about Black people because these institutions have a white perspective. Consciously and unconsciously they give the white gaze more validity than the Black gaze — even if the work is mediocre and/or problematic. This is what systematic racism looks like.”

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Lola Flash: “I want my subjects to be seen, not scrutinised”

Dominque. Brooklyn, NY. 2011. From the series [sur]passing © Lola Flash, courtesy of the artist.

“In the dictionary, the word black can be defined as gloomy, dirt-ridden, and evil. Let’s change those definitions. Black is beautiful, even though that may be a cliche, it’s true.

“I feel like I should be proud of what I have done. But, when there are so many other battles that still need to be won, sometimes it is hard to just sit back and puff up my chest. I want to rewrite the history that has been thrown at us. It’s pretty simple. I want people to see our beauty.”

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Mark Sealy: “Africa is everywhere, isn’t it? I want to elevate our way of thinking, from geography to cosmology”

Thulani II, Parktown, 2015 © Zanele Muholi.

“Most of the artists [featured in Sealy’s most recent exhibition] are talking about the politics of their time. Wilfred Ukpong is creating this supernatural world where you can have a conversation about the oil industry and global economies. Aida Muluneh is employing imaginary moments of construction to help us understand the tragedy of our present condition. Samuel Fosso is performing as Angela Davis — a radical, transgressive, contemporary statement.

“Africa is everywhere, isn’t it? I want to elevate our way of thinking, from geography, to cosmology. The idea is that we need to look up to Africa as an idea, rather than as a broken place of extraction.”

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