Tag Archives: photographs

Pinboard #4: Postcards from the Exotic

This a hand-colored photograph of a river baptism. In the center of the image, two preachers clad in dark red robes attend to a woman in a white dress and bonnet, who is submerged in the water up to her shoulders. To the right, there are several clusters of people, including a group of faithfuls who are waiting with their hands crossed in front of their bodies for their baptism to take place. To the left are two boats, which are conceivably bringing new participants to the ceremony. Crowds of African Americans, several people deep, line the banks of the river. Red lettering printed on the image indicate that this “Genuine Negro Baptism” took place near Norfolk, Virginia in 1918.

I. Stern, Genuine Negro Baptising near Norfolk, Va., 1905–10. International Center of Photography

This object was on view in the International Center for Photography’s 2011  “Take me to the Water” exhibition of vintage postcards of river baptisms in the Mid-West and the South between 1880 and 1930. As the ICP web site explains, religious fundamentalism was widespread in these decades, which brought tremendous social and economic changes to these regions. Postcards of river baptisms circulated both through those individuals who participated in the events, as well as via those who attended as spectators or merely knew of them and saw them as curious spectacles. For river baptisms were a kind of theater that satisfied not only the faithful, but also tourists in search of evidence of homegrown traditions that were at once authentic and exotic.

I wanted to present this image in relation to the horrifying lynching photographs that we encountered through Leigh Raiford’s essay. This postcard is an example of another kind of imagery that commodified black bodies. However, it performs this operation not in a register of violence, but rather one of exotic spirituality that appealed to white consumers of river baptism postcards. The title of the postcard, “Genuine Negro Baptism” captures how river baptisms featuring black subjects were addressed to such beholders as exhibits of authenticity. The postcards, like lynching photographs, provided a vantage point from which to dominate the black body through objectification and primitivization.

Gaze Control (Pinboard #2)

A warrior woman, near Kambole

A warrior woman, near Kambole

I shared this photograph in class, but it has stuck in my head since then so I decided to use it as a pinboard post to continue thinking on it in conversation with what we’ve seen in the course so far. The photograph is of a “A warrior woman, near Kambole; insisted on fight with the men” according to the caption. While we do not know much other than the location (the date and name of the photographer are unknown), we do know that at some point the photograph was in the hands of an English speaker, and was probably taken by an English photographer as Zambia was part of the English colony of Rhodesia. The photograph belongs to a larger collection entitled “Scenes of daily life of natives and a foreign missionary in Malawi” (where it states that the collection is from not before 1862.

I offer this image as an intervention. We speak so often of gender, feminism, the male gaze etc, but frame it as only a western phenomenon. In contrast to how we imagine gender and the gaze in Lacanian terms, this image fights the ability of the gaze to control the Other. While this women is placed in the context of colonization, and marked as female, she is playing with gender. As such, her very existence and her gender play make it difficult for her to be marked as a sexual object. While the caption present might have been written in jest (I can imagine it with a “haha” at the end), the way her gaze holds the camera, and the expression on her face, accented by the reflective flecks of some kind of powder make the viewer of the photograph look back at her, and see her in a position of power (over her own body and life) even as she exists in a moment of historical oppression.