Listening to Images

Campt, Tina, Listening to images. (Durham : Duke University Press, 2017)

I found Tina Campt’s use of the term “vernacular photography” thematically apt. Though she never mentions it, the etymology of “vernacular” is linked to slavery. From the OED: “vernacular”, early 17th century: from Latin vernaculus ‘domestic, native’ (from verna ‘home-born slave’) + -ar.* Used in conjunction with photography, the act of being “arrested” or institutionally remembered (75) in an indexical image can be understood as a form of bondage that can only speak of its realities from below. (98) By comparing two sets of archives of historically dismissed photographs from moments during the black diaspora, that of early twentieth-century Cape Town prisoners and mid-century arrest of Freedom riders, Campt registered the quiet resistance of the black body in the quotidian practice of criminal cataloguing. She argues that the photographs, though silent, are not totally unfelt. This notion extends to its material presentation in an album which has become “an indisputably haptic repository of re/collection” (71). Harvey Young parallels this idea in his concept of “stillness” as the slave’s ironically “active performance of arrest”. (27) By being compelled to sit in front of the camera, Young contends that Delia becomes the embodiment of “‘specimen,’ and an idealized xenotype of the ‘other.’” (38)

This concept dovetails with Allan Sekula’s notion of the instrumental nature of the photograph as a “silence that silences” (6). The primacy put upon photographs by criminologists such as Alphonse Bertillon, who applied the anthropological technique of anthropometry to law enforcement, elevated its status as evidence for potential deviant behaviour. (6) However, an individual photograph cannot yield any conclusion other than a record of incarceration or blotter. To gain insight into the nature of the criminal body, Campt’s studies mention the use of “rigidly formatted, serial images” that grouped traits and identity “through their static systematization of physical attributes.” (75-84), which Sekula also touches upon in his study (13, 26-33).

The positivist obsession with visual cataloguing overtook the “textual” attributes of the person. (Sekula, 6). The purpose of the clerical codification of the criminal body is to mute the person’s guises and diminish his agency to speak his alibis (ibid.). It seemed like a theoretically sound system except that subtle acts of resistance and humanity hums through the lower frequencies within criminal identification and attendant haptic temporalities. (ibid.)

Alan Trachtenberg has previously dealt with what Sekula writes as photography’s capability for a “double system of representation” that can function “honorifically and repressively”. Sekula, though, was keen to point out that the downward proliferation of portrait photography was used to delimit the terrain of the other. (7) This idea was subverted by the Mexican photographer Lola Alvarez Bravo in her photographs of feminine figures and artist friends, who were “muted” by their subjugation to a paternal order. It was through her vernacular use of the photograph as a journalist [“keeping one or two for yourself”](Reina, 31) and the subtle showing of repression with mere shadow-work and “striking of a pose” that she was able to sing her irrepressible creative spirit.

 

*I was first alerted with the etymology of the word through the Facebook page of Professor Vicente Rafael of the University of Washington.

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