WIR Image

Exactly Nothing

Luther Konadu

January 31, 2019
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After seeing it the first time, I thought, they aren’t even trying. Years later, sifting through a bargain bin at a garage sale, there it was again, this time it was bigger, a 12 inch. "Why aren’t they trying?” I thought to myself as I continue to stare at the composition of the photo. I was looking at the LP cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Cosmos Factory; released at a time when Let it Be was all the rage and no one had any interest listening to anything else.  CCR members likely thought: why bother? Why try to impress? Why try to be presentable in a sellable way? But I digress, thankfully this isn’t a story of the bro-y nonchalance of a classic rock group. Although I do still wonder about that question of “not trying.” The disposition of being “too cool for school” gets a bad rap, but it takes quite a bit to be the one that counters accepted norms. The term gets accused of its superiority-seeking fantasy but to submerge oneself in opposition to a prevailing culture can be just as alienating. And so, what does it mean to be unaffected? To be a non-participant, and to be untethered with every gesture you make? What contributes to having a certain blasé way in holding your body; the way you sit, walk, hold a pen, or even sign your own name?

A few weeks ago, Moses came by. He said he’s been practising daydreaming a lot more. I wondered how one goes about practising something as such without being distracted by the idea of doing it. I never asked him though. But yes, he finally came by. His dissertation is coming along slowly, he mentioned. I gave him the graphite drawing you made for him. It left him with a smile during his time here. It really got him talking. It might go up in the baby’s room. They just painted it. He wished you were here. He said you are truly talented. I think so too. You know what? Come to think of it, I reckon it’s the reason he talked more than he usually does. He started a conversation about what he’s been obsessing over. It’s this image he discovered through a Google search of Benjamin Booker. It’s nothing special, but it was and is to him somehow. “Do you know who that is?” he asked. “It doesn’t really matter,” he quickly responded before I could.

It’s a photo of Booker mid-set at what looks like an outdoor concert. “I keep going back to it because somehow each time it reassures,” he tells me. “Of what, I’m uncertain but I’m certain of its hold of me. I thought about reposting it on my Instagram and captioning it: “me.” Or rather: “aspirational me.” In the photo, in that instant, Booker appears blissfully unconcerned. With a cig between lips, in mid-sway, he’s taken by the moment he finds himself in. It's a picture of someone who had things go their way. Yes, on one hand, you could say he’s merely relishing in the music along with the unseen crowd and just happened to be snapped between the moments. But in that image, I found a specific recognition I long to see more of. It’s unassuming but it succeeds at radiating its calm affect on me.  In a way, I found myself mythologizing the capture of Booker’s insouciance and his disregard for the camera; it is to the same degree that I have, over time, yearned to see images that undo the compromising and clenched imaging of the black figure.  My draw to Booker’s image is an uplift, and, that reassurance I referred to. My dismay for the infrequency of the circulation of images as such in relation to the black figure turns me inward, downcast, and in off times, defensive. What he said reminded me of something Wainaina said when after a tumultuous back-and-forth with border patrols and a series of mini-strokes he wanted to go to Labadi Beach in Accra to “chill and think about nothing”. I still mythologize that idea of thinking about nothing.  

To be considered laidback means you are likely to be found reclining perhaps in a hammock. Not working.  Nothing on your mind. There aren’t any chores to get done. Situations where others will clench their fists, you’ll seek for possible bright sides. You are casually clothed for most occasions. You let things slide here and there. Words roll out of your mouth with the ease of loose soap bubbles on a mildly breezy day. To be laidback also means that over time, images that affirm your experience have in subtle ways thawed any reason to be pent up.  The circulation of unfavourable images of the black body has, and continues to be, contoured by imperialist, colonial, and racial capitalistic conditions. From the historical circulation of images via ethnographic classifications, anthropological studies, cartes de visite, postcard souvenirs, expedition documentaries, social documentary photography, National Geographic mags, Oxfam ads, and Save the Children ads; to current modes of image dissemination such as photojournalism, and police brutality footage.

We continue to see humanitarian aid organizations like Oxfam and World Vision operated by do-gooder white folks who are positioned as saviours of the now impoverished formally colonized states. They advertise their efforts and seek donations from the general public leaving images of atrocities faced by black and brown bodies. These images that are used during fundraising and awareness efforts feed into the idea that black and brown bodies are helpless and can only be saved by the hands of the West. These images proliferate in brochures and ads that render the black body in a constant state of trouble without any of the historical contexts as to why these communities are economically and socially lacking to begin with. Like any image, they travel and circulate. They become repurposed and their original context gets lost. They just become another image of the black body in distress.

Since its existence, photography has been a key supporter in constructing and maintaining limited narratives of the black body, as it has existed to serve as “evidence” of our tangible reality. If we keep hearing that a community of people are lazy, underachieving slobs, one photo of a community member can easily tip over any doubt you had before. It puts an imagined image made out of words into a rich, vivid definition; it becomes a way to reinforce stereotypes. A photograph then becomes an enabler of one’s beliefs – a belief that can be entrenched and visually impairing. In some tragic instances, it results in mental, physical and emotional violence, with lethal outcomes.  

As photographs mimic reality with greater precision thanks to technological advances and quotidian interaction with digital spaces, images continue to become active agents that shape our very understanding of reality. In light of this, I remain wary of the ways photography grips, and in turn, sees me gripped in its capture. Negative images of the black body effect (and affects) the way I hold my own body in public. I’m wary of how this cycle acts as an infection and shapes how the body is seen in interpersonal relations. I’m wary of how the same dehumanizing image becomes unshakeable, and to see an image like Booker’s becomes an outlier to long for.

A wise woman (Toni Cade Bambara) once cautioned that: “we often overestimate the degree to which exploitative behaviour has been normalized and the degree to which we’ve internalized these norms. It takes, then, a commitment to an acutely self-conscious practice to be able to think and behave better than we’ve been taught.”[1]

Discussing TV and the circulation of images in her book Rock My Soul: Black People and Self Esteem (2004), bell hooks observes that the ways in which we continue to be socialized to submissively take in white supremacist thinking – especially black individuals, but of course this applies to any marginalized subject under a dominant culture – “squash[es] the spirit.”[2] hooks continues: “As masses of black folks passively accept the values of white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy, allowing their minds and their imaginations to be colonized, they were placed in an adversarial relationship with themselves.”[3]

In thinking further about how photography has been used to strengthen domination, the history of North American landscape photography reveals a deep commitment to capturing the abundant natural resources and land seen as up-for-grabs. Settler photography has also been about showing what is constituted as vanishing: its Indigenous inhabitants. The colonial project set out to take from, and destroy, Indigenous people’s relationship with their land. These relationships are inextricably linked to their bodies and identities. Settlers such as Edward S. Curtis, whose photo reportage of Indigenous communities – some of which was repurposed into postcards and souvenirs for settler consumption and Eurocolonial imaginaries­­ – contributed to the narrative of a disappearing people, unable to exert claims to territory as sovereign Indigenous nations, therefore, anyone can move in.

In a similar way, Christian Missionaries and ethnographers made their way to Sub-Saharan Africa to classify and study inhabitants while also spreading the “good news.”  Photos of their interactions became material that was transmitted to the West, presenting Africans as savage, diseased, and inferior to Europeans. Dark skin became equated with evil and white with good. The photographs provided another source for brainwashing to legitimize colour caste – creating an assault on the psyche in colonial states across the world. hooks stated that “light skin became the mark of status”[4] and describes this as a racially based trauma that is passed on from generation to generation. Reading hooks’ words written over 15 years ago, I’m reminded of Malcom X’s speech over 35 years prior, and I’m also reminded of #KristaCampbell just this past summer.  

A friend once told me that perhaps if you keep talking and thinking about the same thing, you’ll incrementally shift towards that which you desire. Another friend asked me: “what use is it if you’ve been talking about the same thing and generations before you have been doing the same, and yet the shift is rather inert?” Does one keep scratching an itch even if there’s no relief? I have been asking myself about that “use.” I still haven’t come up with a good response, and so I’ll keep talking about the same thing nevertheless because the latter is not an alternative. It’s the type of thing my younger sister would most definitely shrug at and maybe complement with an eye roll. Sometimes I am convinced that she has been reincarnated, has seen it all, and can predict what will come next. I respect her for that. She sometimes makes apathy look appealing. If I were to describe her eternal disposition, I would compare it to that one time (28 years ago) when Kim Gordon asked Kool Thing; “are you gonna liberate us girls from white male corporate oppression?” Like in Gordon’s acerbic drawl, she already knows what the answer is before she half-jokingly asked.

The other day, I overheard some guy randomly say to a buddy on the bus: "did you know there are more images in the world than there are people?" His friend gave back an unimpressed: “Well, duh? I think I have like 1,000 images on Instagram alone and I have over 2,000 stored on my phone." And I'm sure the average person is not that much different. At first, said in those quantifiable terms, thinking about more images than humans felt like a surprising reveal but as he responded, it’s no shock; we might just be immune to its omnipresence.  Google spits out an easy million-plus images in response to the search terms “black body.”  If we live in a population of images that supersedes the population of people, how does our judgement become impacted? If our realities are processed and understood through vision, then it becomes worrying to think about the increasing conflation between what our tacit reality is and what an indistinguishable copy of it is. What happens when our chase for the highest definition dissolves modes that behave as representation? What happens when the already-slippery slope between a photographic depiction and reality becomes even more nebulous? Photography as evidence is not a dead idea even as we grow cognizant of manipulation software and their dubious possibilities. Such shifts have profound ends as we try to parse out what is real and fake. It becomes especially disturbing if the perceptions and realities of black bodies evolve to be determined through these resolution-laden images which, in essence, act as decoys.

Speaking of decoys, manipulation, and racial capitalistic schemes, a few months ago, in yet another vapid attempt by an institution to cash in on black bodies, French art school Émile Cohl pulled a clumsy move to attract more American pupils in the name of seedy diversity.  Like this instance here (2000), here (2009), and here (2011), photography becomes a screen by which black bodies are used as commodities to be possessed and exploited as a signal for an artifice of inclusion. Whether by way of Photoshop or staging, in broader consideration of the tactics of racial capitalistic inclusion, the bodies in these images are stolen out of the individual’s own possession and commodified in an aggressive presentation of diversity. In the case of the French art school’s faux pas, the black bodies’ own image is taken without consent and placed in a setting they never chose to be a part of. What is your sense of self when you don’t have control over your own image?

As for the student in the same photo whose skin was darkened to take the role of a black person, well, what else is there to say that hasn’t been said before?

We live in a culture increasingly driven by a social and economic preoccupation with diversity where the price value of black and brown bodies is soaring to the measure white institutions have assigned. Racial difference, funny enough, has become sought after. But of course, only because it can be profitable. There’s a market value and like anything circulating within a capitalistic jungle, it can be bought and traded off. Photography quietly plays its part in this sordid transaction. Photography, like the power it has always had over racialized bodies in affirming negative stereotypes, creates a curtain for even sleazier activities to happen. It becomes a red herring of sorts. It is someone smiling gleefully at you only to drop it the second you turn around. Photography does well in keeping up appearances. It’s a shortcut for providing the necessary evidence that detracts from the injustices and discrimination principles that undergird these institutional powers seeking (photo) diversity.

When your racial identity is up for barter, how does the emotional violence and domination latent in that economic imperative manifest the way one holds their body? How does that affect one’s self-worth? How does it affect the way one sees themselves in relation to the world around them? If not in one disparaging photo, what does it look like over time as you try to rise above it?

“It is the normalization of violence in our lives as black people that creates the foundation for ongoing trauma re-enactment.”[5] Those are hooks’ words and I don’t think I can improve on it.

[1] hooks, bell, Rock My Soul: Black People and Self Esteem, (New York: Washington Square Press, 2004), 32.

[2] hooks, Rock My Soul, 33.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, 39.

[5] Ibid, 21.

Image: Luther Konadu, Reworked image search result of musician Benjamin Booker.

Luther Konadu is a writer and artist of Ghanaian descent based in Winnipeg Manitoba. He is a content creator for the online publication Public Parking. A project for highlighting the working practices of emerging creators and thinkers. He is also a writing contributor for Akimbo. His studio labour is project-based and realized through photographic print media and painting processes. He is interested in how the legacies of those mediums continue to shape prevailing perceptions of group identities. He uses his work to reinterpret those image-making mediums. Konadu lives and works on Treaty One Territory, the stolen lands of the Anishinaabe, Métis, Cree, Dakota and Oji-Cree Nations.