Picture (Im)perfect

Teju Cole casts a shadow on the ethics of photography

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Illustration by Sabrina Ilumin

If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then novelist, photographer, critic and curator Teju Cole has written over a million. 

Jack Baskin Auditorium overflowed with students, faculty and administrators on Oct. 10 in anticipation of Cole’s lecture. What the audience did not expect was that as they broke the room’s max capacity of 207, Cole would break the boundaries of photography. 

In under two hours, he illuminated attendees’ perceptions on the effects of camera settings on non-white bodies and the ethics behind photojournalism. 

“[Teju Cole] brings us closer to the world we already know, but also encourages us to look elsewhere, to risk looking beyond our own blindspots,” said UC Santa Cruz history of art and visual culture professor Jennifer  Gonzáles.  

Cole’s journey into the realm of professional photography began during his four years as a photo critic at The New York Times Magazine. There, he married visual imagery with written analysis, creating a space where one cannot only look, but understand the impact of a picture. His articles examined the lighting, shadowing and visual effects of portraits to reveal the photographers’ physical and metaphorical intentions. 

Cole gave the audience a taste of his written work by re-examining the first image that made him realize he wanted to critique  photography. 

“This image left me short of breath the first time I saw it,” Cole told the audience. “It is about a young woman whose face is at once relaxed and intense. She is apparently in bright sunshine but her face and the rest of the picture gives off a feeling of modulated darkness.” 

The title of the image — Mississippi Freedom Marcher, Washington DC, 1963 — taken by photographer Roy DeCarava helped Cole understand the hope behind the woman’s  expression. 

Civil rights activists led the 1963 March on Washington to protest racism and support pending civil rights legislation in Congress. Protesters like the young woman in the photo were uplifted by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s address and prepared themselves for the walk that changed history.  

“The power of this picture is in the loveliness of its dark areas,” Cole told the audience. “Roy DeCarava’s work was in fact an exploration of how much can be seen in the shadowed parts of a photograph, or how much we could imagine into those shadows.”

This dynamic shadowing of Black bodied individuals arose out of a technological oversight. Camera and film equipment was generally calibrated for white skin and had limited sensitivity for brown, red or yellow skin tones. There was a tendency to underexpose dark skin, Cole said in his speech. 

People of color still face this problem. Not only are photographers tasked with the responsibility of adjusting their equipment for POC in pre-production, but they have to modify the lighting and color of the image in post-production. Photographers continuously modify colored bodies through each stage of photography to create images light and bright enough for public consumption. 

Within the terrain of the lightness and darkness of a photograph lies an ethical grey area.

Illustration by Sabrina Ilumin

As his speech progressed, Cole began to drift away from the subject of intention and landed in the territory of morality — when does someone have the right to take a photograph? And does this right have the power to override what is just and  unjust? 

Many photographers and journalists believe if something is newsworthy, they have the right to showcase it to the world, Cole said in his speech. This belief comes from a place of privilege in which people can remain ignorant on a number of sensitive topics — like not understanding what a camera  represents. 

“In Africa, as in most parts of the dispossessed world, the camera arrives as a part of colonial paraphernalia, together with a gun and the Bible,” Cole told the audience. “[…] Under the giant umbrella of colonialism nothing would be allowed to remain hidden from the imperial authorities.” 

When Algerians decided to break free from French colonial rule in the 1950s and ‘60s during the Algerian War, they were subjected to extreme violence. The French forced hundreds of Muslim women to remove their veils so they could be photographed. 

Cole refused to show the audience these unethical photos, but recounted the women’s furious and humiliated expressions. Once a body of people is judged to be foreign, news teams will stop at nothing to expose explicit and disturbing photographs of them, Cole said to the audience. 

People who support this photographic freedom claim some horrific images have catalyzed changes in public policy. However, thousands of photos of dead children, displaced workers and diseased families are taken every year with no legal changes put into place. 

The bitter truth of the situation is not that the photographers are immoral, but that the viewers are, Cole told the audience. The news we consume comes from a reality that we as a large collective have created, he added. 

“These photographs are mirrors, not windows,” Cole told the audience. “We look into them and what they reflect back to us is something monstrous and hard to reconcile with our notion of ourselves. We look and look and then think nothing of looking, secure in our reactions and missing the point, we put them away.” 

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Farrah Safari is the Campus Desk editor at City on a Hill Press. She reported for city desk from winter to spring quarter of 2018. During this time, she found that her passion for journalism centered around investigative reporting— uncovering corrupt institutions and revealing the truth behind oppressive systems and practices. She is a literature and sociology double major with a concentration in world studies and a proposed film and digital media minor. Although she focuses most of her energy on City on a Hill Press she is also the vice president of ADCMP, the African Dysphoria Chain Mentorship Program, a member of African Student Union (ASU) and participates in slam poetry competitions.