Photo-Consciousness: Thoughts on the Responsibility of Lens-based Media

Nya Lewis


We are still grappling with the gaze. Within the dominant national conversation of excluded voices in art, perhaps we as practitioners, are beginning to pay special attention to amplifying the work of artists who create from an experiential lens – artists who graciously contribute to the visual canon by documenting their communities and influences of cultural production from an invaluable intercommunal vantage point. Perhaps we are better prepared to analyze the role of photography as an apparatus of strategic social convention. One that, when yielded unethically, promotes voyeurism. As we wave our decolonial flags, we can now also acknowledge the role of lens-based work in framing history and culture, question who is doing the framing, and how these factors affect the practice and the artists it serves. Perhaps it is time, again, and always, to critically engage with the responsibility of lens-based work and its obstinate impact on the way we see ourselves and others. In the aftermath of the dichotomous movement for Black lives and the impending white awakening, we are called to challenge image production and consumption (particularly portraiture) and its role in perpetuating intersectional oppression.

As a Queer first-generation African Trinidadian Canadian Curator and Artist, much of my research and practice is making visible the absences in documentation of Black art and Black existence. I hope to contribute to my community’s collective self-regard by instrumentalizing art’s ability to inform culture and identity awareness. I am in constant pursuit of references or narratives that daylight my experiences and sense of belonging, and wholeheartedly believe in arts potential to reshape anti-racism dialogue, shift perception, and understand deficiencies in public thinking, teaching, education, and democratic thought. I share this in acknowledgment that this position informs the possible oversimplification of my expectations of photography. The visual articulation of Blackness, however insufficient, has changed over the years, ranging, but not limited to; mammies, power to the people, fly-swatting babies in Africa, Thug type #1, gay and dying, gay and fabulous, creole fair-skinned women, island paradise calendar girls in wet t-shirts, Essence magazine new negro, fashion mavens, body type trendsetters, queer and angry, dancing, singing, flashy, pop culture Gods the new new negro. This visual vernacular is constantly in flux and intermittently coding. At the intersection of gazes – imposed and self-imposed, lens-based media ultimately becomes an accomplice of fractured storytelling and a vehicle in pursuit of visual subjectivity.

I am fascinated by the ability of photography to create and enforce seemingly concrete ideas, normative conventions, expectations, or signifying practices of cultural bodies of knowledge. What photography insinuates, an evidentiary, visceral, immediate historical reference and in relation to public art, access where the observer is inextricably linked to the subject, and an assumption of power or expertise over what is presented pursues. Within the arts and social sciences field, researchers have critically analyzed the correlation between the public’s perception of images of marginalized communities and the normalization of treatment of these marginalized groups. I assert that the criminalization, dehumanization and at times misinformed “reading” of people of color, employs a cycle of fostered racial bias that is grossly impacted by public imagination, and highly informed by the imagery we consume. Understanding this, how might we quarrel with the implications of lens-based work as a potential false truthmaking in the social construction of “marginalized” beings. Beyond the observed static frame, how might we hold lens-based media accountable for how we understand and contextualize images in our daily lives.

This discourse is not new. The implications of capturing “marginalized” communities have roots in criticisms of ethnographic and colonial anthropological documentation. I consider myself a student of the speculative work of Black artists, curators, writers, activists, and thinkers whose rigorous literature creates(d) a foundation for a critical analysis of a post-colonial gaze.

Practitioners like bell hooks, Deborah Willis, Betye Saar, Carrie Mae Weems, Mark Sealy, and Tina M. Campt have supported my articulation of the responsibility of the camera. Their work challenges us to consider the consciousness of a photo, what survives the image, and how these ideas shape cultural projections, concretely qualifying the connection between observer and subject, camera, and cultural agency. Our labour as cultural workers is to question strategic representations in media, material culture, and art history. The task is to continue highlighting inequities by responding with opportunities for a multitude of depictions of underrepresented communities. Lens-based practitioners can and should support establishing a new presence, visualizing a new sense of being, seen through new expressions of pride and identity. Here we may challenge with intention what the camera reveals and implement alternative mechanisms to support the interpretation of visual images. When photographers yielding the camera results in a type of lens appropriation or reclamation, a shift in the methodology of capturing “marginalized communities” occurs. To construct a “counterhegemonic” world that stands as visual resistance requires the participation of self-identified communities. This active involvement on both sides of the lens is vital to the function of ethical engagement.

In an increasingly visual culture, new technologies, social media, endless modes of image production, and presentation changing our consumption of imagery, we should still interrogate the relationship between visual technologies and the way we see. Wherein new exposure to visual sources creates additional pathways to learning, simultaneously creating a more even playing field for representation, perhaps the responsibility of photography is not so complex. Ethical lens-based work is an effortful practice of looking alongside or with. It demands adjacency and is regenerative labour that does not allow the viewer to engage passively. If we are the stories we see, then it will always matter who tells them.

While we continue to document the times, our engagement of images should never stop quarrelling with insidious racial and gender stereotypes, the unravelling of colonial histories, and the object-ness of photography. It remains that the emergence of photography and the invention of the camera as a tool to record social reality objectively and truthfully is interrupted by the false assumption of a collective value system or shared understandings of humanity. It is not my position to prove the existence of bias within spectatorship. It is alive, and proof of its existence can be seen within the last century of photography. Instead, I am proposing an expansion of what we deem to be ethical engagement with lens-based work. How do we create objective reflections of the communities we document? To contend with the tension of the critical gaze, the responsibility of photography is to value lived experience as the primary rule of expertise, to ground our ways of seeing in methodologies that center interdependence employing a non-negotiable positioning that confronts the context through which photographers approach their practice, to tell the fragmented truth, to exist as a site of resistance for colonized people understanding the history of the apparatus, to cultivate and reclaim the realities, nuance, and aspirations of our lives, and to never neglect the politicization of looking.

Image: Jorian Charlton, Out of Many, Nyabel & Nevine (In standing embrace), 2021, digital scan from a negative, 39.37 x 32.91 cm. Courtesy of the Artist.

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