News / Opinion

Seeing beyond race: Mark Sealy on how diversity in photography can make an impact

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Abbas / Magnum Photos / Autograph Media

Last week Mark Sealy, director of Autograph ABP, the Association of Black Photographers, and former Getty director Steve Blogg launched Autograph Media – a photography licensing agency specialising in all aspects of race and cultural diversity throughout history. Here, Mark writes about his why now is the time for such an initiative, and his hopes for its impact.

I believe that we will, in time, come to realise that it is no longer valid to keep on inventing the ‘other’ in photography. Eventually, time will help us recognise the benefits of embracing difference. What is becoming increasingly clear is that those who have been traditionally dominated by various forms of imperial, political and cultural violence are saying louder and louder that they have had enough.

People globally are tired of being shut out of the means of production. Peoples around the world are demanding the means to ‘represent’ themselves in all walks of life. Traditional modes of power and established cultural and political practices are evidently in crisis and this creates the potential for amazing visual spectacles for us all to observe. These spectacles are not all pleasant: many are disturbing and dark episodes that will blight humanity forever, especially as old political regimes crumble, refuse to transform or continue to resist unstoppable change.

Photography will, of course, continue to play a critical role in the unfolding prospects of our lives. Photography, by the very nature of its transformative possibilities, both technical and visual, will continue to completely envelope the globe with a dense digital visual mass that will either drown us in creative possibilities or provide us with a platform to build new forms of societal exchanges that I hope will change how we see difference.

Curating images and seeing beyond race may well be, in our time, an impossible task, but as a concept it is well worth pursuing. Considered as a critical perspective or position, curating in race – by which I mean bringing hidden and marginalised people and events into wider public view – is an essential act of mediation if diverse cultures are to co-exist peacefully and productively.

It is evident from the application of photography as a tool in aiding human understanding that it is the most poignant of mediums through which to address the constructions of race. This is because photography’s visual veracity and its ability to hold back the flow of time are undeniably seductive. Photography archives matter and how we read them is essential to our lives.

We know that photography has, since it was invented, provided analytical material and data through which we consider how (and who) we are now and, most critically, how the ‘other’ has been historically framed. Those who work to extract new knowledge from the vast photographic archives of our time have the capacity to blow apart old, dominant cultural codes that have constructed any form of racial marking as being outside of culture, inferior and alien. So, to see through race is in part a form of oppositional, visual destabilisation work: it is work that gnaws at the edges of the grand narratives of racism, imperialism and colonialism. To imagine the space to see through race rubs against the norms manufactured by insiders, cultural gatekeepers and institutional voices that insist on inscribing versions of their history on to the vast majority of the world’s peoples – people who don’t have either the means or the space to produce the counter narratives necessary to disrupt the way they have been misrepresented.
 
Cultural work within photography reveals that once re-readings or new articulations are produced, new knowledge can be generated to counter old, negative, preconceived ideas. Alternative narratives can be forged, new voices can be heard and buried images celebrated and put to work for a different social purpose. Seeing through race enables us to build new cultural platforms in which the democratic promise of photography can be realised by those who see the human subject in a broader light.

This lens-shifting work provides space for examining how images are interpreted, not just as images or signs and objects of material culture or an imagined known past, but as ciphers of meaning that we may not be able to articulate in the immediate present – which is why it is critical that we keep on looking for ‘difference’. This creates the exciting possibility of a photograph currently in circulation with certain meanings and readings associated with it, to be read as a different document displaying new information that may previously have been hidden or suppressed. That is one of the principal aims of Autograph Media.

This piece was originally published on Document, a blog by Autograph Media.

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Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images: Rosa Parks Mug Shot, 1955

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Pedro Santana / AFP / Getty Images / Autograph Media