Towards visual paths of dignity

Figure 1 - Postcard produced: [ca. 1905] Summary: Translated caption reads: "French Congo. Passage of Mr. Administrator E. In the foreground, two leaders sitting in reclining chairs, in the background, village people and cabins. Congo Français. Photograph by J. Audema. General. In the public domain in the United States because of age.

Figure 1 – Postcard produced: [ca. 1905] Summary: Translated caption reads: “French Congo. Passage of Mr. Administrator E. In the foreground, two leaders sitting in reclining chairs, in the background, village people and cabins. Congo Français. Photograph by J. Audema. General. In the public domain in the United States because of age.

I want to highly recommend a column in The New York Times Lens Blog from January 30, 2014.  This is an article by Jean-Phillipe Dedieu, which describes his collection of postcards and images from the age of European colonialism entitled: “Towards visual paths of human dignity.”  The article speaks to how if you look at a set of images taken at a given period of time, you begin to see their historical context.  This is the way that the photographers subliminally portrayed their subjects.  In this case it is the contrived story of the benevolent white man bringing Christianity and “civilization” to what were viewed as primitive peoples.  I think that Figure 1 is an example of such a post card, which is typical of what we are talking about.  We see the great colonial white overlord and the doting natives.  An absolutely amazing example from Mr. Dedieu’s collection is a 1905 New Year’s postcard from Sierra Leone, where a group of native men stand together each with a letter from the words “BONNE ANNEE,” written on their chests.  This clearly indicates the level of objectivization of native peoples.

I think that a very important point in all of this is that the world changes.  We do not see things as people a hundred years ago do.  We have spoken of the bridge that photography offers across time.  But in a sense this bridge is impassable.  A single image does not convey complete understanding of how people once saw the world.  It is only through observing a massive collection of such images that one can really achieve understanding, or begin to.  Mr. Dedieu amassed his very impressive collection of postcard images over the course of a lifetime.  And in doing so he has performed a truly important task – the task of letting us see how they saw.

There is another point in all of this for those of you who wished that you could collect photographs but are turned off by the high prices.  I am a great proponent of focused collecting – although I hasten to add that I do not collect photographs myself. You might at first consider postcards to be a low level endeavor – a poor cousin of fine art collecting.  But as Jean-Phillipe Dedieu so wonderfully demonstrates, there can be great historic value in such a collection.

 

 

This entry was posted in History of Photography, Reviews and Critiques.