How Do We Photograph Freedom? A Conversation with Leigh Raiford

The relationship between Black liberation and photography reveals many things about our notions of freedom and the limitations of image making as a form of common truth.

Detail of Timothy O’Sullivan’s (Rappahannock River, Va. Fugitive African Americans fording the Rappahannock) stereograph (published August 1862), in the collection of the Library of Congress (LoC)

This article is part of Sunday Edition: “Juneteenth.”

One of the original ideas for the Juneteenth Sunday Edition was to examine the earliest photographs of Juneteenth, since it coincided with a period of great popularization of photography in the United States. Unfortunately the number of photographs from the early years of the festivities are few, though they certainly exist, which made me curious about why that might be, and what it means when certain types of omissions occur in the history of photography.

I reached out to Leigh Raiford, Associate Professor of African American Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, who is a leading scholar in the field of African American studies and visual culture.

Her book, Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare: Photography and the African American Freedom Struggle, is a deep examination of the relationship between the Black liberation struggle in the US and photography, and how the various movements involved in civil rights used images to advocate for political transformation, challenge stereotypes, and change media narratives.

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Hrag Vartanian: So what does a picture of Black liberation look like?

Dr. Leigh Raiford (photo courtesy Leigh Raiford)

Leigh Raiford: I think what’s fascinating about that question is that freedom, Black liberation broadly, because it hasn’t been achieved, it cannot necessarily be documented. It’s a performative kind of work. Performative in that it’s iterative, you know, and I think a lot of Black practices of photography are often really invested in the project of enacting something as they imagine it.

Would I know it if I saw it? Fred Moten has this line that the “knowledge of freedom is in the (in)vention of escape” [Moten and Harney, The Undercommons]. I obviously think of Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, creating images of themselves in the 19th century to image something that is self possession. That’s one version of what freedom looks like. It looks like the ability to represent oneself and being fully in control of one’s faculties, one’s body, one’s direction in life.

And repetition, being able to create something and then reproduce it. And to revisit it. I think there’s something even in the materiality of the photograph, certainly in the 19th century of having that moment of self possession, of the assertion of a kind of individuality, of the soul. These are examples of portraiture as both a document and a performance of freedom.

I think there’s real power in that assertion of the individual and individual personhood, but at the same time, it’s a kind of liberal humanist version of freedom. I think what I was really drawn to in [my book] Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare were the images of collectivity, the images of freedom in motion, freedom in movement, physical movement, but also like movement in the streets. Part of social movement, freedom is about being bound to other people, but we’re also made capacious by that binding.

HV: One of the things that was surprising to me about Juneteenth is that there doesn’t appear to be any large archives of images, but building on what you just said, how would we even know if we saw them? Maybe a Juneteenth image looks like a picnic or people on the beach or something uneventful to our eyes.

LR: In the 19th century, Black folks tended to celebrate January 1 more often as the date of the Emancipation Proclamation. And Juneteenth then was a more local thing to Texas. I have been thinking about archive production and all of the ways that erasures and silences happen. Who made those images, do they get recorded as such, were they deemed valuable enough to be in certain collections? So there are all these ways in which I think this sort of silences are already made.

Suddenly there’s this like full-throated national conversation. And everybody’s like, wait, what the hell is Juneteenth? And then where did it come from? We should make it a national holiday. And it’s like, and so now we need to find the history. That’s also the nature of Black life: Black history is what Black people have done, lived, survived, and celebrated largely out of the sight of a dominant culture.

I don’t know what a picture of freedom would look like. And yet we actually do have all these pictures of freedom. Constantly all over. We don’t always identify them as such.

HV: Why is photography so central to documenting the African American freedom struggle. Why that as opposed to let’s say painting or film?

LR: One of the things that we know about photography is that while it is built on earlier conventions of portraiture, painting, et cetera,

HV: Literally clichés.

LR: Yes, clichés, exactly. It actually did democratize access to representation in so many ways, for so many. It’s amazing to me how extensively Frederick Douglass wrote about photography. In 1861, his speech “Pictures and Progress” starts off in representation and the so-called birth of photography, and then it ends with the question of abolition and democracy. For Douglass the right to represent oneself is important. For even the poorest enslaved girl or maid could represent herself as she chose to be seen.

That’s actually the bedrock for him of a true democracy. And that representation is never just political or just cultural. They’re always deeply interlinked.

Full glass stereoscope of Timothy O’Sullivan’s (Rappahannock River, Va. Fugitive African Americans fording the Rappahannock) stereograph (published August 1862), in the collection of the Library of Congress (LoC)

HV: In the case of Frederick Douglass, do we ever see any hesitation around photography? 

LR: Well, I think he starts from the recognition that the visual terrain is already stacked against Black folks. There’s another essay where he talks about caricature. He talks about the ways in which, you know, drawing, cartoons, painting already has the heavily biased hand of its author in that, you know wide lips and big eyes, and that’s not a true picture. Certainly not of Frederick Douglass, who may have been the handsomest man of the 19th century. His harnessing and his embrace of photography as a technology is a very real sense of its dangers and the ways that it has been deployed and levied against Black folks in particular.

And he actually has this very funny line where he starts talking about what a caricature of a white person would look like. I wouldn’t draw a white person with thin lips and ghostly pale skin like that wouldn’t be fair, would it? I think he’s already well aware of the dangers. In some ways like very basic self-evident kind of ideas, but recognizing as well that the stakes, that the use of photography is a fundamental feature of our society.

HV: Am I right to assume that part of the appeal of photography was that it had less historical baggage? Do you think that played a role?

LR: I guess what I would say is that for Frederick Douglass, who was a proponent of photography in some of the ways that other early proponents of photography were, like Oliver Wendell Holmes or Ralph Waldo Emerson, folks who believed that suddenly “nature is drawing itself.” We have access to, we can, we can allay some of the biases of painting, of cartooning, of drawing as a social practice. But I think what’s distinct for Douglass is that it’s not just that we have this imagined unfettered, scientific document, but that more people have the opportunity to depict themselves in a way that is a little bit unfettered by the intermediary hand. I think of the process of the slave narrative itself and the way in which a slave narrative often had to go through the process, or the intermediary step of the amanuensis, the white authoring figure who vouched for the veracity of the story.

HV: Which often appeared at the beginning of the narrative, and offers a type of reassurance that “Everything you read is true.”

LR: Yes, exactly, it communicates “everything you read is true.” And in that sense, the photograph already came with that to a certain extent, was imbued with an investment in truth, without having to travel through, a white authority, right?

A colorized version of the O’Sullivan photograph by Alexander Gardner in c.1862. It is a stereograph titled “Fugitive negroes fording Rappahannock” and it was reproduced as a hand colored albumen print (8 x 17 cm, 3.15″ x 6.7″).  (LoC)

HV: You just made me think about something that I’ve never considered, namely, was there an assumption with these photographs that the person taking them was white? Do you think the audience may have treated that the same way that the slave narrative did in terms of a vouching for truth, do you think there might have been a similar kind of relationship?

LR: That’s a good question. I mean I think on some level, I think a lot of people just presume all technicians are white, because all forms of authority are white even though there were Black photographers from the very beginning of the medium. But that said, I think that the camera and its authority is already imbued in the camera itself, no matter who the hand of the operator is. It’s imbued in the technology, in the apparatus, and to a certain extent in the photograph itself.

And that was what was fascinating for me with [journalist and civil rights leader, and recent Pulitzer prize winner] Ida B. Wells, who was, based on my research, the first person to use a photograph of a lynched Black person as part of her anti-lynching literature. She reproduced one in 1892. In part because in a previous version of her article she had used a drawing made from a photograph, and that was dismissed by audiences as a fake. That she had fabricated this information, or she’d fabricated this image. And so she was like, “Fuck you, here’s the photograph.”

So she produces a photographic postcard both the front and the verso with this, again, sort of written underscoring of this message. So I think the camera already is imbued with a certain kind of authority that, in many ways, many activists and practitioners of photography have mobilized to be able to argue for, “Well, if photographic portraiture confers and confirms notions of the individual self, of the soul, of interiority, of depth, well, here we are. And now we can demonstrate that. If it is demonstrating that Black people have been murdered with impunity by white mobs or white authorities, we have that.” So the photographs are, in today’s parlance, those receipts.

If we can’t prove it by way of a photograph, will we be believed? Does it exist? Did it happen? Like Juneteenth, right? There are all of these ways in which the photograph is an appeal to Enlightenment notions of knowledge, of truth, of life. Like photography is writing with light, and so it’s about what can be seen and that kind of investment in what can be seen.

HV: So it seems like from the earlier history of African American photography, the portrait becomes much more central. Now when did communal images of movement become a bigger part of the visual language of the liberation struggle?

LR: The thing that I feel very strongly about photography broadly, but certainly in Black uses of photography, that it never performs a single function. It’s a document, it’s performance, it’s surveillance, it’s violence; it’s speculative and fabulation, it’s aspiration, it’s comfort. The photograph achieves or is employed for a range of different kinds of work. I even think of Saidiya Hartman’s notion of the chorus. She developed some thinking through a whole host of different kinds of Black cultural political practices, but the ways in which photography’s very fundamental to the elaboration of that book, right?

HV: Definitely.

LR: And that the chorus, what does it mean to think of a kind of Black intellectual formation as a chorus rather than as the individual portrait.

There’s an image of emancipation that circulated in the 19th century that I wanted to discuss. This image to me is actually one of the key images of Black freedom. This is by Timothy O’Sullivan. It was widely circulated as a stereograph. [Editor’s note: This photograph is used as the lead image for this interview, and accompanied by a stereograph and colorized versions throughout the conversation.]

The back of a colorized version of the O’Sullivan photograph by Alexander Gardner in c.1862. It is a stereograph titled “Fugitive negroes fording Rappahannock” and it was reproduced as a hand colored albumen print (8 x 17 cm, 3.15″ x 6.7″).  (LoC)

HV: So am I correct to assume these are enslaved people crossing a river from the Confederacy and to the Union lines, out of Virginia and into the United States?

LR: Yes. So this is by one of the key famous Civil War photographers. He makes this image in 1862 by the Rappahannock River, Virginia. It’s titled “Fugitive Negroes Fording the Rappahannock.”

So this is before the Emancipation Proclamation, but well into the Civil War when African Americans are starting to test the bounds of freedom and they are leaving plantations After the declaration that the Union army is going to take contraband, right? So creating this kind of loophole between personhood and property in which Black folks can make their way to Union camps. I always teach this in the context of W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America and the brilliant chapter “The General Strike,” in which he makes a case for enslaved Black people as a laboring class conscious of the conditions of their own existence who then reclaim their own labor. They free themselves by leaving plantations, by refusing to work for the plantocracy. This image, it’s messy, it’s gross. Like how the hell is that rickety-ass cart going to make it through? It’s not the kind of jubilant clean party picnic, right? But this is actually what the work of freedom looks like. And it’s still motion, it’s collective.

I find this image really powerful.

HV: I see why. I mean, when you say the labor of freedom, it’s literally showing you that.

LR: Yeah. I think we often think of freedom as a destination. Freedom as a noun, freedom as a settled place, freedom as being settled. And this image to me is very much in line with, I think what my understanding of freedom is. That it is constantly in motion. It’s constantly shifting. There is really no place, no time in this country’s history that Black people have been allowed to be settled, to be free, to be unencumbered, and yet we still keep moving and we keep searching and pushing and trying to make freedom happen.

HV: Most of these images we see, including this one, were made for circulation to white audiences, correct? Were any of them made for Black audiences?

LR: I think O’Sullivan is certainly making these images for white audiences. There comes a point though when “intended audience” no longer matters. And indeed the event of photography as Azoulay calls it is an “infinite series of encounters” whose audiences, spectators, witnesses are constantly unfolding. You and I weren’t O’Sullivan’s intended audience, yet here we are. The photograph — the knowledge that the photograph produces — is never settled, never fixed. Photography is a persistent way of people trying to know themselves and the world. And the photograph is only one outcome of that engagement.

HV: So what have you found in those private archives?

LR: Ida B. Wells had her portrait taken often and there’s this moment in one of her journals where she took back a set of studio photographs she had made, because she was like, these are not good. I know I looked better than this. She actually really liked clothes. She liked dressing well, and the studio photography was a way for her to document and express that.

HV: So what did she do with those photographs? Were these for personal enjoyment?

LR: Yes, and she shared some with family, with friends. They stayed in personal albums.

For the last few years I’ve been working with Kathleen Cleaver, who was the Black Panther Party communications secretary, and a lifelong human rights activist, helping her catalog and organize her personal photography collection, This collection has photographs dating back to the 1870s. She is a second or third generation Black college student. Her mother had a master’s degree in math from the University of Michigan. Her father taught sociology at Tuskegee University before he worked for the foreign service. So, Kathleen spent the years from the time she was nine to about the time she was 16 living in India, the Philippines, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.

There are a lot of big public images of her time in the Black Panther Party. Images made for the newspapers, made for publicity, made for posters, images that other people made of her that she requested, Associated Press photographs too. But then there’s a photo album that she made of her family’s time in Algeria when they were living in exile. All of the ways people are navigating, making freedom in part through a practice of photography and a practice of visualization.

Which brings me back to that first question. what does a photograph of a freedom look like beyond those sorts of celebrations and beyond the iconographic images that have trained us to see and expect freedom in very specific ways.

HV: I’d love to fast forward a little bit. I think this brings up a lot… Because I think in the early history, particularly of abolitionists and sort of the anti-slavery movement, photography and portraiture was so important. But now it feels like there’s a discussion about the over-representation of Black pain. What changed? Where did that shift start happening?

LR: I think the presentation of the photographic performance of Black suffering, in abolitionists speeches, was not ever something that people necessarily wanted to do. It was always a kind of necessary performance to appeal to white liberal humanism. Courtney Baker has written about how Black control of the images of Black pain harnessed in service to a quest for justice is an invitation to an ethical practice of looking. And Saidiya Hartman has written about the dangers of the circulation of Black pain really powerfully in her first book. Empathy is mentioned sort of like I feel the other’s pain, I’m sort of in your skin, right? But, in a way, it has the effect of actually displacing people who have suffered from their own experiences. So that it becomes a way of, I can only feel for you if I feel as you, if I put myself in your place. And it becomes a kind of performance or access to rights. One has to perform that kind of injury and for Black people that has been a kind of recitation of Black suffering and Black pain.

And so it becomes somehow that Black people are somehow more impervious to pain. That we feel that we’re made for suffering in a certain kind of way. That we have been injured, because it’s so coded, it circulates so much, we then have to prove that we actually suffer, right?

HV: Which reminds me of all these online videos as proof, the George Floyd video is one recent example of this idea of the witnessing and recording. People need to somehow see it to justify it to themselves.

LR: I mean, that’s the work of documentary, right? That’s always been the kind of investment in the documentary image is that if people just see it, they will know, and knowledge will transform into action and blah, blah, blah. And we know that’s actually not true or it’s not guaranteed.

And there’s that sense of knowledge and seeing, and knowing the tying of seeing to knowing was so rooted in enlightenment thinking that to actually undo that in the photograph takes a lot of work.

HV: So why does that myth persist that somehow the photograph is going to reveal a certain truth that’s going to convince the world? Why does that persist if we know that, that’s not what’s happening?

LR: Well, I think on one hand, I mean, it actually does, it works in a court of law, right? So that you can use photographic evidence supposedly, right? To clarify, to indict, right? But clearly we have seen the failure of that over and over and over again since Rodney King, right?

HV: Right.

LR: In 1922, the NAACP had bought space in the New York Times to produce a version of their “Shame of America” anti-lynching advertisement that was going to include photographs in an effort to gain support of a proposed federal antilynching law. And they pull the ad at the last minute because the legislation is failing and Walter White writes back to James Weldon Johnson in the New York offices, telegraphs him, and says, the case “has no relation to the facts about lynching.” They [legislators] don’t care about facts. So the photographs aren’t going to work, the numbers aren’t going to work. We have registered this, we’ve done this work, we’ve provided all this information and yet … so, I mean, I’m at a loss. A few years ago, I actually did believe that police body cams would help mitigate certain kinds of police behavior.

HV: I think a lot of people did, to be fair.

LR: Yeah. I’m like, “But this is my field. This is what I do.” I’m like, “I should have known better.” And I was like, “No, I believe.”

HV: That’s an interesting point because I think there’s still a belief in photography and image-making as somehow accessing truth, even if it doesn’t show it all the time. But it still exists.

LR: Right. The move we have to think about is the move away from the photograph as helping us access truth. And instead to think about the photograph as helping us access knowledge. And that that knowledge is not necessarily something that has to be seen to be understood. That it can be felt. It can be heard. That there’s another way. I’m thinking of the recent excitement or renewed interest in photographers like Roy DeCarava or Santu Mofokeng, the South African photographer, both of whom whose images were super dark. Figures have their back to the camera, they’re not fully legible to us. Or in Mofokeng, the sort of distance of the image and the motion that happens and effects of blur. That’s actually a different way of picturing freedom.

And I’m thinking more and more also, about, for example, I just started reading Jennifer Bajorek’s book, Unfixed: Photography and Decolonial Imagination in West Africa alongside Amy Sall’s SUNU Journal project. And just the practices, the ways in which our conceptions in this country of photography are Eurocentric and informed by Enlightenment thinking. But there are all these other practices of photography that don’t rely on “exposure,” “capturing,” even the kinds of terminology that we often employ. But are about getting us to a texture of things that we can’t see.

HV: I want to ask about this recent interest in images of Black joy and what that means, because, of course, Juneteenth is looked at as a liberation holiday and that’s the starting point for this conversation. Where’s that coming from and in your opinion what is some of the more interesting work around that topic?

LR: So the last couple of years, since Barbecue Becky and Permit Patty in the Bay area, people created the Black joy parade here in Oakland. In part, as a counter to the weight of the circulation of so many images of Black death and Black suffering. And I think, COVID as a health pandemic, is opening up a space to think about racism as a comorbidity and as a public health crisis. And so all of the ways that these images and these experiences create physical and mental health stressors in Black people.

Joy is a counter to that. This woman really called the police on Black joy. Black people are not allowed to express joy or, even what Tina Campt calls, counter gravity against the weight of racism and white supremacy. What makes Blackness so rich as a space from which to theorize life, is that it is a positionality that is at once the intertwining of joy and pain. It is always there. And I think that’s something that’s, to me, so beautifully rendered in Arthur Jafa’s “Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death.”

The aspect of that film is that you can only experience the high when you’ve experienced the low. And the low is so weighty because we were just flying a second ago. I think this acknowledgment too, this ability also for Black folks to name and to visualize a fuller texture of what constitutes Black life in this country, I think it is really key to this moment. So thinking about Jafa’s work, but also Adrienne Waheed, a photographer who has been photographing specifically Black joy, Black joy gatherings. I think of Tyler Mitchell’s photographs. He speaks so beautifully about his work and he is not interested in the idea that his images are about “resistance.” He uses the word “architectural” … It’s a different built environment, in a certain way, that’s at work.

But then for me, who is still always invested in the streets and the struggle and the protest, is about what joy comes in the struggle. And Angela Davis has talked about this. That there is joy in the struggle. The beauty of the sociality of the streets.

Which again, I guess does sort of bring me back to that first question. And it’s like, so what does a photograph of a freedom look like beyond those sorts of celebrations? And I guess the other image, this is actually one of my all-time favorite photographs.

HV: Who is this guy?

LR: So this is Charles Moore, a white photojournalist from Alabama. He made many of the famous photographs of the Children’s Crusade, the Birmingham protest in 1963. And this is where I start my book. It’s the photographs of fire hoses and the police dogs that got circulated in major newspapers around the world. Yet this is the one that gives me so much joy and this is the one that feels most like freedom in many ways to me. It’s the collective, it’s the speaking back to power. It’s this woman’s face, in her dress, that is the counterpoint to the policemen with his stick.

HV: What are they doing exactly?

LR: The photograph’s caption suggests protesters are taunting police. I don’t know what the chant is but they’re clearly chanting. In my head I always call this photograph “Chant down Babylon.” Considering Tina Campt’s work, I think ‘what is the sound of this image?’ What are we hearing? I mean, they could be chanting “No justice, no peace, no racist police,” for all we know.

My children are 17 and 20. But when we were younger and didn’t have a whole lot of money or whatever, protests were weekend activities for us. We’re like, “What? There’s an Occupy protest? We’re there.” Because it’s pedagogical. There’s music. There’s chanting. You get to hear the power of your voice made more powerful in the chorus. And you get to be together. That’s the joy. So that joy comes in all of these different forms.

Back to the first question about Juneteenth, that joy is not always for broader consumption.

HV: Have you seen anything different in the recent Black Lives Matter protest in terms of image production and circulation that has surprised you and that you’ve just taken note of, even if you don’t have fully formed thoughts yet?

LR: I would say the Movement for Black Lives clips have been really powerful. They’re very clearly deeply inspired by Arthur Jafa and Kahlil Joseph. They’re really sharp. They’re diasporic. They’re really smart in that they really capture the energy of that sociality, of the dancing that’s part of any good revolution. And they manage to not decenter Black actors, Black people, in the movement. I think that has been really powerful.

As a historian, I was also really moved by the images from the Brooklyn rally for Black Trans Lives of thousands of people wearing white and the way the organizers took their visual cue from the NAACP Silent Protest Parade against lynching and the recent riots in East Saint Louis in 1917. It was such a profound gesture that recognizes the unfinished nature of this struggle against wanton murder of Black people while also asserting and expanding our definitions of whose Black lives matter.

I also love the images made by Laylah Amatullah Barrayn. Her photographic language is the portrait. The way a portrait can actually tell a story about an individual and by extension a community. And particularly the value of that for folks who have been denied individuality or denied personhood, she gets at that. But it also deeply speaks to the collaborative nature, I think, of her practice, of the way that she is really out in the street with her camera, talking to people. So those are the other images that I’ve really been drawn to in this moment, in part, because they’re quieter, they’re a little bit more still, which is something I feel we also need as well.

And then the last thing, I guess, I would say that I think is really important about this moment visually, is simply the masks. Because the masks are doing the simultaneous work of protecting us, protecting our health, and protecting each other. They become a symbol, as well, of ‘I care about you. I care about me.’ It is the Namaste of the moment. But for protests, they also are about reducing recognizability and visibility. We don’t all need to see each other’s face. We don’t need to know. The security against surveillance is also really important. I actually don’t want the masks to go away.

Here’s the really last thing I’ll say: Just like I don’t need to see photographs of early Juneteenth gatherings to know that Black folks have long celebrated freedom, I don’t feel the need to press for Juneteenth as a paid federal holiday. Neither will make us free. What might help is making Election Day a holiday.

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