Decolonise Your Gaze How Colonial Are Your Travel Pictures?

Decolonize your gaze
Photo (detail): picture alliance / Frank May

Who is chatting?

Hengameh Yaghoobifarah (journalist), Vitjitua Ndjiharine (visual artist) and Lucia Halder (curator) chat with you about the continuities of the colonial gaze in contemporary travel photography.

Concept and further authors: Regine Hader, Dr. Elisa Jochum

 
On WhatsApp and Telegram #DecoloniseYourLife ends on 7.12.2019. Here you can continue to follow all chats, and discuss with us.

 
  • Yaghoobifarah Hengameh Yaghoobifarah

    Hey everybody! Travel culture – especially White Europeans travelling to the global South as backpackers or humanitarians – is criticised for being neocolonial. Both in orientalist and colonialist history as well as in contemporary travel culture, the documentation of travel via text and image has played a significant part. Classic motives are the “White saviour” and grateful poor Black or Brown children as well as random snapshots taken without the consent of locals who are displayed on the pictures.

  • Halder, Lucia Lucia Halder

    Dear Hengameh, thanks for these inspiring words! I would first like to draw attention to the historical dimension of this phenomenon.

  • Yaghoobifarah Hengameh Yaghoobifarah

    Most European travellers try to justify themselves by denying the existence of power structures and colonial continuities, when confronted with the criticism about White gaze, the reproduction of stereotypical images, the practice of romanticising poverty as well as the lack of privacy and of respect for locals. These travellers use their freedom of movement as a right to be ignorant. But even without the layers on race and class, power structures are already manifested in photography as a medium: according to Roland Barthes, there is an analogy between taking a picture and shooting a person. The photographer has always power over the photographed objects. At the same time, all people like documenting their lives and memories. So my question is: how to deal with this difficult phenomenon?

  • Halder, Lucia Lucia Halder

    In my opinion, questioning stereotypes is questioning inequalities. The first ethnological image archives collected strictly formalised, so-called “type” images and highly problematic images of physical anthropology – the degradation of an individual to a type on the basis of physical characteristics. These stereotypes still have an effect today.

  • Vitjitua Ndjiharine Vitjitua Ndjiharine

    Hi. This is an interesting topic in many different ways. Apart from the historical implications mentioned above, there’s also the aspect of social media and contemporary communicative technology, and how they can shape the conversation for future contexts.

  • Halder, Lucia Lucia Halder

    Do you all agree with Barthes’ quote?

  • Vitjitua Ndjiharine Vitjitua Ndjiharine

    Yes, I do. There is power in photography and whoever takes the picture has the power!

  • Yaghoobifarah Hengameh Yaghoobifarah

    The consequence of Barthes’ theory also means: when you take a selfie, you take back the power of the gaze and break the paradigm of power dynamics in photography.

  • Vitjitua Ndjiharine Vitjitua Ndjiharine

    When I look at the “Humanitarians of Tinder”, it’s easy to see the power structures at play.

  • Yaghoobifarah Hengameh Yaghoobifarah

    Interestingly, the only selfies of the genre above that are widespread are taken by Western or White people, never by locals.

  • Vitjitua Ndjiharine Vitjitua Ndjiharine

    Yes, and on this “Humanitarians of Tinder” site, I see these power structures built in: 1. A European tourist whose presence represents economic activity 2. The owner or holder of a photographic device 3. The keeper of the photograph (to gaze at it later or to use it for other purposes).
    It would be interesting to see if, comparatively, any Black people living in, and being from, the Western world (i.e., Afro-Europeans or African-Americans) take such pictures.

  • Yaghoobifarah Hengameh Yaghoobifarah

    There are also Black and Brown Westerners doing humanitarian work in the global South, but the highest percentage is White Westerners.

  • Halder, Lucia Lucia Halder

    So we are talking about the power structures inscribed in the photographic processes of production, distribution and reception. But what about the people being depicted (if the images are not only selfies)?
    There’s a quote from Susan Sontag, similar to the one mentioned by Hengameh: “Still there is something predatory in the act of taking a picture. To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.”

  • Yaghoobifarah Hengameh Yaghoobifarah

    Thank you for this quote, Lucia. The aspect of objectification brings us back to the power structures and the dichotomies inscribed in this practice: White saviour vs Black/Brown victim, rich vs poor, superior vs inferior, etc. So, what should the consequence be?

  • Vitjitua Ndjiharine Vitjitua Ndjiharine

    So such images always get taken when a Western tourist goes to the “non-Western world” – it doesn’t matter if the photographer is White or Black.

  • Vitjitua Ndjiharine Vitjitua Ndjiharine

    Images of the Black/Brown victims are inscribed in many Westerners’ minds. Such images also provide numerous Westerners with a constructed concept of what the “developing world” and its people look like.

  • Halder, Lucia Lucia Halder

    So it takes both: on the one hand individual awareness as suggested here: https://www.radiaid.com/social-media-guide on the other hand, awareness on a structural level, that is, among institutions and media of collective visual memory.

  • Halder, Lucia Lucia Halder

    This means: we need counterimages!

  • Vitjitua Ndjiharine Vitjitua Ndjiharine

    When we bring in the aspect of social media, we see how these images are normalised and reproduced by everyone.

  • Yaghoobifarah Hengameh Yaghoobifarah

    What would this mean for institutions like ethnological institutes at universities or museums and galleries?

  • Halder, Lucia Lucia Halder

    The production of images, whether physical or mental, is always an active process. For a museum such as the one I work for, this means: 1. Opening up the photo archives and engaging with the historical images without merely reproducing them 2. Actively putting counterimages on display

  • Vitjitua Ndjiharine Vitjitua Ndjiharine

    I agree that individual awareness is important. In addition to the necessary self-awareness on the individual level, it is very important that museums open up the archives and produce counterimages.
    While I do agree that there is a White saviour complex involved here, I cannot begin to give an answer about how to deal with this complex. It’s not something with which I am familiar. I think there is work that White people need to do on themselves. Critical reflection, etc.

  • Halder, Lucia Lucia Halder

    I agree. That’s probably the difficult part. But I do believe in the power of the arts to dismantle hegemonic narratives. You, too?

  • Vitjitua Ndjiharine Vitjitua Ndjiharine

    Yes, I agree. The problem is also binary.
    What @Hengameh wrote here is what I mean by binary. So it’s important to approach the issue from two different perspectives. Maybe even more. As we question old modes of representation and the power structures embedded in them, we also have to create new modes of representation – by producing counternarratives and amplifying diverse voices.

  • Halder, Lucia Lucia Halder

    Yes, definitely! That’s what I meant by „institutions and media of collective visual memory”. Like photo agencies, ect.

  • Halder, Lucia Lucia Halder

    Like photo agencies, etc.

  • Vitjitua Ndjiharine Vitjitua Ndjiharine

    While also addressing problems like the White saviour complex and White superiority (which is based on myths).

  • Halder, Lucia Lucia Halder

    There are approaches to multiperspectivity. To give only a few examples:
    http://www.nativeagency.org/
    https://www.reclaimphoto.com/ 
    http://femalephotographers.org/ 
    https://www.romarchive.eu/de/ 
    http://www.gesellschaftsbilder.de/ 

  • Vitjitua Ndjiharine Vitjitua Ndjiharine

    I’m just quickly going through these.

  • Halder, Lucia Lucia Halder

    Still, there is the question of how to decolonise one’s touristic gaze...

  • Vitjitua Ndjiharine Vitjitua Ndjiharine

    This is my answer: Take a picture of yourself instead.

  • Halder, Lucia Lucia Halder

    I really like Hengameh’s thoughts on the selfie. Make a picture yourself! Photography as a visual tool for empowerment.

    @Dear readers, what do you think? Do we need to decolonise our travel pictures and how can we do it? What would you like to talk about in the upcoming weeks? Send us a message with your suggestion!

  • Nanjira Sambuli Nanjira Sambuli

    I think of Nayyirah Waheed’s provocation in her book Salt: “would you still want to travel to that country if you could not take a camera with you? – A question of appropriation”

  • Yaghoobifarah Hengameh Yaghoobifarah

    This quote is very interesting…perhaps not only a camera but even your smartphone? For me, it would be difficult to travel without a smartphone as I have no sense of orientation and need my maps. It would be a pity if I was not able to take pictures by which to remember the trip. But it would not have any effect on whether or not I would travel to a certain place. That being said, I never take pictures, when I travel, which display people without their consent.

  • Reader Comment from a reader

    There’s truth in this...When a person takes a photograph, this picture depicts the photographed object exactly as this person perceives it. The media of painting and drawing use various hand techniques and the chemical properties of paint made from soil and plants to create images, and this based on models available to the artists. Today, photography, even when using the right equipment, still needs extensive work to achieve desired results. But a photo taken in the 19th century would not be that different from a photo taken by a digital device because the principles of this technology have remained unchanged. Any photographic object is still dependent on the specific definition of the photographer.

  • Reader Comment from a reader

    Hey everyone! Exciting input...I'm wondering just now to what extent filters and representational practices on Instagram incorporate neocolonial patterns?! For example, via a “neo”-explorative mode of staging the self...by means of filters that virtually curate the background through the separation between the subject and the respective exotic holiday background as the object. (Voice from the “off”) Yes...admittedly, every selfie places the subject in the foreground and degrades everything else to a background – including tourism’s “distant landscapes”. The practice thus expresses a dichotomous power relationship as well.