Looking back into the colonial gaze

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Recent graduate Tayo Adekunle travels the lengths of photographic history in order to question who controls the image

Between 1826 and 1827, the first photograph was taken. Less than a decade later, the British Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 outlawed the purchase and ownership of slaves within Britain and its colonies.The lives of African people in this era are understood, for the most part, through the subjugation, exploitation and theft of land, culture, and identity. It is through this early social dynamic that we can locate the origins of contemporary racism, in all its forms.The invention of the camera, allows us to peer into this past and look into the eyes of Black people subjugated before a cold and fetishising lens. It is a medium that we have inherited – utilised in the history of systemic racism and bias for centuries. From pseudo-scientific images of slaves, to stereotyped images of Black women in contemporary fashion, the captured Black image finds its origins in racism; an obsession, a speculation, an analysis.

From the series Reclamation of the Exposition, 2020 © Tayo Adekunle.

This is the legacy Tayo Adekunle found herself facing. During her photography studies at the Edinburgh College of Art – she graduated last summer – Adekunle began to research 19th century ethnographic photographs of Black bodies. Many of these images were circulated as pornography across Europe, using tribal props to create a fictional second life for the subjects. “I’d never been taught anything to do with Black history, or Black culture in school. I started researching it myself, and I found all these old colonial photographs,” she explains. “It’s really weird because I thought they were really striking, but I also thought they were really disgusting.” In this period, Black people and their bodies could be found throughout European visual culture, from advertisements to scientific diagrams. The camera quickly became the default medium for this entertainment. Freak shows were held, in which Black men and women were taken from their homes, put on stage for white audiences.

While producing her final degree project, Adekunle, originally from Sheffield with Nigerian heritage, wanted to question this gaze – that of the white audience/image maker and the Black subject, uninterrupted for centuries. In Reclamation of the Exposition, Adekunle is both the photographer and subject, putting herself in front and behind the camera, forcing the viewer to engage in a disturbingly similar fashion to the original 19th century white audience. By appropriating and reclaiming the image, she blurs both history and agency. Adekunle is not trying to make images that are easy to view, or hold the audience’s hand through a colonial history of the lens. Her work, and her gaze, force contention. She travels between the past and present, demanding to be seen.

From the series Reclamation of the Exposition, 2020 © Tayo Adekunle.

Adekunle uses her own body almost paradoxically, flipping the agency behind the portrait in order to interrogate why the Black female form is so often scrutinised –both in history and contemporary photography, and everywhere in between. “It’s like unlearning. I have been forced to look at my body and it seemed to break down the constructs around the way that I view myself,” she explains, adding: “When thinking about myself against centuries of colonial history and imagery, it’s a sort of progress. It’s nice to think that I’m acting on thoughts that my parents couldn’t act on.”

Photography, as a medium and device, has to look at its history. Considered as both art and documentation, the waters can become muddy with exploitation and fetishisation. Understanding the currency of the image, who gets to take what, and who gets to be seen, is integral to understanding the larger power dynamics at play. With work such as Reclamation of the Exposition, these dynamics are center stage. By diversifying the faces behind the camera, as well as those in front of it, we are able to develop a new photographic history, and build new legacies.

© Tayo Adekunle.
Isaac Huxtable

Isaac Huxtable joined the British Journal of Photography in October 2020, where he is currently the Editorial Assistant. Prior to this, he studied a BA in History of Art at the Courtauld Instititue of Art, London.