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White Supremacy and Imperialism in Photography

By Sarah Russell

The history of photography is fraught with violence against the so-called ‘other.’ Traditional histories highlight and praise the work of European white men who enact violence on their ‘subjects.’ This is enacted through the many ‘gazes’ such as the male gaze or the white gaze. These are directly linked to the colonial patriarchy. From the development of photographic equipment that was catered toward pale skin to racist AI programs today, photography is rooted in white supremacist practices. Examples of this become more and more obvious as they are explored. In the early days of photography white men like Kevin Carter and R.H. Stone traveled to countries in Africa taking photos of the people who lived there. Stone worked alongside the British military and the ‘Governor of Lagos.’ Around a hundred years later Carter worked as a photojournalist in Sudan taking photos of nameless starving children. These examples among many more are what is called the ‘white gaze.’ This gaze is not figurative or theoretical but is directly linked to the violence of colonialism and how photography helped to perpetuate it.

The many iterations of colonialism are important to note. Many ignore or don’t believe in the continual colonial practices that are ongoing today. While ‘decolonization’ occurred politically the remnants of colonialism and its new forms still exist and thrive today. In the mid-1800’s the ‘scramble’ or ‘grab’ for Africa occurred, this included military operations with photographers at their side. There was a desire to record how other people lived that was seen as ‘exotic’ compared to their own. The mindset of Europeans as being superior because of the recent advancements seen in the industrial revolution was a huge driving point to ‘civilise’ the ‘uncivilized’ people in Africa. The political process of decolonization passed in the latter half of the 1900’s representing “not only the transference of legal sovereignty, but a movement for moral justice and political solidarity against imperialism.” Later photographers or photojournalists would partner with the United Nations to transport them to places where they could exploit people’s suffering for their own profit.

This kind of exploitation is white privilege manifest. White photographers photograph crises created by the history and ongoing colonization of the global South to use these photographs for their own financial and egotistical profit. This practice re-perpetuates colonization for the viewing pleasure of white people in the global North. Carter is one of the innumerable white photographers who did exactly this. In March of 1993 he traveled to Ayod, Sudan as a freelancer to take a photo that led him to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography. The name given to this photograph is ‘Vulture Watching Starving Child,’ a direct but vague description of its contents. This girl remains nameless but the viewer is given access to one of her most vulnerable moments. In this child’s moment of most need Carter remains an observer, choosing not to take the girl to the UN food camp no more than a kilometer away. After this photograph was made public it was not this child’s story that was made famous but Carter’s.

What empathy that existed for the girl quickly shifted to Carter. Three months later he committed suicide. His death took center stage from there on out. He was the white savior figure incarnate. This photograph became a symbol of his suffering and inner turmoil rather than the girl's impending end. It completed “the metanarrative of oblivion that conquest an empire, civil unrest and geographical circumstance have begun.” Teju Cole aptly writes about the connection of ‘shooting’ a photograph to the “kinship of photography and violence.”  He goes on to explain that photojournalists, particularly in the 1800’s were backed and funded by the colonial powers at large. The practice is inextricably linked to the perpetuation of violence of those who live under colonial torment. Cameras became another tool of surveillance and control. People became subjects whose lives had to be recorded for the white gaze. It was used to disrespect and disregard the customs and culture of those who were forcibly being photographed. The implementation of consent is nowhere to be found and would be literally impossible under colonial rule. Photographs were being taken from white men in positions of great power used for exploitation. Cole quotes the author Yvonne Vera who says it best, “The camera has often been a dire instrument. In Africa, as in most parts of the dispossessed, the camera arrives as part of the colonial paraphernalia, together with the gun and the bible.”

Another example of colonial violence enacted by the camera was the work of Edward Curtis, who made it his life mission to record Native Americans before white people expanded west and all but eradicated indigenous people’s way of life. His extensive project of taking portraits of Native Americans would have cost an estimated $35 million today. His work of over 40,000 photos perpetuated the narrative that the image of America’s past was just the past and was to be romanticized. His work “did not necessarily represent Native Americans as they were, but how whites wanted them to be remembered.” This distinction is vital to make for looking at his images and as a blueprint to critique white photographers who photographed Native Americans or their land. Curtis ventured out as a white savior seeking to record indigenous people’s way of life while simultaneously and actively destroying it.

Wendy Red Star, a Crow photographer, uses humor in her work to critique the photographs of indigenous people that Charles Milton Bell, another photographer took. Her photographs directly combat colonial portrayals of indigenous folks by using comedy and satire. Red Star’s work “responds, on her own terms, to these misrepresentations of Native Americans.”  While it satirizes racist representations of indigenous folks, it is also a celebration of Crow life.  In comparison to Curtis’ and Bell’s photographs it is easy to perceive her work as political and as a counter narrative. Red Star puts this common belief in good perspective:

“It wasn’t until years later that I realized they are saying it’s political because it’s against the colonial standard. I don’t aim to do political work, but it becomes political because it’s talking outside the colonial framework.”

It is easy to get swept up into the so-called political when in reality what people perceive as political is accuracy and truth. Below is an example of her work alongside Curtis’ which like all her work uses comedy to play off of the normally stoically characterized portraits Bell took. Her addition to these photographs “humanizes the static portrayal of the delegation through gentle humor and personal information about each sitter.” Red Star’s play off of a portrait taken by Bell provides necessary information that completes the historical story. What we are shown in these kinds of portraits is a very thwarted image of indigenous people and their way or life.

The racism that is ingrained in photography is not just something in the past but as it has not been actively removed from the practice. An example of this today is through AI and technology. In the experience of Joy Buolamwini during her undergraduate degree, AI “can actually reinforce bias and exclusion.” While AI and software like face recognition are often praised as progressive and a modern advancement the people who create them ingrain them with their own inevitable biases. Those who are given a platform to create these programs, typically white men. They are the ones who are most easily recognizable in face detection softwares because of this. In one of her studies on HireVue, whose aim to minimize discrimination in the hiring process by recording interviews, she found that the result was the exact opposite. This process consistently favored white male applicants proving their program to be completely faulty and falsely advertised. Buolamwini continued her research alongside Timnit Gebru to investigate facial analysis programs from the companies Google, IBM, and Face++. These programs also included racial biases and proved 34 percent less effective when encountering dark skinned women compared to white men. The very real consequences of this are how is and is not hired for a job position re-enforcing job place discrimination. Racist facial recognition technology can also lead to false accusations and incarcerations due to misidentification. 117 million faces in the United States exist on a database that can be searched by the police without a warrant to search for a suspect. Facial technology has been used after the 2015 protests following the death of Freddie Gray that was caused by the Baltimore police. It is also being used at the US-Mexico border and many more cases involving the police and misconduct.

This goes back to the infamous Shirley card, used to balance light against the color of the subject for film photography. In practice this card was only effective for people with lighter skin. Again people with darker skin were effectively discluded, making no room for their presence. Shirley, the white woman who modeled for this card’s template now became the ‘universal’ standard. In the 1960s and 1970s furniture companies complained that photos of their furniture wasn’t able to portray to range of brown colors they needed to advertise their products. It was only then that darker colors for furniture, but more importantly skin were able to be accurately represented in film photos. The film Kodak Gold Max was then developed and it wasn’t even advertised for its ability to photograph a wider range of skin colors but only for its ability to now photograph “the details of a dark horse in low light.” When reflecting on the technical and practical history of photography this does not come at a surprise as Black and Brown folks were rarely ever accounted for and respected by the mainstream practice. Again this further cements the racism ingrained in photography. It is important to note the work of award-winning cinematographer Bradford Young alongside the acclaimed director Ava DuVernay to create new lighting techniques for dark skin in film. It is amazing to see the work they have created but the problem is that the responsibility has fallen on the shoulders of Black and Brown folks when the problem was created by white people. This is a common thread of white people and white institutions actively forgoing their responsibility in creating problems and creating solutions that create more problems.

In an attempt to take responsibility for their racist history National Geographic published “The Race Issue.” In the editor’s letter written by Susan Goldberg she addresses the issue of race with the help of John Edwin Mason, a Professor at the University of Virginia. What they quickly found was that people of color that lived in the US were rarely recognized while those in other countries were. And their recognition was always in a way to reinforce racist caricatures of black and brown folks. Their representation was always portrayed in a way to further the divide, accentuating segregation. The magazine chose to highlight stories that they thought deserved attention from their readers. What they chose not to highlight is almost more telling than what they chose to print. Mason compares a piece covering a massacre of black South Africans by the and the civil rights movement in the US. In the piece covering South Africa there are no black voices being highlighted and the imagery of black people is exoticized depicting them as servants, workers or exotic dancers. While the story regarding the US wasn’t much better it did feature photographs of prominent black leaders in the movement and acknowledges the oppression.

National Geographic consistently created and continues to create an us-and them dichotomy “between the civilized and the uncivilized.” Only a few months after this statement Kainaz Amaria wrote a piece for Vox critiquing two of their covers. Both covers were included for one of the print editions titles “Battle for the American West. As seen below one cover portrays a white cowboy on a horse in open land and the other a Native American man dressed in full regalia in front of the Utah state building. Amaria writes:

"This visual framing — the heroic white savior versus the savage native — is not new to the American imagination or to the magazine. For decades, National Geographic has been criticized for its colonialist approach to nonwhite cultures, specifically indigenous communities. Critics argue that it has been peddling visual tropes of “savage” or “uncivilized” brown and black people for more than a century."

While Goldberg denounced the magazine’s racist past, she only acknowledged it as being in the past. This language creates problems when moving forward. A simple statement is not enough. It is vital this history must be actively fought against.  National Geographic’s Instagram campaign for this edition was the exact opposite. Amaria contacts Mason herself to seek out his opinion on the recent cover just after being in contact with the editor a few months ago. Mason said it best when he said “the cover of the November issue is a step backward. The Instagram presentation is two steps backward.” Mason highlights the myth of the white cowboy and how the majority of cowboys were and are black and brown folks. This myth was created to cover up that fact and that this white cowboy lives and was photographed on stolen land. Thus romanticizing the image of whiteness and life in land that isn’t his. The Instagram campaign and the dichotomy of the two photos creates a clear hierarchy. “One is exotic and primitive; the other is, like the magazine’s presumed readers, white and civilized.”

There is no denying the white supremacist past and present of photography. Its work has aided in implementing colonial rule. It has also helped to preserve the role of the white gaze. While the photographic practice is one of creativity and art one can’t ignore the reality of it’s history. In the word’s of Teju Cole:

"Photography’s future will be much like its past. It will largely continue to illustrate, without condemning, how the powerful dominate the less powerful. It will bring the “news” and continue to support the idea that doing so — collecting the lives of others for the consumption of “us” — is a natural right."


Amaria, Kainaz. “National Geographic’s November cover falls back on a racist cliché.” Vox. November 1, 2018. https://www.vox.com/identities/2018/11/1/18036682/national-geographic-november-cover-racist-cowboy-indian-cliche.

Amaria, Kainaz. “Time’s Magazine Cover isn’t bold or brave. It’s exploitative.” Vox. June 21, 2018. https://www.vox.com/2018/6/21/17488680/time-magazine-cover-family-separation-border-trump-john-moore.

Beck, Abaki, “Decolonizing Photography: A Conversation with Wendy Star”, Aperture, December 14, 2016. https://aperture.org/editorial/wendy-red-star/.

Brown, Kimberly Juanita. “Photography, Famine, and the Transference of Affect.” in Regarding the Pain of Others. Edited by Susan Sontag. Penguin 2003. Print.

Buolamwini, Joy. “Race, Technology, & Justice When the Robot Doesn’t See Dark Skin.” in Aperture. p. 50-51

Cole, Teju. “A True Picture of Black Skin.” The New York Times Magazine.  February 18, 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/22/magazine/a-true-picture-of-black-skin.html.

Cole, Teju. “When the Camera Was a Weapon of Imperialism (And When it Still Is).” Aperture. February 6, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/06/magazine/when-the-camera-was-a-weapon-of-imperialism-and-when-it-still-is.html.

Duara, Prasenjit. “Introduction.” Decolonization: perspectives from now and then. London, New York: Routledge, 2004.

Goldberg, Susan. “For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist. To Rise Above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It.” National Geographic. March 12, 2018. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/04/from-the-editor-race-racism-history/.

Green, David. "Veins of Resemblance: Photography and Eugenics." Oxford Art Journal 7, no. 2 (1984): 3-16. Accessed December 13, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1360288.

King, Gilbert. “Edward Curtis’ Epic Project to Photograph Native Americans.” Smithsonian Magazine. March 21, 2012. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/edward-curtis-epic-project-to-photograph-native-americans-162523282/.

Lewis, Sarah. “Racial Bias, and the Lens.” Aperture. p. 52—55N.a. “1880 Crow Peace Delegation: Peelatchiwaaxpáash/Medicine Crow (Raven), Peelatchixaaliash/Old Crow (Raven), Iichíilachkash/Long Elk, Déaxitchish/Pretty Eagle, Bia Eélisaash/Large Stomach Woman (Pregnant Woman) aka Two Belly, Alaxchiiaahush/Many War Achievements or Plenty Coups, aka Chíilaphuchissaaleesh/Buffalo Bull Facing The Wind.” Online Collections. Portland Art Museum. Date accessed December 14, 2020.   http://portlandartmuseum.us/mwebcgi/mweb.exe?request=record;id=71459;type=101#