Christopher Harris, David McNally, and Jackie Goss
. . . I mean, that’s been well documented, well studied. And we look at . . .
A few years ago, I was talking to the filmmaker Christopher Harris about some photographs that have been in the news lately even though they were taken almost two centuries ago, right at the beginning of photography’s history. You might have seen them. They’re daguerreotypes of seven enslaved men and women in a Charleston, South Carolina, portrait studio. Their names are Alfred, Fassena, Jem, Renty, Delia, Jack, and Drana. Some of them are facing the viewer directly. Others are photographed in side profile. They’re all stripped naked in front of the camera.
You know, when I say reality has been a tool of oppression for black people, that’s what I mean in very literal terms. The construction of reality has almost never been about liberating black people.
The photographs were commissioned by the Swiss biologist Louis Agassiz. He was a professor at Harvard in the mid-nineteenth century, and he wanted to use them in his research to prove, scientifically, the inferiority of black people. And the reason they were coming up in the news was because a descendant of Renty and Delia, a woman named Tamara Lanier, sued Harvard University for wrongful possession of the photographs. She wanted to take control over the original daguerreotype images because she didn’t sanction them, and she didn’t think her ancestors would have sanctioned the version of reality they’re constructing either.
Every technological means of representing reality that we’ve ever known has always been a way of constructing reality. You know, the gang databases in Chicago, once you’re on, you cannot get off. The facts of your situation don’t matter. You are designated by that algorithm as being a gang member. Reality is, to me, always contested. It’s always a struggle because that is about something other than facts. Reality is not about facts. Reality is about power.
In the case of Renty and Delia, the images naturalize their status as slaves. It goes from being shocking to being taken for granted. But for Harvard, the images are just neutral research objects. Even though Agassiz has been widely discredited.
I guess one concern I have is that someone like Agassiz is an easy target in some ways. But the fact of the matter is those images that he commissioned are still being hotly contested. So, I guess it’s not really that easy of a target, because if you’re going to contest ownership of those images, then you also have to contest ownership of the conditions that produce those images.
And that means examining how photographs could have the power to prove some universal scientific laws that they clearly can’t. We often use photography to confirm values we already hold, not to challenge our existing ideas about the world.
It constructs an ideal reality out there that it then provides the proof of actually existing, after the fact.
And I think, in this way, Chris is getting at a fundamental question about the camera. Does it reflect the way the world is? Or do we accept the way the world is because of the ways that representational tools like cameras teach us to see? That’s the paradox at the heart of this episode.
I’m Jason Fox, and this is Trust Issues, episode 4: “True Value.” It’s about how we put so much faith in universal values like science and money that we lose sight of the people whose work and whose lives produce that value. It’s also about how images of all kinds are used to establish new realities at moments of great social and political change.
In this episode, historian David McNally and filmmakers Chris Harris and Jackie Goss talk about how the cash in our wallets, the biometric scans at airport security, or the billions of photographs we share daily influence what we trust, what we value, and who gets overlooked.
Here’s David McNally talking about how questions of money are always questions of truth.
I’m looking at a Bank of England £10 note from 1856. While clearly being a £10 note and something that anybody in 1856, or a lot later, could have used to purchase £10 of anything, it says on it that it will pay to the bearer on demand the sum of £10. So, we have this curiosity. This note functioned as £10, and it really didn’t matter in what kind of transaction. It could have been a worker receiving wages. It could have been that same worker using the £10 at the butcher shop and buying meat. It could have been the butcher then paying off a loan, and so on and so forth. So why does it need to say we’ll pay to the bearer on demand the sum of £10? It was £10 in every practical sense of the word. So the mere fact that something that was £10 nevertheless said in a written inscription that it would pay the bearer on demand tells us that when these notes first originated, there was no compelling reason why people should trust them as money.
So what did it mean for people who had been used to accepting coins to now accept a note written by a bank? At the beginning of the Bank of England—in the 1690s—it was really little more than an IOU. It was little more than a written piece of paper promising to pay you real money when you wanted it.
But 160 years later, in 1856, with the banknote that I’m looking at, really what the document is doing is in a certain sense referencing its origins and referencing a kind of myth that sustained it. That paper was always grounded in something else. That paper always had its roots in metallic money, somehow. And so, when we look at a banknote like this, there’s a sense in which we see its history or its origins. And, of course, we can never forget with the Bank of England that its origins were as a consortium of lenders to give a war loan. It was created for purposes of war finance. It was putting money up front so that the English state could wage war in order to establish its colonial and imperial power in the world system.
In the ancient world, it also would have been obvious that one of the most significant purposes of coins was the buying and selling of slaves. This was an economy increasingly reliant on slavery. The other thing which was central was warfare. The buying and selling of mercenary soldiers to mobilize them for war, as well as the building of ships, weaponry, and so on.
But what did it mean when money now was a paper instrument based on a promise to pay in the future by the government? Well, what it really meant was that the government was promising to pay out of future taxes. So there’s still a foundation in laboring bodies. It was still the laborers of England and its colonies who were underpinning the value of the British currency. But, as you can see, this is now a much more indirect process. Now, the linkage is much more mysterious to people. Paper notes are circulating. It’s not clear how that little piece of paper has the kind of value that a silver coin used to have, except that it bears this thing saying it will pay you £10. Apparently in precious metal. That’s the only way that it appears to make sense.
When David talks about paper money as a question of truth, he means that for money to work, we have to accept it as the real thing. And in this way, cash starts to look a lot like photographs. Take the portraits commissioned by Louis Agassiz. Chris Harris felt like, when we talk about the images as good or as bad scientific research, we start ignoring the experiences of the men and women subjected to the camera. And so he decided to make a film that restages the portrait session with Delia in order to pose some different questions.
Louis Agassiz was a well-known, highly respected professor at Harvard University in the field of natural science and comparative anatomy. At the time when he was at the height of his renown, there was a controversial theory that Europeans and Africans didn’t have a common ancestor. And it was controversial because it contradicted biblical beliefs. Agassiz, who was an adherent of this theory, set out to collect evidence in support of it by traveling to South Carolina to conduct field research, examining enslaved African-born people on plantations. And that’s where he encountered Delia and her father and five other people that he selected to be photographed as specimens in order to support his theories.
My two-part video installation, A Willing Suspension of Disbelief + Photography and Fetish (2014), is a restaging and a reimagining of the moment when Delia—who is portrayed by a dancer named Shanika Harrell—was forced to sit, stripped partly bare, in front of Joseph T. Zealy’s camera. One would imagine his regular clientele would have been middle-class and upper-middle-class white families in the slave South. And instead, he brings in seven enslaved Africans. I imagine that the studio would have been located centrally in the town. That would put it near train tracks. There would be pedestrian traffic right outside the studio, such that the sound would bleed into the space of the studio. So I layered it with this sound sort of swirling about and bleeding into the imagined studio space where this African woman, Delia, was seated for the production of the image.
Daguerreotypes need a long exposure time in order to create an image that is legible. So the subject is forced to sit as still as possible for an extended period of time while the film in the camera is being exposed to light reflected from the body of the subject. I was trying to imagine what Delia would have heard in those moments where she was forced to sit, immobilized in front of the camera.
This body, this material form.
A talismanic object, a solemn ceremony, a ritual sacrifice, an exorcism.
The incantation of the camera’s operator.
Exposure, development, fixation.
Exposure, development, fixation.
For me, these are not simply about a kind of recuperation of a realism as much as they are about imagining being in that space and having your entire bodily autonomy stripped away, which is the condition of slavery after all. Beyond that, it’s heightened by the fact that all around you is mobility and bodily autonomy. There’s a train that is going away that, you know, if she could just get—it’s right outside, it’s maybe a hundred yards away—that she could get to and get on that train and be out of there. It’s the sonic antithesis of what we’re seeing. It’s a world of movement, the flow of people and goods and capital all around her.
I don’t want my tools and materials to disappear into a frictionless world in digital technologies. Working in 16mm is vital and necessary because it’s difficult, and it’s in the difficulty of that that I am able to produce the work, because I have to engage with the mechanics of the medium. And that’s important to me because I think about the world in very material terms. There’s this illusion that there’s this world that is sort of laid out for one’s ease. But really, for me all that’s really happened is a lot of that labor has been sort of exported or offshored or however you want to say it. You know, it’s been more or less invisiblized.
The difficulty with thinking materially about history . . . there’s two things going on there for me. One is property and one is law. Law is a process of abstraction. It takes you out of a material encounter with history and abstracts everything into a set of supposed principles. With these daguerreotypes, the idea of property is already embedded in the fact that the subjects of these photographs were already deemed property. So, for me there’s a very vexed relationship to the idea of property and property claims through law. I try to make my work about the materiality of it because I hope that in some way there are other forms of knowledge that supersede legal knowledge, or offer new ways of imagining how we can rearrange our society in a way that’s more just. Let’s put it like this: anything that people dream of and make is a projection of a kind of collective desire. And so, when I say reality has been a tool for the oppression of black people, what I’m talking about are things like photography and motion pictures, scientific inquiry or facial recognition or gang databases. You’re asking black people to believe or think that there was a time when reality was marshaled for the purposes of liberating black people. And I just don’t—I fail to see the evidence of that historically. I mean, this idea of a return to something is very dangerous to me because it’s the something that got us where we are today. And that something is centuries ongoing. I mean, none of it’s disconnected.
Another thing that photography and money have in common is this idea that they’re neutral; that they can be used for good or for bad, but they don’t really have any inherent power of their own. For Chris, the camera doesn’t just represent the personal histories or the structural racism or the injustices that go hand in hand with the development of the camera. It also conceals who is responsible for those histories. And so we stop questioning it.
Jackie Goss is a filmmaker who wants us to look closer at the technologies we use to represent the world around us. Her work There There Square (2002) is an animation about the oversights and hubris behind the history of mapping of the United States. She also made a film called The Measures (2011) about the origins of the metric system during the French Revolution and, surprise, surprise, its many failures. Her films are often kind of funny, but they also help us see technologies like painting, photography, Google Earth, and even nineteenth-century mapmaking on a continuum of attempts to faithfully represent the world. And by seeing them alongside each other, we can start seeing through them.
I would say there is a line—maybe a faint line—that runs through all of my work that is an interest in this way that we love things to be codified and we are always trying to codify things, but we always fail at that. And those failures are really interesting to me.
Jackie released her video Stranger Comes to Town (2007) in the mid-2000s. It was the beginning of the United States war on terror.
September 11 was not very far in the rearview mirror. It was definitely kind of a turning point in thinking about, I believe, our relationship to a lot of these imaging technologies that were circulating around us.
The video combines early Google Earth imagery and footage from the video game World of Warcraft with anonymous interviews in which people talk about their experiences coming into the US.
And then I had to remove my glasses for the camera and sit up straight, even though naturally I don’t sit that straight. I had my head cocked on one side, but we had this negotiation of, like, cocking, not cocking; look at the camera; I’m too short, so then they had to adjust the camera. You know that you have to do this . . . that you’re in the system, basically.
I didn’t even feel I had any contact; even though somebody was holding my hand, I had no contact . . . no sense of the person who is holding my hand for ten minutes, intimately cleaning my fingers. It’s strange.
Stranger Comes to Town captures the way that the biometric scanners we pass through at airports and border crossings don’t just prove our identities. They also transform our sense of self and our view of the world. Ten years after Jackie made it, as more and more people became aware of social media’s extractive relationship to its users, the project took on a new life.
Here’s Jackie talking about how she conceived of the piece back in 2007.
This is right at the beginning of Google Earth, which is an application we’ve all gotten very used to. But this was really the first time any of us were looking at photographic images of the world’s surface, the globe’s surface. So, I wanted to weave that in as a counterpart to talking about the kind of intimate and personal and subjective experiences that people were having with these biometric systems that were in place.
I became interested in World of Warcraft, just looking at how the landscape surfaces in World of Warcraft look so much like the surfaces that were emerging from Google Earth. And at times it was difficult to tell them apart. And, in fact, there’s a sequence in Stranger Comes to Town where you’re given alternating images, some from Google Earth and some from World of Warcraft, and I don’t think it’s easy to tell which is which. And to me that felt like a kind of parallel to the idea of portraiture, to the idea of looking at the image of someone or looking at data derived from someone. And I felt like these systems were changing the way we experience and see people.
I’m going to play an excerpt from the project. It’s about ten minutes in, and this sequence has text on the screen against an animated backdrop exported from World of Warcraft. It kind of looks like a little hurricane, almost.
You’re in the doctor’s office. You’ve waited hours, and now the doctor’s asking you questions about what’s wrong. You’re trying to answer honestly, but somehow you feel like you’re not telling the truth, or not the kind of truth he can hear. It seems like the only useful information he can get comes directly from your body, without your words muddying it up. Your body is the book he wants to read, and everything you say is just prologue.
To me, that experience of going to a doctor who really has no interest in what you have to say seemed to be one that probably many people have had. And maybe that would be a gateway into imagining what it feels like to surrender your fingerprints or an image of your face over to some authority that then is just going to process it and examine it in their own way . . . not necessarily without your consent, but really without your being an accomplice in that endeavor.
I think I had more screenings in 2014 than I did in 2004—or I’m maybe messing up the year slightly, but it seemed to have found currency again in this context of social media and the giving away of personal information and data.
There’s really only two stories in the world: a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. That always seemed like a funny and glib and kind of true thing to say about narrative. And then, of course, you realize it’s actually the same story, just what changes is the perspective.
Pete Seeger, the folk singer, used to say that there’s two sides to every story, and that there’s two sides to a piece of flypaper too. But it makes a great deal of difference to the fly which side it lands on. It’s a nice line, but it’s not exactly clarifying if you’re the fly. Maybe it’s less about seeing what money or photography actually are, but what they do and don’t do for us when we use them.
Here’s David McNally again.
The other thing that’s really intriguing about this note as a document is that it’s written in a cursive script, even though it’s been mechanically produced. This would have given a document like this a kind of legibility, a recognition factor. Finally, it actually has an individual signature that’s not written in the professional script, and it’s the signature—it’s mechanically reproduced—of the governor of the Bank of England. So it looks as well as if it is personally guaranteed by an individual—a very wealthy individual—who happened to have been elected governor of the Bank of England by its board of directors. So it is a really significant and historic transformation when public trustworthiness moves from the universe of the godly to the universe of the secular. And that’s exactly what we see happening in the era of paper money.
I hope this contributes to people understanding that those at the top need everybody below. They cannot turn a profit if the whole system grinds to a halt. But the people at the bottom don’t need them. The people at the bottom can still keep schools and hospitals functioning and still keep producing housing and food and cultural practices. The challenge for transformative social movements is the building of new kinds of trust from below; trust at the grassroots, trust among all of those people who actually produce the wealth of our world.