Chapter 1: Photography for whom
Racialised people are the consummate observers in the West.
We are socialised, before we can even speak, to see through the optics of whiteness and before we can even begin to understand the intersectionalities of our own identities, we see and understand the mechanics of whiteness.
No matter the Blackness of my skin I will always see the world through white eyes whilst also seeing the world through my own.
This is a position that most white people don't and can never understand. Quite simply, I can tell your stories - white stories - because I have been socialised to see them, to know them, trained from birth to feel and understand them. But you will never be able to tell mine, understand them, or feel them.
This is simply because you have never been socialised to see the world through my lived experience as I have yours. The only knowledge you have of my experience is through the optics of whiteness and otherness. Through the optics of other white observers, who also are equally unable to see and understand me and therefore create and perpetuate tropes and stereotypes through which I am unable to see myself.
No matter how humane and honourable these white intentions are, no matter how hard they labour under the pretensions of a ‘shared or universal humanity,’ these actions and images will only ever skim the surface - because there is nothing of ‘me’ or anyone else who looks like me in their making - these works are only a product of their imagination, one based upon a myth.
An imagination made through structural racism and these works represents just another cog in the wheel.
Don't get mad at me just because I can tell your white stories and you cannot tell mine - not in any authentic way. But hey, your stories of Blackness were never for me anyway. They were for other white people - that’s who they are made for - and so I will never accept them.
But thank you for bearing witness, for being the voice of the voiceless.
Right now historians of photography and those academics who 'biggup' their mates, who make these works in advertorials in art magazines are, well, ‘mad bruv’. I know this because one person once wrote to tell me just this - that this type of work, this work made by a white photographer about Black bodies - was too “academic” for me to understand.
I'm always intrigued by white photographers who photograph Black ‘subjects’. I mean, intrigued enough as to whether I should place them in the exploitative racist anthropologist camp or in the do-gooder/white saviour camp.
Whether they are using Black bodies as props, removing identities, placing faces into shadows or hiding them behind other structures in pseudo-documentary slash fashion photography approaches, they remove from them any sense of dignity and humanity, casting them into the realms of spectacle.
So, yes, we have those jokers.
Then we have the do-gooders and white saviours. Photographers, who, in the culturally diverse West, have never been able to develop any meaningful relationships with any Black people, yet strangely feel that they are right to parachute themselves into situations in (choose any African country here) - without an invite from any of the people they train their lenses on - to tell their stories.
Spending all that time and money, invariably their own, as they’re usually Trustafarian types living an extended gap year and using photography as an excuse because no-one has commissioned them - to make the same-old-same-old images that their photojournalist heroes snapped some 50 years ago.
Don’t get me started on the academics, picture editors, curators and writers who all celebrate, condone and enable this bullshit - because it cannot exist in a vacuum.
These approaches exist because they are enabled, they are awarded.
Okay, now that I’ve got that momentarily out of my system, let us move on.
Chapter 2: Life stinks
It’s been a strange year.
There’s a global pandemic - I know some of you might have missed that - with a second wave rearing its ugly head, just off in the wintery distance. Then, secondly, for the first time in recorded Western history, the ‘system’ has acknowledged that you know what, Black Lives might actually matter, because of course, the Slave Patrol, (I mean the cops) remembered that they still had a license to kill, and began killing again.
Thirdly, Photoland (hiding behind those Blackout Tuesday black tiles) seemed like they were going to pull out a seat at the table, but that was another false algorithm. The keywording of hope and change has been changed to same old shit.
So, that pipe dream was over.
Incidentally, to the head of that photo agency who told me my work was great, asked me to explain my work in more detail and then said that we should talk: I'm still available to chat.
And fourthly, oh yeah, l got sprayed by a skunk.
OK, the spray of a skunk got me, wafting in through the open windows of the apartment at exactly 2:55 am in the early hours of Wednesday 12 August 2020.
A couple of weeks before, when coming back from a picnic in the park, a skunk crossed my path on the sidewalk - and the world stood still. And a week before that, a friend and his dog got sprayed in his garden. If he reads this - I feel your pain bro; if he doesn’t, well, has anyone seen that meme of Thierry Henry trying not to laugh?
So the Gods have been engineering skunks into my life, and our paths finally crossed in those early hours. But, you know, I’ve always strangely wondered what this moment would be like.
As a child, I used to love the Pepe Le Pew cartoons where a lovelorn skunk falls in love with a black cat that has accidentally had white paint poured on its back. I mean, in hindsight, it was a cartoon about sexual harassment and the dominance of patriarchal systems, but to childish eyes, when Pepe ran with a spring in his step, I was entranced.
Anyway, the taste of skunk spray lodged at the back of my throat, grabbing me by my neck and then violently shaking me awake; one second in slumber, the next wide-eyed in the early hours to confront my now terrorised consciousness. This was not fun my friends, as this real-life Monsieur Pepe Le Pew did not take any prisoners.
Indeed, as George Costanza might have said, in an alternate Seinfeld reality, that skunk was “angry my friends - like an old man trying to send back soup at a deli.”
I don’t know what happened outside to cause this skunk to engage in such activity. Perhaps a predator came for it, and it felt threatened somehow, or maybe a car hit it? I just know that shots were fired and I found them.
The early isolated days of the pandemic has created the opportunity for wild animals to thrive within the city. Skunks, coyotes and wild turkeys have all invaded or perhaps ‘reclaimed’ Montreal of late. I mean there were already turkeys in the Quebec government [ badum-tish ] *the writer points a finger to the camera, touching his nose knowingly, then winks into a freeze-frame*
The fact that well over half of all Canadian COVID-19 deaths have occurred in Quebec, with Montreal the hotspot, is testament to that. That and, worryingly, Quebec has seen the youngest fatality in Canada last week. A 19-year-old soccer player who had no pre-existing illnesses. Fit, young, dead. This doesn’t quite fit the early pandemic memo being sent around here, suggesting that only the old and infirm die.
It just feels that the second wave will not be kind to this city, and those who now laugh in bars and cafes, like the world hadn’t changed. But I don’t think that it will be kind elsewhere either for that matter.
But what do I know?
I don’t have a crystal ball, and I’m sure our governments have this all under control. *Yes, I’m pointing knowingly at the camera again and wait for it, here’s the wink*
Yup, we’re screwed.
It feels that we are all standing on the bow of a ship, right now, traversing an uncharted sea, standing there in the darkened night, waiting for a tomorrow to break into light, knowing all the time that a wave will soon hit us and yet not knowing how hard.
[Insert dramatic pause]
A day that will live in infamy.
I meant to type that earlier, by the way, about the skunk, but no matter, better late than never.
Chapter 3: The Image and the reader.
After writing about my hatred of school last week, I wandered onto a Facebook page about my old comprehensive school in Dudley. I looked at old faces which ignited memories of the past best left alone. I’ve never understood why people go to school reunions. Perhaps in North America, where people leave home and don’t think twice about moving thousands of miles away from where they were born. But, in Dudley, where most will die mere miles from their birthplace, I don’t get it.
That said, a few years ago I decided to look someone up from my school days. Yes, someone I had a childish crush on, looking them up, you know, in that sad way ageing people do to reflect back on the past. Maybe that’s why ageing people go to school reunions? To think about what could have been, or maybe to hope that someone’s life took a nose-dive and is worse than your own, validating their own sad lives, maybe that’s why?
Anyway, I looked them up, not in any attempt to reach out or make contact, but just to fill in some blanks.
I remember, one day at school, my friend slipped me a note in class, supposedly from this person I had a crush on. It detailed that she wanted to speak with me outside of the Tuck Shop. Away I ran, like a rat out of a trap, heading off to find out what she wanted. I straightened my nylon school tie as I skipped, hopped and jumped and patted down the semi-afro haircut I had at that time. *the writer asks the reader to imagine an image of Arnold from Different Strokes*
So yes, I rushed off to the Tuck Shop and there she was. Clearing my throat, I composed myself and walked up to her “well, what do you want to tell me?” A confident smirk forming on my face.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!”, she said, before turning her back and continuing to chat with her friends.
My friends had lied, pulled a fast one on me, and as I retreated into a grey depressing mist of failure, turning only to look back at the remnants of self-worth I had left behind me, the bright flash from a camera went off.
A photo had been taken and had seared this experience into my mind. Why else would I remember this moment if it wasn’t that I believed it had been recorded?
For so many years I wondered about that photograph. I mean not everyday of course, but from time to time I wondered who had taken it. For what reason? Who was looking at it? Why?
Had my shame been preserved for posterity?
After putting her name in the search bar in Facebook, I scrolled down the list of possible names and then there was her profile. Clicking on the link took me to a memorial page.
She had sadly only just died of cancer, just a few months before my search, and as I scrolled down the page with the loving words of friends and family, there was a photograph of her at school laughing with her friends, outside of the tuck shop, and there I was, in the background a frozen figure in time, skulking away, into that grey mist, crestfallen.
The photograph that I had always wondered about was the one being used to celebrate her life.
What are the chances?
We somehow always think that the people from our past are out there. Out there living their lives just as we are ours. But people die and time is short. Yet, no matter how many times I hear people say that this thing called life isn’t a dress rehearsal, I can’t help but feel that it is somehow.
That I have another shot at this.
That I’ll make a better go of it next time, get it right. When I know that this is all there is.
Hey what about those *insert sports team of your choice here*
But I hope that the young girl outside of the tuck shop, who grew into the woman I would never know, had a full and wonderful life. I hope that she was loved and that the world she lived in was touched by her presence and her passing.
It’s hard not to think about the second chances slipping away from me during the pandemic. But amidst the struggles of conceptualising the current times, the pressures of keeping positive and forever pushing forward, making moves and staying upbeat, it’s proving harder each day. As the end doesn’t appear to be in sight, instead it seems hidden in the doubts of what might have been.
It’s hard to run a long-distance race when the finishing line proves always to be pushed back, the goalposts shifted. In this light, it's hard to know how to pace oneself, you know.
That said, on the plus side, the mist lifted on my photography last week. I’ve been in a depressed malaise of late - which I’ve found so hard to get out of - which the previous paragraph may have suggested.
I purchased a couple of sketchbooks and, Bob’s your uncle, ideas flowed and I began to map things out. It’s funny how a sense of clarity can come by just simply organising your thoughts. Making mind maps and linking ideas together. Knitting together a future of possibilities which were hard to see before, even if they were always there.
Mind you, when I’m going to be able to make any of this work is another matter.
But it’s the thought that counts.
*Insert pregnant, slightly depressed and jaded pause here*
Anyway, in an attempt to sweep the clouds away and to lighten the tone I’m ending this week with a song by a French Nazi collaborator.
Until next week.