Cecile Bishop raises the question of representation in photography through the events of August 1944 and the allied liberation of Paris following Nazi population during World War Two.
Highlighting a fact that I was definitely not aware of, despite being a somewhat interested party, surrounding the lack of black soldiers shown in the photographs of the period. Knowing already that the militaries of history are always extremely diverse and that typically the photographer or publisher of an image would have their own priorities and prejudices I understand that the presence of people of colour in historic photographs is always under-representative it was still somewhat shocking to learn that, in the case of France’s liberation, direct orders from military command outright excluded black soldiers from the event.
Bishop here, by raising this issue, is highlighting how the narrative and ideology of nationalistic identity is constructed by the powerful and through the execution of those orders disseminated to the populace en masse. The previously mentioned inherent prejudice, of those who report, is a result of those structures but also they perpetuate the structure, as they would have to consciously ignore the absence of what at that time was a majority colonial army. A fact now doubt apparent through the very visible nature of the individuals who through their colonial ties and personal nationalistic beliefs, fought in those very streets they are no longer welcome to liberate.
Bishop frames the essay around two questions, the invisibility of ‘race’ in photography and the the way race shapes photographic representation.
I believe these two questions are not really what Bishop is raising or answering. The question I believe would be more accurately framed as, ‘How does a nation propagate its nationalistic identity?’ This reframing separates the idea of race from the issues of ideology. By attaching the problem to ideology it accounts for the inherent biases in the way photographers make photographs and the way those images are curated and disseminated throughout the population, thus resulting in the ‘invisibility’ of race. To say race shapes representation is almost to infer that white photographers are inherent bad for representing people of colour and therefore only people of colour can represent themselves.
That does open the door to the question of representing the complexities of experience when the artist is from a different cultural frame of experience yet we happily allow portraits of others to be created by an outside party. The balance between observational and experiential is a complex issue not addressed here but one which I consider to be a factor when discussing representation.
Circling back round to the essay in question.
Bishop here does an excellent job of linking the military order with the propaganda surrounding the French liberation reporting. The Allied forces wanted to perpetuate ideologic Western, White superiority. Perhaps, their thought was based in the disruptive effect of recognising Black soldiers, and their diverse counterparts from across the many different African, Middle-Eastern, Asian and Eastern European nations, as pivotal to the successes of the perceived white nations. The return to ‘normal’ the priority for the Generals who consider the long term effects to the global relations at stake once colonialism nations realise their worth and similarly the public perception shifts.
This view is, I hope, obviously highly problematic yet as an entity of the 21st century I can only look back to that moment and criticise.
The issue at hand, as addressed in part by Bishop is, how do we prevent the continuation of these practices and how do we ‘right the wrong’ that did occur.
Bishop proposes a technique of highlighting the absence through obscene. Either removing white soldiers from photographs to raise the question of whether their skin colour matters or similarly removing the black soldier to highlight their erasure. A technique Bishop adopted from Andrea Chung in 2008 who ‘cut out’ the portraits of black people leaving only their surroundings and their white ‘masters’.
At first glance Chung’s work is quite evocative. The scenes highlight the (I’m)balance of power between the white and black subjects, it showcases the working and living conditions and with the subject removed it spurs the spectator into observing those conditions over ruminating on the subject. HoweverIn a work d were the majority of people are not artists or art academics, this leaves the question of why? When we speak of under represented people we, as academics understand the implied meaning of their further absence but, one would also like to think that as we recognise this work as significant we are probably the choir that Chung is preaching to. This is to overlook the fact that even in this work, the removal of the subject leaves behind a white place marker, somewhat ironic in that behind the black person is a white person wanting to be seen.
Bishop does try to address the point of the white cut out by suggesting a black place marker yet the connotations, at least for me, is not ‘this person is black’ or ‘this person could be black’ but rather ‘this person is absent’
Overall Bishop has raised some interesting issues and questions. Structuralism seems to fit with the answers of ‘how’ black people, and those of other cultures who don’t necessarily fit into this category of skin tone, are repressed in media. The governing power dictates the identity, the cohorts fulfil the dictate and the education and news desseminate that dictatee as ‘truth’. A ‘ truth’ which perpetuates for decades before being addressed which by that point has been successful in it’s repetition and subtlety.
Rather, I feel, than going around selecting the few authorised images and appropriating them into artwork which will appeal to the academics but fall on deaf ears with the general populice, the goal should be to mirror the techniques which established the problem.
Our structures really on continued repetition to inform and educate, a process which requires generations to propagate. Popular culture does much more, in it’s drive for commercialisation and capitalisation, to naturalise the differences between individuals yet our systems of control are far behind in updating it’s own ‘marketing’.
Admittedly the work of academics should not be dismissed but that work needs to evolve and inform layers of accessibility. Resulting in the rewriting of history books to reflect the now known ‘truth’ of propaganda.
However to rewrite history books to recognise a nations own failings undermines the very system those history books serve. A trait we admire in people but apparently admitting ones wrong doings is beyond the structures of control.
This does however raise another issue that Bishop also looks to address.
Natralisaion relies on the general acceptance of a ‘norm’. A norm cannot be named, by naming it the norm is no longer normal but special or different. To recognise the unjust behaviour against the ‘other’ is to install a difference. By highlighting how white people treat black people is to recognise white & black as two different groups. As long as the group which is named black is treat separately from the national identity, which naming them does, naturalisation cannot succeed.
I suppose this is the tip of an ideologic belief of my own and that is that nation states and naturalisation are not the systems of equality. Difference should be recognised, if not just to acknowledge individuality, but to be able to recognise our history and the long term effects of the experiences of different groups or cultures. True equality comes from a tailored opportunity for each individual to succeed in life, nation states are built on categorisation in order to generals solutions, essentially to process quickly and cost effectively the population and its issues. Naturalisation is, at its worst, the process of fitting the ‘other’ into those categories. At its best, it’s acceptance of the difference.
Thank you for reading my blog post!
If you like this type of work you may enjoy my own photographic work which you’ll find at