What Are You Looking At?

by Nick Drain

On blackness, images, and (in)visibility.

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“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”— Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man. (p.3)

The representational image, long before the invention of the photograph, has always been a generative site for anthropological study. Back to the caves of Lascaux, the image has been an incredible communicator of what a society deemed to be most important, who and what they valued, what they believed in, and how they saw themselves. In the nineteenth century, the invention of the photograph revolutionized the landscape of representation in a way that few other technological advancements have, and in doing so, granted access to a far wider population to document what it was that they deemed significant. Yet, like any other tool, the effects of its existence are not innately negative or positive, but a product of the wishes of whoever wields it— and it would not take long before the photograph would become a tool of epistemological violence in the service of colonialism, surveillance, and the general oppression of massive populations of people. The technology that is race and the technology that is photography have become intertwined in their applications, with the latter being used to further cement and justify the former. This has produced a landscape in which representations via image are coded through the white gaze, the camera carrying the biases of the white-hereto-cis patriarchy. The effect is that these biases are carried not only through the image, but in the technologies which make use of them, specifically the technologies of artificial intelligence and machine learning. In a contemporary image culture in which Blackness is seemingly being written out of the future through a failure to be properly understood/accommodated by developing technologies, Black people are increasingly rendered on one of two poles, invisibility or hyper-visibility, posing a dangerous potential future. In this essay, I look to unpack these histories to make clear the violent impact the medium of photography and the object of the image have had on Black populations worldwide, and inquire as to what Black people can do to shield themselves from this violence moving forward. What is the value of selective participation, mediated through the control of one's visibility? Are there ways to render oneself effectively invisible or semi-transparent in certain situations, and can doing so be a way to counteract the violence continually done by the image on the Black subject?

The first photograph ever made was taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce peering out the window of his studio in eastern France in 1826. The first mugshot— then called the “bertillonage”— would be produced before the end of that same century.1 Photography has always fulfilled an amorphous cultural and social role unlike that of any other artistic medium. Not unlike its predecessors, photography served a primarily scientific application at its outset, but came to take such immediate hold because of its speed, and perceived accuracy and objectivity in its representations; a level which painting and drafting had fundamentally been unable to provide.

In her seminal essay In Plato’s Cave, Susan Sontag works to unpack several ways in which photography as a practice, medium, and ontological framework have changed the ways that individuals interact with the world around them— largely for the worse. Though she does not go as far as to use the word specifically, many of Sontag's critiques facilitate an understanding of photography as an inherently violent practice. In Plato’s Cave becomes an opportune origin site to form an understanding of three primary ways in which the camera, and image, can and have practiced violence on Black people. These are:

Violence through complicity; or non-intervention.
Violence through desensitization.
-and-
Violence through (in)visibility.

In her essay, Sontag identifies an element of aggression implicit in every utilization of the camera. She bases this reading upon the medium’s contribution to the “ever-increasing” proliferation of a mentality in which the tangible world is always seen as the subject of a potential photograph; as well as an inherent imperialism in photography’s implied capture of as many subjects as possible2. Her thinking on photography as an aggressive act is, in part, substantiated through a quick survey of the very language most commonly used in describing the act of making photographs; photographers “shoot” subjects, “take” photographs, and “capture” likenesses. This baseline aggression compounds when considered in application, and Sontag’s thinking becomes most pointed when applied to images of suffering. Sontag identifies photography as “an act of non-intervention”3, stating that:

“To take a picture is to have an interest in things as they are, in the status quo remaining unchanged (at least for as long as it takes to get a "good" picture), to be in complicity with whatever makes a subject interesting, worth photographing -including, when that is the interest, another person's pain or misfortune.”4

It can be argued that to make this theoretical, but all-too-real, photograph is an act of intervention through evidentiary means, which is not untrue. Yet, there is a crucial distinction between direct and indirect intervention to be made here. If any figurative representation can be theorized as a tangible instantiation of a triangular relationship between the subject, image-maker, and viewer, then the photograph, which I posit as an act of indirect intervention, in this example works in an attempt to mobilize the power of those who fall into the category of 'viewer', to act on the suffering of those who are rendered subject. This type of indirect intervention relies upon both the morality and facilities of the 'viewer' to affect the conditions of the subject, neither of which is ever guaranteed. The capabilities of this kind of intervention exist on a bell curve of tangibility, largely dependent upon the viewer’s familiarity with similar images. Sontag accepts that visual evidence of an event makes it more “real”, or tangible, in the mind of the viewer, but at some point, repeated exposure to a subject matter desensitizes the viewer; making both the event less horrendous and the images depicting it less impactful through their ubiquity.5 This is violence through desensitization. As marginalized populations are more often the subject of oppression, they are more often the subjects of images of violence.

The technologies of photography and race are not wholly disconnected. A primary impetus for technologies produced by colonial populations has been for the subjugation of populations deemed 'other'. As a tool developed with a specific intention to better document and sort human differences, photography has been one of the main methods used in colonialism to solidify ideas of social difference and racial superiority.6 Furthermore, photographic technologies have not developed free from their potential for violent application; with each new expansion came new ways for the camera to operate in service of white hegemony. These technological advancements have worked primarily to render Black people on one of two poles; invisibility or hyper-visibility. This is violence through visibility.

The technologies which have worked to perform this violence have taken on many different forms throughout photography's first two centuries. One of the most prominent of these technologies, and most obvious in its fashioning of whiteness as the operational standard, was Eastman Kodak's famous Shirley cards, produced from the 1950s through the 1990s.7

The Shirley card was an integral tool in the standard color-balancing and exposure methods of the time, with other film manufacturers eventually adopting the form to produce their own versions. Kodak's in-house Shirley card did not feature its first non-white "Shirley" until the 1970s, and as a result, darker-skinned individuals would regularly appear grossly underexposed in photographs. In some extreme cases, the only detail captured in images of Black subjects was in "the whites of their eyes and teeth"8; wryly echoing the punchline to a joke I encountered in my youth which inquired as to how one could see a Black person in the dark.

It would not be until receipt of the complaints of furniture manufacturers looking to more accurately document the detail and tone of dark-brown furniture that the photographic industry would take notice of this inherent bias being built into their products. Yet, it is now becoming more widely acknowledged that there were no issues of chemistry or physics that would have prevented film emulsions from accommodating this greater sensitivity from the start.9

On the other side of the globe, around the same time, the grip of South Africa’s apartheid was at the strongest since its establishment in 1948. By 1970, the most significant anti-apartheid organizations, the Pan-African Congress, African National Congress, and South African Communist Party, were banned, and their leaders either imprisoned or exiled from the country. Early in October of the same year, Ken Williams, an African-American photographer, Polaroid employee, and eventual co-founder of the Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement, would come across a sample identification badge for the South African Department of Mines while at work at Polaroid’s main headquarters in Cambridge, MA.10 Williams would soon after discover that Polaroid’s ID-2 camera system was being sold to the white minority government in South Africa to aid in the creation of its infamously oppressive passbooks, a means of surveillance which restricted the movement of Black South Africans throughout the country.

The Polaroid ID-2 was a patented self-contained identification production system that could generate identification cards in a matter of seconds, and conveniently featured a flash boosting button which amplified the flash output by 42%; the exact amount of additional light absorbed by black skin. All Black people were required by law to carry the books identifying their race at all times, and the failure to produce one upon request resulted in fines, deportation from the area in which they were found, or immediate detention for an unspecified amount of time. Black South African thoughts on the ID-2 were poignantly mixed, with one individual subjected to the process stating “My pass, and the photo taken on a Polaroid, stand for injustice”, and another commenting, “The pass camera was good because it only took a few minutes of humiliation to get the picture done”11.

The histories of Eastman Kodak and Polaroid within the United States and South Africa, respectively, illustrate concretely two of the ways in which photography has continued to perform a kind of violence through visibility, via its affirmation of whiteness as standard, and obfuscation and illumination of blackness on societal and state levels. At the point of unpacking the relationship between state surveillance and the photograph, I find it productive to consider Jeremy Bentham's concept of the Panopticon. The Panopticon, in short, is a theoretical penitentiary structure which arranges prisoners in cells forming the shape of a circle, and positions a guard in a central watchtower. The cells are then illuminated but the central tower is kept in darkness, imposing an asymmetrical power structure of visibility. In the words of Foucault: “visibility is a trap”12. It is crucial to understand that Bentham’s Panopticon is not only applicable to prison structures, but is essentially a hierarchical method for the management of bodies through an imposed visibility.

In the first chapter of Simone Browne’s Dark Matters: on the Surveillance of Blackness, she sets out to complicate Foucault's panopticism "through the archive of slavery and black feminist scholarship" to offer a "critical re-interpretation of the concept— by "drawing a black line' through it."13. This “black line” is referential to the one Roy Boyne suggests we draw through the terms “Panopticon”, “Panoptical”, and “Panopticism”, placing them in a state of erasure, “allowing the idea to be seen at the same time as denying its validity as description”14. I argue for the extension of this black line, to— but not necessarily through— the site of the image to locate photography in its relation to surveillance theory, and the violent practices of state surveillance enacted upon Black people. Since the original French publication of Michel Foucault’s Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison in 1975, a number of scholars have expanded upon and critiqued Foucault's original assessments of the Panopticon as myopic when applied to the contemporary surveillance state (pun intended). As a result, different theoretical derivatives and alternatives have been produced to accommodate the continually widening landscape of surveillance studies, which now must encompass things like CCTV, advanced biometric identification, the invention of the internet, and subsequently, social media culture. These perspectives vary in their focus, for example, Thomas Mathiesen's Synopticon, in which the many surveil the few, or Didier Bigo's Banopticon, in which post-9/11 surveillance practices became increasingly preventative, based upon the profiling of certain populations15. In the United States, these surveilled populations are frequently and disproportionately Black.

US Government surveillance of Black people is as old as the country itself. A continuous thread runs through the implementation of the lantern laws which restricted the movement of Black people in 1775, the FBI's infamous attempts to disrupt the Black Panther Party in the 1960s through COINTELPRO, and the leak of classified FBI intelligence documents assessing those they termed "Black Identity Extremists" in 2017. The latter two of these instances, as well as many which precede them, have been dependent upon the utilization of the image.With all of this considered, arguments can be made in support of the medium of photography as a tool that facilitates the agency of Black people in their representation. Black representation by Black people is what helped give rise to explicitly pro-black publications like Jet, and Ebony magazine, the 'Black is Beautiful' movement and the work of Kwame Brathwaite in the 1970s, as well as the work of countless other incredibly significant Black photographers of which there are too many to name. All of these arguments are valid, but I contend that the sum of these efforts does not overcome the history of bias built into, and the violence continually propagated by, the photographic medium as they do not address the complex history of the camera itself.

As stated by John Fiske in Surveilling the City: Whiteness, the Black Man and Democratic Totalitarianism, surveillance “has been racialized in a way that [Michel Foucault and George Orwell] did not foresee: today’s seeing eye is white”16. Standard activities like talking in groups on the street, running through a public outdoor space, or exercising at a gym (as in the case of Tyshrad Oates) are coded as normal and unworthy of suspicion or notice when performed by cis-gendered white men, whereas the same activities when performed by Black people are read as bordering on, or violating, societal standards of normalcy, and are thus subject to disciplinary action17. Cameras are not exempt from this. Arthur Jafa, in conversation with bell hooks at the Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts at The New School, inadvertently addresses these arguments and extends Fiske’s thinking to the camera explicitly, stating that “ if you point a camera at Black people, on a psychoanalytical level, that camera is also functioning as the white gaze; even if a Black person is standing behind the camera.”18.

At the time of its origin, the photograph was assumed by most to be objective, and free from bias in its representation of reality. Though innovations in the methods of picture-manipulation have shifted our general perceptions of photography in relation to truth quite significantly, images still function in many spaces— as high as courtrooms, and as low as everyday conversations— as incontrovertible proof of the occurrence of an event; pics or it didn't happen. In times of uncertainty when we are unsure of our ability to trust the human perception of an event, we turn to the camera for the determination of fact and fiction.

On December 1st, 2014, amid an array of responses to a grand jury decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown, President Barack Obama requested $236 million to invest in up to 50,000 body cameras to be worn by officers on duty. One can only assume that this choice was made in the belief that the existence of camera footage in police interactions with citizens would provide transparency in places that were once dangerously opaque. The camera would serve as a universal witness, corroborating the methods utilized by police officers in their apprehension of suspects when justified, and serving as testimony to hold the officers accountable in cases when they weren't. Two days later, a grand jury in Staten Island elected not to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the killing of Eric Garner; an event that was caught on camera. All of those who filmed the wrongful deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, and Eric Garner put themselves in danger to do so, all being subsequently arrested. None of the officers involved in any of these killings would be convicted, yet the images of these violent acts would go on to live in perpetuity on social and news media platforms. The camera continues to be upheld as a standard of objective witness, yet when implemented in repeated attempts to keep Black people alive, or at least hold their killers accountable, the image continues to fail. In the words of Audre Lorde: “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”19.

Much like its position throughout history, the current state of the image does not imply an equal future for the Black subject. Images, through their integral role within artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies, are working to shape the conditions of Black existence in more direct and wide-ranging ways than they ever have before. Over the past decade, artificial intelligence has been embedded within contemporary banking, hiring, medical care, and law enforcement practices, and the unchecked biases of their creators are being built in right along with it. In her 2016 essay, A Sea of Data: Apophenia and Pattern (Mis-)Recognition, Hito Steyerl recounts the story of a group of wealthy Middle Eastern teenagers who were frequent guests of an unnamed luxury hotel chain. When the group was encountered during an analysis of the demographic information of hotel patrons, they were discounted as, what Steyerl calls, "dirty data" based upon the perceived impossibility of their existence. It is no secret that the world of STEM struggles with diversity, but the picture in the world of AI is far bleaker. Women make up only 15% and 10% of AI research staff at Facebook and Google respectively; with both companies' workforces being less than 5% Black.20 No data about the employment of trans, gender non-conforming, or non-binary people has been published by either company, but one can only assume that these numbers are much worse. This produces a world of AI— and by extension, a future— that is overwhelmingly dominated by the perspective of cis-gendered white males, and as a result, this becomes the worldview from which these technologies operate. These built-in biases pose a new problem for uprooting systemic oppression. Where their analog predecessors were once able to be addressed through the removal of a problematic individual, artificial intelligence technologies cloak their biases behind a wall of complex code, which can often only be understood as a series of inputs and outputs— what is known in STEM fields as the "black box" phenomena. Life as we know it is coming to be ever-more determined by image-reliant machines that carry forward the biases of their creators. The image has been used to enact violence on the Black subject almost as long as the medium of photography has existed, and a lack of awareness, perspective— or maybe even care— amongst those who are crafting our AI-fueled future suggests that it will only continue to do so. In a society that chooses to see the Black body punitively or not at all, it is imperative that we ask what can be done to counteract this developing future?

To attempt to answer this question, it is valuable to return to the story of the Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement, founded by Ken Williams and Caroline Hunter in 1970. At its outset, the movement demanded that Polaroid (1) publicly denounce Apartheid; (2) pull all of its business out of South Africa; and (3) turn over money to recognized revolutionary parties in South Africa.21 In the course of its seven-year active period, the PRWM would garner wide-ranging support, receiving recognition from several anti-apartheid organizations across the globe, and galvanizing the Boston higher-education community to perform a number of demonstrations opposing Polaroid's involvement in the early 1970s. The work of Caroline Kent and Ken Williams at the helm of the Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement would cost them their jobs at Polaroid and the pair would receive no official credit from Polaroid in impacting the company’s eventual decision to withdraw from sales in South Africa, but the first two of their original goals would eventually be realized. Polaroid pulled all of its business from South Africa in 1977, making them the first American company to do so, after years of failing to productively intervene against the segregationist government through their presence.22 The PRWM exists in a rich lineage of Black organized efforts to address the oppression of Black people at the site of the photograph and is one of the earliest organized efforts to address the role and participation of photography and the image in said oppression. The work of the Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement is a rare success story in the history of grassroots political activism against a major corporation, offering one example of successful Black intervention against photographic violence on a large scale. The PRWM leaned in, taking on Polaroid directly, and found success in doing so, but what is to be said of working to move in the opposite direction on the spectrum of visibility; of some kind of opting out— or rather, opting in-between, or opting under?

In Dark Matters, author and professor Simone Browne coins the term "dark sousveillance", an idea that has become instrumental in my attempts to locate answers to these questions through artistic practice. The root of Browne's term, "sousveillance", is borrowed from professor, engineer, and inventor, Steve Mann, and can be understood etymologically as a composite of the French prefix "sous-" meaning "under" and the root word "-veillance" coming from the French verb vellier, meaning “to watch”. Thus, Browne’s dark sousveillance builds upon Mann’s original term to describe “the tactics employed to render one’s self out of sight, and strategies used in the flight to freedom from slavery as necessarily ones of undersight”, with Browne identifying it

“as an imaginative place from which to mobilize a critique of racializing surveillance, a critique that takes form in antisurveillance, countersurveillance, and other freedom practices. Dark sousveillance, then, plots imaginaries that are oppositional and that are hopeful for another way of being. Dark sousveillance is a site of critique, as it speaks to black epistemologies of contending with antiblack surveillance, where the tools of social control in plantation surveillance or lantern laws in city spaces and beyond were appropriated, co-opted, repurposed, and challenged in order to facilitate survival and escape.”23

The practices of dark sousveillance, specifically the "tactics used to render one's self out of sight", when contextualized against the history and projected futures of blackness in relation to the image, are the foundation upon which I situate my thinking and work on Black practices of selective visibility. In this work, I look to utilize the triangle as a means to map the aforementioned relationship between the viewer, subject, and maker; the transatlantic slave trade; the convergence of surveillance practices, the camera, and Blackness at the site of the image; and the interaction between the histories of Black photographic representation, and the future of the image as a participant in contemporary artificial intelligence technologies. This all functions in an effort to demonstrate the violent impact of the image in its relation to Black people, and imagine new ways for Black people to render themselves visible and invisible at will; rotating the viewer—subject—maker relationship to place the Black subject at the top, returning agency and power in doing so. Are the spaces in the blindspots of the white gaze big enough for us to self-determine? I cannot be sure, but there must be somewhere beyond the sight of the all-seeing aperture.





1. Przyblyski, Jeannene M. “Revolution at a Standstill: Photography and the Paris Commune of 1871.” Yale French Studies, no. 101, 2001, pp. 54–78., DOI:10.2307/3090606. 2. “In Plato's Cave.” On Photography, by Susan Sontag, Penguin, 2019, pp. 3–24. 3. ibid. 4. ibid. 5. ibid. 6. “Coded Exposure.” Race after Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code, by Ruha Benjamin, Polity, 2019, pp. 97–136. 7. ibid. 8. Roth, Lorna. “Looking at Shirley, the Ultimate Norm: Colour Balance, Image Technologies, and Cognitive Equity.” Canadian Journal of Communication [Online], vol. 34, no. 1, 2009, doi:10.22230/cjc.2009v34n1a2196. 9. ibid. 10. Morgan, E. J. “The World Is Watching: Polaroid and South Africa.” Enterprise and Society, vol. 7, no. 3, 2006, pp. 520–549. JSTOR, doi:10.1093/es/khl002. 11. ibid. 12. “Panopticism.” Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison, by Michel Foucault, Vintage Books, 1995, pp. 195–231. 13. Browne, Simone. Dark Matters on the Surveillance of Blackness. Duke University Press, 2015. 14. Boyne, Roy. “Post-Panopticism.” Economy and Society, vol. 29, no. 2, 2000, pp. 285–307., doi:10.1080/030851400360505. 15. Ibid. 38 16. Fiske, John. “Surveilling the City: Whiteness, the Black Man and Democratic Totalitarianism.” Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 15, no. 2, 1 May 1998, pp. 67–88., doi:10.1177/026327698015002003. 17. Ibid, 71. 18. hooks, bell. Jafa, Arthur. “bell hooks and Arthur Jafa Discuss Transgression in Public Spaces at The New School” YouTube, uploaded by The New School, 10/16/2014, https://youtu.be/fe-7ILSKSog 19. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, by Audre Lorde, Crossing Press, 1996, pp. 110–114. 20. West, S.M., Whittaker, M. and Crawford, K. (2019). Discriminating Systems: Gender, Race and Power in AI. AI Now Institute. Retrieved from https://ainowinstitute.org/ discriminatingsystems.html. 21. Williams, Amanda. “Golf Day Honors Ken Williams, Who Began Polaroid Revolution.” Vineyard Gazette, 21 Aug. 2008, vineyardgazette.com/news/2008/08/21/golf-day-honors-ken-williams-who-began-polaroid-revolution. 22. Morgan, E. J. “The World Is Watching: Polaroid and South Africa.” Enterprise and Society, vol. 7, no. 3, 2006, pp. 520–549. JSTOR, doi:10.1093/es/khl002. 23. Browne, Simone. Dark Matters on the Surveillance of Blackness. Duke University Press, 2015.