A Universal Sense of Place

Considering photography as a colonial practice, Laura Beltrán Villamizar argues for a need to understand the discipline’s complex history and politics to allow for the redistribution of power, and the reclamation of space for diverse storytellers to define themselves.
words – laura beltrán villamizar
photography – manuel seoane; daouda corera; carolina navas, dominique riofrío, johis alarcón location – germany, europe; bolivia, south america; mauritania, africa; columbia, south america; ecuador, south america

Photography’s emergence in the West as contemporary representation went hand-in-hand with the expansion of Europeans to the Americas and colonies elsewhere. Photography played a crucial role in the inception of anthropology as an official discipline – what colonisers would “capture” through their cameras was part of the documentation of what they would “discover” and later on study. In that sense, photography served as a way to register the apparently new world and its people through the lenses of those who owned a photographic camera.

Photography became one of the principal instruments in facilitating the meaning of being in a certain place at a certain time in history. Through photography, colonisers saw a means of accelerating their ownership of a place and validated it through a visual record: “I photograph that I’m here, therefore I can call this place my own.” Photography, as a result, became a predatory practice which gave shape to the commodification of indigenous cultures and slaves by rendering them as passive objects for consumption of the Western gaze.

Understanding photography as a colonial practice brings awareness about the use of photography today and the ways in which it’s still often used as a tool to reinforce dominant narratives: sensationalised and often racist representations of others. We continue to see overwhelming appropriation of under-represented cultures in Western media. These photographic practices perpetuate problematic issues found within Western and hierarchical structures of power, race and representation.

Breaking these structures and reclaiming photography – making it universal – is crucial for our understanding of the world and our place in it. Part of that process begins when we acknowledge that the ownership of those in front of and behind the camera is just as important as the story itself.

Traditionally, it’s been mostly indigenous, non-Western photographers disrupting the politics of representation and reclaiming their perspectives through photography. By doing so, people who once were defined by others are now redefining themselves, giving shape to their complex identities and celebrating personal narratives through the same medium that once victimised them.

Platforms such as Native – which was created as a body of self-representation, ownership and self-validation of non-Western visual narratives and stories – is one example among many in the collective effort to fight existing colonial practices and redistribute power, reclaiming the space for diverse storytellers to define themselves.

When the focus is displaced from the coloniser’s lens, it becomes apparent that there are a variety of different stories and lenses that provide context about the world and how we can learn about our place in it. Through exposure to different perspectives and personal visual stories, we are challenged to question how we define and perceive the world.

In order for us to attempt to understand diverse realities and comprehend the complexities of our humanity, narratives should pose more questions than they assert definitive answers.

Photography allows image makers the chance to carve a path of their own and have a sense of place: “I photograph, therefore I am.”

“Breaking these structures and reclaiming photography – making it universal – is crucial for our understanding of the world and our place in it. Part of that process begins when we acknowledge that the ownership of those in front of and behind the camera is just as important as the story itself.”

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