Decolonizing Photography History


Cultural protests at a lack of cultural representation in the pop mainstream might be more visible and glamorous at #oscarssowhite, but that only comes around once a year. For a sustained and more cogent (and far more diverse) portrait of current representation (and omission) in the photographic medium, the blog Dodge and Burn is a vital resource for photographers to investigate not only the work of and history of others, but also offers a number of activities aimed at cementing lasting links between communities.

In their own mission statement:

The Dodge & Burn blog seeks to establish a more inclusive history of photography, highlighting contributions to the medium by people within underrepresented cultures. The Dodge & Burn photography blog highlights those who are often “dodged” from the art scene and “burned” in art history: photographers of African, Asian, Latino, Native American, Pacific Islander and Aleutian heritage, women photographers and works of photography about these and other indigenous communities of the world.

As could be expected, there is an undercurrent of anger, in tone, in much of the blog; which ingeniously and unapologetically uses a base level metaphor of “decolonialization” as its lode star. The intention is to reappraise the medium of photography’s history, both past and present. There is a real sense of an urgent energy, as one browses through various blog posts and photographer interviews; a clear connection between those historically excluded, and those working currently under different manifestations of the same root condition.

The website announces its intentions in no uncertain terms as to how it will seek to diffract the colonial gaze:

Dodge & Burn seeks to show photo-based work that deconstructs ideas of “wildlife” landscapes, the stereotypical images of “tribe” and “race”, the denigrating mugshot, the hypersexualization of women of color and other such examples of the historical violence and othering perpetuated by the camera.

However, just doing this might, in part, be giving too much oxygen to a history of oppression; and (at least to this visitor) Qiana Mestrich (the founder and editor) is clearly intent on creating new narratives, gathering the skeins of history and the present into new bonds; and, as such, Dodge & Burn presents so much more. Recurring content includes photographer interviews, profiles and features on trends and issues, collated by Mestrich, who is a photographer and writer in her own right.

A recent post, for instance provides an insightful look at honoring Black motherhood in the Brazilian slave trade. Artists Isabel Löfgren and Patricia Gouvêa, creators of the Mae Preta (Black Mother) exhibition (which opened in 2016 at the Instituto de Pesquisa e Memória Pretos Novos in what is described as “colonial” Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) delve deep into Black feminism:

… with the advent of the Internet, Black feminism in Brazil has blossomed and is becoming stronger and stronger, especially as more and more Black women are entering the universities and becoming historians, novelists, researchers, professionals. And this is just the contextual information (complete with timeline, in Portuguese) before they get around to discussing the exhibition itself! What follows is an enlightening history of Rio de Janeiro which was once the largest slave port in the world.

Other blog posts include: an interview with Hernease Davis, who discusses her black and white photograms that visualize self-care after trauma; previews of Solange’s A Seat at the Table art book featuring photos by Carlotta Guerrero; and an interview focusing on the funny but provocative color photographs of Oriana Lopes.

Cumulatively, Dodge & Burn seems determined to make networks and links visible that might have once seemed invisible: to academia, to museums, even to photographers maybe unaware of their own past (another exhibition listed on the site is called Kamoinge, which means “a group of people working together”).

These resources are supplemented with a monthly critique group (based in NYC), where photographers at various stages of their career can meet and share feedback on their work. Historians and curators also attend. Presumably, these sessions are liberating for Black artists, who can present their work in a context different from the mainstream gaze.

So check out Dodge & Burn: a vital resource for anybody interested in exploring complex issues of racial representation.

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