‘Human subjects, occupying different roles in the event of photography, do play one or another part in it, but the encounter between them is never entirely in the sole control of any one of them: no one is the sole signatory to the event of photography.’
When I first read the above quote I almost dismissed it thinking the photographer is in charge, in full control-he, she, control the intent ergo the event. Then I came across a book ‘To make their own way in the world The Enduring Legacy of the Zealy Daguerreotypes’ the book is about 15 daguerreotypes taken in 1850 of Alfred, Delia, Drana, Fassena, Jack, Jem and Renty, men and women of descent enslaved in South Carolina. The images were taken by Joseph T Zealy for Harvard professor Louis Agassiz to support his warped theories about race and the superiority of white over black.
The photographs were discovered in 1976 in Harvard’s Peabody Museum and since then have caused considerable debate. The pictures themselves are taken in a detached style, the subjects had no choice, and their intent was to support theories that were scientifically bankrupt and morally repulsive.
Looking at the images 170 years later, it serves as a good example supporting Azouly’s quote above. Debates and articles on the images explore topics such as the identities of the people in the daguerreotypes, photography and race, slavery, the lives of the individuals-plucking them from anonymity and giving them a more humane context. The combinations are endless, the Zealy images have indeed found their own way in the world and continue to do so, with no one sole signatory to the event.
Barbash Ilisa, Rogers Molly,Willis Deborah (2020) To Make Their Own Way in the World, The Enduring Legacy of the Zealy Daguerreotypes, London, Aperture