Re-presentation, race and disability: How are Black disabled people represented in 19C popular art and photography?

The view that one cannot understand popular representations of black people without reference to slavery seems true for many western images of the period from the early 1800s to much of the 19th century document their plight. Here is an example. One would expect the arrival of photography to increase the diversity of representations of black people and this does appear to be the case. For example, it is relatively easy to find a range of imagery around the Black man,  in war photography and particularly the American Civil War, provides many examples of black men as soldiers – see here or here for a couple of examples. There are many more.

A growing representation of black people can also be seen in all areas of social photography. There are many resources such as this one where images of black people in work, play, in politics can be seen. This approach is not just applicable to the USA though. For example, Clarke documented the Black experience in Victorian Britain see here. However the photographic representation of the Black man in the latter half of the 19th century appears to comprise of two dominant strands that stand in opposition:

  • Social photography where black disabled people are represented in similar ways to others and the focus is on their social conditions and;
  • Eugenics where the medium is used to categorise and explain differences through genetics

From around 1880 eugenics rose as an influential powerful policy driver for many western and colonial governments. Some key feature of it are:

  • Originated in Britain then spread to Germany and the US
  • Steeped in morality, civic responsibility and scientific legitimacy
  • Made extensive use of photography both in popular and intellectual spheres
  • Used both positive and negative imagery
  • Used for both analysis and promotion of the theory with exhibitions, and regular journals

Sir Francis Galton 1822 -1911 feared Britain was in decline and that talent was largely governed by heredity. Thus the theory of 1) stopping racial decline and 2) increasing talent could be enhanced by selective breeding. Galton identified three races: Aryan, Jewish and Negro in descending order of worth. By 1914 eugenics accepted as a legitimate theory by most intellectuals and began to influence policy in some countries.

In the UK

  •  1850s industrialisation leading to overcrowding, disease and crime; Booth’s surveys classifying good and bad areas by types of person 1880s
  • Eugenics Education Society being formed in 1907 and its journal The Eugenics Review.
  • But no compulsory sterilisation or extermination

      In the US

    • American genetic association (was the American breeders association) 1903
    • Compulsory sterilisation of mental defectives 10 states in 1917 and in 30 states between 1920 and 35

        In Germany

        • 1905 Organisation for Racial Purity
        • 1933 – compulsory sterilisation of heredity defectives

        The application of Photography to Eugenics
        Forensic photography adopted for classification purposes eg purely based on physical characteristics. Imperialism 1860s sees photography routinely applied to classify races and can be seen as arising from anthropology. Aim is to identify types of people via physical characteristics. So photography was deployed as a major scientific tool for codifying and classifying difference. Three examples:

        1) Louis Agassiz (1807-1873) believed in permanency of racial types and polygenesis and creationism. His photography:

        • was supported and promoted politically by the South to legitimate slavery
        • 1850 produces 15 photos of two types aimed to support view
        • Physiognomic – poster, proportions and body shape
        • Phrenological – details of head/face
        • 1865 field trip to Brazil aimed to classify the Manaos people and support this approach

        So his approach was opposite of Darwinism ie fixed types eg see here

        2) Huxley (1825 – 1895) Believed in monogeneses and Darwinism

        • Urgency to document “vanishing races” because of Darwinism
        • Developed guidelines for anthropometry photography – eg forensic in approach with measuring/scale indicators
        • Sought to document the races of the empire with government support
        • But the endeavour largely failed as only peoples who had no independence were photographed as per guidelines eg nude whiles other refused and so were photographed more along the lines of photographic portraiture.

        3) Dammann brothers Germany

        • 1871 Berlin society for anthropology initiates photographic project to assemble images from around the world. (same time as Bismarck creates the German Reich)
        • Dammann brothers were photographers called on to photo visiting people eg ships, circuses – they produced some 600 images in 1873
        • Published a popular edition of ethnographic album in 1875 – in which the organisation and style of photos followed a hierarchy of races with north Europeans at the top.
        • Subtle approach to style also reinforced this with Europeans always dressed and associated commentary to images
        • Also implicit with the thinking is: one dominant race with national states eg the album carried titles of nations rather than regions.

        1874 British Association for the Advancement of Science publish Notes and queries on anthropology which urges people to take standardised measurements which focus on head


        Some anti eugenics photography was present:

        Franz Boas (USA)

        • Promoted idea of cultural relativism via investigating American Indians in 1894 that showed
        • No definite fixed racial type characteristics
        • Power of environment on physical characteristics

        W E B DuBois (black American) 1906, 1935 publications

        • Showed racism not eugenics/hierarchy of races = position of blacks in society
        • Used photos to counter eugenicists

        Huxley and Haddon – We Europeans 1935

        • Used imagery to question eugenics theory
        • Used ethics to question it
        • And used culture to explain behaviours

        Twentieth Century

          • Eugenics was a powerful force in USA, Germany and Britain
          • But only in US and Germany did it result in mandatory policies
          • The authors identifies the reason for eugenics as structural, urbanisation, industrialisation
          • WW2 leads to discrediting of eugenics
          • 1950 UNESCO statement on race – states no hierarchy of races
          • 1953 DNA discovered
          • 1990 Human Genome project

        So blackness had strong links in this period with illness, disability as they were seen and defined as showing hereditary weaknesses and we can see a focus on types of people and how imagery has been used to promote that.

        Clearly the representation of Black people and disabled people have something in common. This research shows that photography has been used to promote views of both groups as lessor races and invalid in terms of holding equal rights with white and non disabled people. This was done by presenting images of them in very limited and distorted ways that emphasised difference.

        Instead of looking at the causes of societal problems though systematic analysis the Victorian scientists allowed old prejudices to cloud their judgement. The problem is that such views are widely held even if not socially acceptable and so while the law aims to protect both groups from unfair discrimination  the reality is that we survive in a world that disables us. Of course some people overcome some of the barriers created but personally estrangement from my fellow man and alienation from society is my experience. I need to represent this photographically in my body of work.

        Book: Picture Imperfect Photography and Eugenics 1870-1940 by Anne Maxwell, published by Sussex Academic Press 2008, 2010 edn.

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        About Pete

        South Londoner struggling with life, art and photography.
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