When you wake up, look again
September 19, 2012
Author: Nora Uitterlinden
What is the best way to look at a photograph? According to the Dutch author Hans Aarsman (who calls himself a ‘photo detective’), you should choose a picture you want to look at, and then go to sleep. Preferably while sitting up. When you wake up, look at the photograph again. Then search for the things you haven’t seen at first glance, and you’ll find them.
Aarsman presented his sleeping method as a reaction to an over-intellectualised debate in The Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam last week, under the abstract title “What is colonial about colonial photography?” Attended by around 300 people, four historians and cultural theorists tried to answer the question what it means to call a photograph “colonial”. Moreover, do we interpret a photograph differently if we place it within a theme?
The debate was initiated by the presentation of a new online database for over 155,000 colonial photographs. ‘Colonial’ means that the photos were taken in colonial times, and in a colonial location, historian Fridus Steijlen explained. But, for example, a photograph of a bank that did business with or in the colonies can be considered colonial too, he states.
This is where the debate became fuzzy and most interesting: if even a photograph of that bank can be considered colonial, then what is not colonial? The Dutch economy and culture are heavily indebted to colonialism, from coffee to the typical Amsterdam storehouses along the canals, to the people that currently live in The Netherlands. The discussion soon focused on how colonial relations continue to shape our understanding of the world, and how we often do not even see power imbalances, either in real life or in photographs.
While Aarsman’s statement was that one can look at every photograph in a fresh way, the other debaters didn’t agree. “It is impossible to look without having any value judgements,” says Edy Seriese, chief of IWI, a research institute on Indonesian people in the Netherlands and their histories. She explains that the culture you come from and your position of power already dictates what you value most in a photograph. A short sleep does not make you see with fresh eyes, she asserts.
According to historian Wim Manuhutu, it’s not so much “fresh eyes” but “a lot of knowledge” which allows you to see the most: “For example, you don’t get to know who is not in the photograph if you don’t have some knowledge about the time and place the photograph was taken,” he told the audience.
As an illustration, Manuhutu showed a photograph of a Dutch Sinterklaas celebration in early 20th century Indonesia. Kids in shorts are gathered in front of two Christmas trees. Manuhutu explained that unless you know something about the colonial power relations of that period, you don’t understand that you see only privileged children, or that there are no servants in the photograph, who must have been in the background nevertheless.
Manuhutu’s Sinterklaas photo caused a shift in the debate. An ongoing discussion in The Netherlands is whether the figure of Zwarte Piet (Sinterklaas’ blackface servant) is a racist representation. While some people get very protective about the Sinterklaas celebration in which Zwarte Piet is a traditional figure, others experience it as a throwback to old colonial power relations. The situation is exacerbated as trouble extends outside the confines of the celebration, because understanding of skin colour and roles in society are affected by the roleplay, making some white children say to their parents on encountering black people “Look mommy, Zwarte Piet!”
With this shift in topic, the discussion became tense. The fact that contemporary racism is still influenced by colonial imagery (black people as servants) is hard to understand for many Dutch people (whether white or black), since they learn about Zwarte Piet in early childhood and they relate the figure to parties and presents.
The tension was relieved in a very Dutch way: with a remark on the weather. “It’s autumn for only two days and already we’re thinking about winter celebrations!” the moderator said.
But the question remains: how do we look at images and, in turn, how do they shape our understanding of the world? Does it take a lot of studying cultures and history before one can see what is really going on in a photograph? Or can one just go to sleep and then look with fresh eyes?
Attractive as the sleeping method sounds (especially to the sleepless amongst us), I might try it sometime. You never know. However, other people’s ‘fresh eyes’ could turn out to inform my view even more than looking alone. Therefore, the next time I want to see something new in a photograph, the “listening method” doesn’t seem such a bad idea either.
Photograph from The Royal Tropical Institute’s online database