By David Jackson
For Inland 360
It’s easy to assume that a book that includes topics such as race, racism, politics and image propaganda is painting a picture of incivility in modern times.
Things were also less than civil before and during the American Civil War.
Matthew Fox-Amato explores how these issues intersect in his recently published book “Exposing Slavery: Photography, Human Bondage and the Birth of Modern Visual Politics in America.”
The assistant professor of history at University of Idaho talked to Inland 360 about his book, which began as a dissertation topic while he was a graduate student studying history at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. Photography was a new technology during the Civil War era, and both pro- and anti-slavery factions used it to their advantage. Fox-Amato explains how.
MFA: I began to conceive of a project about abolitionists and how they used photography in the decades leading up to the Civil War and into the war. Perhaps the best known image is known as the Scourged Back – an image of a fugitive slave who entered the Union army lines in 1863. He posed with his scarred back for the camera, and that image got circulated quite a bit.
My project was going to be about how the abolitionists took up this new visual technology and used it for political purposes. One of the things that happened when I was doing my research, however, was I came across images that didn’t fit that framework – photos that were made in the South by those who enslaved people. I had to shift my project from one that was about a social movement and images to thinking about photography as a kind of cultural middle ground between abolitionists and slaveholders.
I think some people look at photos as being neutral and that they represent a specific period of time with no biases. But one of your points is that photos can represent different things to different audiences.
MFA: Absolutely, we can’t simply see photographs as objective truths. We have to understand photographs are made by people and they are the products of all sorts of choices.
For instance, we have enslavers taking studio photographs of enslaved people and these show well-dressed enslaved people not visibly dissenting their enslavement in the picture. Part of my point about these photos is that this is early photographic propaganda. These are photos that buttress a pro-slavery argument about the supposed benevolence of slavery, and in the process, they erase the physical violence of slavery.
One of the other ideas you’ve mentioned is wondering if these photographs depicting violence promote empathy for a political movement or create a detachment from it.
MFA: This was really interesting because I expected to find a lot of suffering photographs in the archives. I was aware of the Scourged Back. I was also aware of an image made in 1845 known as the Branded Hand – basically a white abolitionist who gets thrown in jail for trying to help a couple of enslaved people escape and they branded his hand “SS” for slave stealer. When he gets back to Boston, an abolitionist suggested he get his hand photographed, which he did.
There isn’t a vast archive, from what I found, of fugitives who make it to the North before the Civil War and then photographed their scars. That surprised me because I expected that abolitionists were using every tool they could to amplify the violence of slavery but the fugitives coming North, and the ones who joined the abolitionist movement, weren’t making these images.
Frederick Douglass was a big fan of photography, and yet he wasn’t making images showing his suffering. My conclusion was that former slaves and former-slaves-turned-abolitionists were interested in using photography to show their character rather than their victimization.
In today’s digital age with the bombardment of images constantly thrown at us, do you think photography can still be a force in social movements?
MFA: I absolutely do. I think photography plays a powerful role in shaping our ideas about the world. When it was born in 1839, photography was a neutral technology and while there were a lot of ideas about what it could be, there was no clear idea about how photography is going to become a political tool or political weapon. Social groups such as the abolitionists and slaveholders turned photography into a political tool.