by Regina Kessy.
As a true cosmopolitan, Dr. Regina Kessy (PhD) has lived in four continents and speaks six languages. She holds an MA (hons) in international journalism from People’s Friendship University in Moscow, Russia, and a doctorate from the Department of Media and Humanities at the University of Huddersfield in the UK. In her doctoral study ‘Decoding the donor gaze: Documentary, aid and AIDS in Africa’, she coined the term “donor gaze” to explain the dynamics of meaning-making in documentary films produced by the Third Sector. Dr. Kessy has vast experience in cross-cultural documentary film production as a freelancer for the private sector and non-governmental organisations both in Europe and Africa. Currently, she is working on a transcultural cognitive toolkit called KEA
(Knowledge, Empathy, Attitude), offering world youth a platform to acquire knowledge about and interact with distant cultures, broaden empathic reach and choose positive attitudes towards self and others.
The explosion of visual media sharing around the world presents great possibilities but also an urgent need to address the chronic misinterpretation of images and spaces of “cultural others.” The dynamics of making sense about the world, or making truthful assertions about realities of others, is not a forthright process because the world appears differently to different people. The meaning and function of objects or concepts are culturally coded, and therefore an interpretation is fixed according to the “cultural-toolkit” available to the one perceiving the object or other people.
Philosopher-journalist Walter Lippman calls it “the pictures in our heads.” These experiential images are impressions and beliefs we accumulated throughout childhood and they shape how we perceive and interact with the world outside.
The famous saying that “seeing is believing” can be misleading because we all use different “pictures in our heads” to make sense of concepts and objects in the world. It is therefore beneficial to interrogate photographic “truthfulness” because we now live in an electronic age where meaning making is causing a lot of social psychological and cultural disempowerment. Consider for instance the word “chair.” According to the Oxford dictionary, a chair is ‘a separate seat for one person, typically with a back and four legs.’ This is taken for granted in communities with such seating arrangements but it is totally confusing when the word crosses geographic spaces to rural communities where people traditionally squat or sit on straw mats and reserve the three legged wooden kigoda (chair) for elders, esteemed visitors and disabled.
Increasingly, culture is forced to speak with one voice and this opens up infinite problems because we represent phenomena as if our experiences are the same world over. Furthermore, when we quantify abstract concepts like “success” or “happiness”, we reinforce a universal way of seeing, which leads to negative comparisons, discontent, envy, aggressive competition instead of
cooperation, migration at any cost and of course greed and corruption. The process of standardizing concepts is not accidental, therefore I would like to illuminate on the historical trajectory that favoured seeing as an objective way of knowing. Berthold-Bond’s Hegel’s Grand Synthesis: A Study of Being, Thought, and History explains that “history exhibits the relation of consciousness to the world,
and this developing relation constitutes our knowledge, our appropriation of truth.”
As my focus is photographic imagery, I will limit the backward glance to the nineteenth century because it was marked with unprecedented contact between Europe and Africa and invented ways of explaining human differences based on the racial assumptions of Victorian evolutionary anthropology. The development of the cameras as a tool of scientific inquiry allowed the documentation of non-Europeans to take the form of visible evidence. Charles Darwin routinely used photographs, and his illustrated masterpiece Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1871)
was the first manual to use photographs to illustrate a scientific theory. Descent of Man (1874), which is Darwin’s scientific framework on how humankind and human society should be understood, used considerable visual descriptions about other races that claimed to be objective in the Hegelian sense of ‘pure looking’ (reines zusehen). In fact, the notion that “seeing is believing” had immense social and cultural impact at the time because visual representations of non Europeans were seen as mirrors of their cultural and racial development. Indeed, photographic accuracy cannot be disputed but aesthetically, the image is never innocent.
Richard Avedon puts it this way: “All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth!”
• Berthold-Bond, D. (1989: 14). Hegel’s Grand Synthesis: A Study of Being, Thought, and History.
State University of New York, USA.
• Lippmann, W. (1998). Public opinion. Transaction Publishers. New Brunswick, New Jersey.