The First Photos of Enslaved People Raise Many Questions About the Ethics of Viewing - Press "Enter" to skip to content

The First Photos of Enslaved People Raise Many Questions About the Ethics of Viewing

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At first glance, it’s an unimpeachable sentiment. The editors clearly want to furnishes the viewer with ample background information and then trust her and the photograph. Compare it to, say, the recent furor over four museums canceling a retrospective of the work of Philip Guston, worried that his depictions of the Ku Klux Klan lacked sufficient framing.

What’s curious about the title is that the story of the Zealy daguerreotypes is one of fraught and contested possession. Harvard, which owns the photographs, long zealously guarded the copyright, threatening to sue Weems, who duplicated the images in her 1995 series “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried.” After deciding that she had a moral if not a legal case, Weems encouraged the lawsuit: “I think actually your suing me would be a really good thing,” she has remembered telling Harvard. “You should. And we should have this conversation in court. I think it would be really instructive for any number of reasons.” Harvard ended up acquiring the series.

In 2019, Tamara Lanier, a retired probation officer living in Connecticut, claimed to be a direct descendant of Renty. Her family had long passed down stories about “Papa Renty,” and Lanier devoted herself to finding him, combing census and death records and slave inventories, finally locating him in South Carolina.

Lanier’s findings have been verified by genealogists, including Toni Carrier, a contributor to the PBS series “African-American Lives,” hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr., who writes the introduction to this book. Lanier’s revelation arrives in the midst of decolonial movements around the world, calls for museums to repatriate stolen relics and universities examining their ties to slavery. She has found popular support. Forty-three descendants of Agassiz signed a letter to Harvard University President Lawrence S. Bacow asking the school to turn over the photographs. This month, the Harvard Undergraduate Council unanimously voted to pass a statement condemning the university’s ownership of the daguerreotypes, writing: “Imagine your great-grandparents were enslaved, exploited, forced to strip naked, photographed against their will, those photographs are publicly shared today … and there was nothing you could do about it.”

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A few contributors to this book have expressed skepticism about Lanier’s lineage — although only Gates mentions her directly. Rogers, one of the editors and the author of a previous book about the images, “Delia’s Tears,” maintains that tracing heredity under slavery is complex. “It’s not necessarily by blood,” she has said of family records. “It could be people who take responsibility for each other.” In his introduction, Gates downplays Lanier’s connection to Renty. “In a larger sense, can any one person be the heir of these photographs, or does the responsibility for them fall to all of us to protect them as archival relics of history, to be studied, pondered and reckoned with?”

It’s an odd statement. Why would Lanier’s claim threaten the “pondering” and protection of the pictures? What does he imagine Lanier has in mind for them? Already some writers have taken to approaching her directly, to symbolically ask for her permission to use the images — Thomas A. Foster, for example, author of “Rethinking Rufus: Sexual Violations of Enslaved Men.” Lanier encouraged him, he has said, because “she believes that the story of the daguerreotypes and of exploitation under slavery, need to be told.” Lanier’s own lawyer has stated that one ideal use of the pictures could be a traveling exhibit.

But in one respect, Gates is absolutely correct. If Lanier has a claim, the photographs will no longer be known only as “archival relics.” Renty and Delia are not relics to Lanier — they are family. Renty is known not as an object of study but a source of comfort and pride, the star of the family bedtime stories, a man who secretly taught himself and others to read. In Lanier’s accounts, he was never invisible, never lost, never in need of “discovery.” What kind of scholarship, what kind of criticism will he prompt if seen this way — not as a figure in need of reclamation or object of fascination but as an ancestor deserving of protection, whose memory has been improbably preserved?

Daguerreotypes, as is often noted, are sensitive, mirrored surfaces. You need to find the precise angle that blocks out your own reflection. Everything you see depends on where you stand.

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