Image Matters: Archive, Photography, and the Making of the African Diaspora in Europe by Tina M. Campt (review)
Volume 37, Number 1, Winter 2014
Campt, Tina M., Image Matters: Archive, Photography, and the African Diaspora in Europe (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012)
In Image Matters, Tina Campt uses a remarkable archive of vernacular photography to analyze processes of black subjectivity in early-twentieth-century Europe. Defined by the author as a genre of “everyday image-making” (7), vernacular photography is considered an important archival resource for understanding how blacks have historically constructed self-images that affirm their worth in societies that devalue their humanity (see also Brian Wallis and Deborah Willis, African American Vernacular Photography 2006). Campt’s reading of the photographs centers on three main registers through which they interact with the viewer: the visual, the haptic, and the sonic. Blending her analysis of these registers with historical research and the findings from her fieldwork in Germany and England, Campt treats these images as more than historical objects. They are “statements that express how ordinary individuals envisioned their sense of self, their subjectivity, and their social status” (7).
Campt engages mainly with the field of Black/African Diaspora Studies in three ways. Firstly, she departs from the prevailing “roots versus routes” conceptualizations that tend to focus on dispersion from a homeland and transnational interactions. Instead, she emphasizes black people’s inscription of themselves into their adopted countries. Secondly, by focusing on Afro-Germans and Afro-Caribbean British immigrants—two very distinct groups—Campt underscores the importance of viewing the African Diaspora as diverse, rather than as a homogenous group. Thirdly, she engages with the question of how the construction of the archives affects the conceptualization of the Diaspora. Here, the work of Michel-Rolph Trouillot, who Campt references, is very relevant. In his influential text Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995), Trouillot discusses the omissions that occur in various stages of archive construction, which ultimately affect how history is written. Campt infers that the history of the African Diaspora has been affected by silences within the visual archives. As such, the existence of certain diasporic groups such as Afro-Germans appears as an interruption in the mainstream narrative.
The book is divided into two sections, with three chapters bridged by two “interstitial” essays. Part 1, “Family Matters: Sight, Sense, Touch,” focuses on the biracial offspring of African men and German women, and builds on the research in Campt’s previous book, Other Germans: Black Germans and the Politics of Race, Gender, and Memory in the Third Reich (2005). The first chapter, “Family Touches” focuses primarily on Hans Hauck and to a lesser extent, the brothers, Mandenga, Manga, and Ekwin Ngando. There are multiple photographs of Hauck posing with his white German family as a child, and many of him as a soldier in the German army. These are juxtaposed with similar images of the Ngando brothers. The military images are shocking considering the popular conceptualization of the Third Reich military as an Aryan space commensurate with the doctrine of Aryan superiority. The fact that non-Aryans participated in the army speaks volumes about the nuances in the German state’s performance of Aryan superiority, even while subjecting non-Aryans to violent repression (see also Bryan Mark Rigg, Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers 2002). Hauck was sterilized as a child along with many other non-Aryans in a secret campaign carried out by the Gestapo; yet, he was allowed to join the Hitler Youth as a boy and later, the army. Like the Ngandos, he was denied full citizenship rights even while being required to perform military responsibilities for the state. Campt highlights an important point regarding the tension between how the images register and divergent historical facts. For example, the fact that Hauck’s grandmother was the one who gave the Gestapo permission to sterilize him troubles our reading of the image depicting loving family embraces between the two. Also, though the experiences of the Ngando brothers were similar to Hauck’s, the specificities of their lives cautions against a general narrative of black penalization in Germany. For example, Manga had a child with a white woman, Hertha Pilisch, in 1943, and later married her after the fall of the Nazi regime. Thus, unlike Hauck, Manga was not sterilized, and violated one of the fundamental rules of Nazism without detection for several years.
Hans Hauck will probably stand…