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The Captive Photograph

In March 2019 Tamara Lanier filed a lawsuit against Harvard University and Peabody Museum for “wrongful seizure, possession and expropriation of photographic images” of her enslaved ancestors, Renty Taylor and his daughter Delia. After Lanier’s mother passed away in 2010, she had started researching information on Papa Renty. An acquaintance called her attention to the existence of the daguerreotypes of her ancestors, which Elinor Reichlin, on staff at the Peabody, had found in 1976.

Reichlin’s preliminary research showed that in 1850 Louis Agassiz had commissioned these daguerreotypes under the mantle of authority provided by his position at Harvard University. Photography was just at its beginning then, and he used the project to prove his polygenic theory: that different human races had evolved separately and that white people were superior to others. Thus, the plate daguerreotypes of Renty and Delia (alongside those seized during the same photographic sessions from other enslaved people—Drana, Alfred, Jack, George Fassena, and Jem) are unlike other daguerreotypes commissioned by enslavers, which aimed to portray slavery as a paternalistic and benevolent form of white rule. These images had a different purpose: to capture in silver plates the inherent “truth” of white superiority. Stripping Renty, Delia, and the others bare in front of the camera was part of Agassiz and his collaborators’ plan: to let what they considered the naked truth of Black inferiority imprint itself directly from the bodies to the photographic plate, without the interference of clothing or other props that were frequently used in photographers’ studios. “If it is a shock to see full frontal nudity in early American photography,” writes the photography scholar and curator Brian Wallis, “it is even more surprising to see it without the trappings of shame or sexual fantasy.”

Until Lanier stepped forward and claimed that these were her ancestors, the daguerreotypes had been assumed to be the private property of Harvard University. That Lanier’s multiple attempts to communicate with representatives of university institutions were rebuffed testifies to the gravity and endurance of the institutional afterlife of slavery. Harvard’s dismissal of Lanier brings to mind Jewish German philosopher Walter Benjamin’s observation that when history is written by the victorious at the expense of the victims and survivors, the spoils become “cultural treasures.” Only the victorious are permitted to claim as legally theirs what was seized from others. The latter were deprived of their freedom and rights and continue to live under the institutional conditions that make their grievances go unheard. Should academic institutions base their ownership claim on the victors’ justice?

In March 2021 Lanier’s lawsuit was dismissed by a Massachusetts court. Though an appeal is pending, the court confirmed not only Harvard’s ownership of the daguerreotypes, but also the terms and the stake of the case. The court’s decision centered the question of possession—to whom does Renty Taylor’s daguerreotype belong? Yet Harvard came to “possess” these photographs through a cultural logic of wealth, property, and ownership that flows directly from slavery and preserves its lingering presence in our own era. Against this logic, I propose that we ask different questions. What if we insist on treating Renty as the person who was used against his will for others to extract an image of his enslavement, rather than as the object that was seized from him? Then, we must ask, where and with whom will Renty find peace and recognition of his rights?  

The history of object restitution offers some guidance here as a form of historical accountability. It reminds us that the photograph is a social document, rather than an object to be possessed. I argue that, in their social contexts, both the taking of the daguerreotype and its continued ownership and display by Harvard University constitute crimes against humanity that need to be redressed. The daguerreotypes are not property that can be owned, but ancestors who need caretaking. This understanding is the only way forward if we wish to repair the harms of enslavement.

Read entire article at Boston Review