Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 21, 2020
Jennifer Bajorek Unfixed: Photography and Decolonial Imagination in West Africa Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020. 352 pp.; 30 color ills.; 102 b/w ills. Paper $28.95 (9781478003663)

Over the past three decades, scholarship on the history of photography in Africa has done much to overturn monolithic accounts of modernity in the discipline of art history. Today African photography is a common topic of art history PhD dissertations and the regular focus of major books and exhibitions. The significance of this development cannot be overstated. Unfixed: Photography and Decolonial Imagination in West Africa by Jennifer Bajorek can be understood as an important turning point in these developments because it moves beyond topics that are by now familiar, even canonical. Grounded in rigorous theoretical inquiry and years of in-depth research in the major cities of Senegal and Benin, the book deftly shifts the field toward new terrain. While past scholarship has been concerned with demarcating the Africanity of photography and has focused on issues of identity formation, portraiture, and the colonial gaze, Bajorek instead challenges us to pay attention to photography’s political significance to Africans.

Pioneering Africanists such as Okwui Enwezor and Patricia Hayes have also addressed the importance of photography to political and social activism, but Bajorek explores a different aspect of politics. Her book starts with a single, powerful question: what is the relationship between photography and the struggle for liberation in Francophone west Africa during the 1950s and 1960s, the period leading up to and immediately following independence? Informed by media studies, she considers the making of a new public sphere through the circulation of photography and related media forms, such as magazines and cinema. Her larger aim is not delineating the way photographs or photographers give us visual evidence of anticolonial politics (although we glean aspects of that, too) but rather something altogether more elusive and equally significant. Bajorek challenges readers to consider people’s imaginative capacity to envision an alternative form of freedom at a precise historical moment, before its future is foreclosed. Put more concretely, popular photography is generally not seen as a site of theorization of the political, but Bajorek shows us how African photographers, their clients, and their public nurtured alternative possibilities of independence and liberty that cannot be reduced to a story of generalized universals.

The book is a study of the distinct ways that people living in Saint-Louis and Dakar in Senegal and Porto-Novo and Cotonou in Benin envisioned an imminent future—one that was partially a response to colonial modernity but that extends far beyond that modernity’s terms. Bajorek’s narrative thus pushes against the limits of visual analysis precisely because a local vision of the future, what she calls “decolonial imagination,” is not something that can be discerned by just focusing on pictorial or visible aspects of the photograph. Instead she is invested in understanding how photography works as world-making, arguing that much of what photography does “far exceeds anything that could be made visible, let alone fixed, in a single photograph” (31). This book powerfully insists on historical specificity and the situatedness of photographic meaning.

Unfixed’s contributions thus extend beyond the study of African photography and can be understood as a timely invitation to reconsider the significance of photography as media. Historians of photography have long focused on the intermediality and indeterminacy of photography, especially its relationship to cinema, the archive, and the internet, but Bajorek asks us to think about its nonvisual aspects in new ways while never losing track of its materiality. From her we learn how photographs rapidly transformed the spaces of major urban centers by working in tandem with print media and the material culture of state bureaucracy, including infrastructures such as bridges and railways, and how photography related to textiles and tailoring. Her discussion of the role both professional and amateur photography played in the pages of Bingo, a popular magazine published in Dakar, is especially revealing. Bingo not only nurtured a media-savvy urban public across much of Francophone Africa, but also it was a space of aesthetic and political experimentation. Photographers, editors, journalists, and readers, who could send in letters and photographs, expressed new ideas about citizenship and belonging within its pages.

This volume chiefly emphasizes the work and experiences of men, especially male photographers but also powerful publishers, journalists, museum and cultural heritage professionals, and local politicians. Certainly, Bajorek also provides accounts of how photography related to women’s lives (including her own), but the sitters featured in the photographs, many of whom are women, could have been engaged more. However, the reality is that most of their names and biographies have been unmoored from the photographs; the book’s images are sourced from public archives or local photographers who collected them for many reasons, but rarely owing to an interest in the lives of individual sitters. This means that readers of this book have access to the likenesses of many historical subjects, yet their lives remain largely inaccessible. While this raises complicated issues of power and objectification, to my mind Bajorek’s handling of this issue marks a welcome pivot away from the “affective turn” in photography studies, which has given scholars license to project their own complex responses onto the bodies of African women and other marginalized subjects. While such interpretations represent the vital need to reject colonial photography’s silencing violence, they nevertheless reassert the primacy of the scholar as the maker of photographic meaning. For example, Tina M. Campt sees refusal and resistance when looking at the poses and facial expressions of South African women featured in nineteenth-century ethnographic photographs, arguing they visualize Black self-fashioning (see chapter 2 of her book Listening to Images, Duke University Press, 2017). Bajorek does not attempt to read a woman’s proud gaze or assertive elegance; instead, she suggests that the sitter’s subjectivity is too complex to be discernable through her appearance in a photograph. Her choice to not interpret poses and bodies can be seen as an effective extension of her interest in moving histories of photography beyond considering what is visible in the image.

Bajorek does not discuss many individual photographs in detail, which will invariably frustrate some readers. I myself often wondered about questions of form and the practices of embodiment taking place within the many striking photographs presented in the book (the majority of which are rare and previously unpublished). The bold portraits of women reproduced in the section on popular studio photography, which are presented mainly as illustrations of the kind of work and ideas photographers sought to realize through their practice, also raise issues of class and gender. But Bajorek’s main aim is to do justice to the memories and interpretations of the many photographers she interviewed, who are depicted as essential but largely underappreciated historical actors whose work had political significance during the immediate postindependence era. The reader learns a great deal about how photographers saw their work as a contribution to the joys of leisure, politics, and fashion as well as to the major transcontinental cultural exchanges of the twentieth century. But we also learn how photography concerned urban labor movements and the rise of anticolonial political parties, and even how state actors and private citizens struggled against each other in harnessing the power of the photographic.

The second half of the book homes in on how photography relates to official, state-sponsored procedures of postcolonial citizenship. The many lives of ID-card photographs are presented as a fascinating example of how photography can be used for actions and ideas situated in the future. Such photographs are often montaged onto other photographs to make commemorative portraits. Recast and even physically recut in myriad new ways, they are only tenuously connected to their original role as bureaucratic images. This brings Bajorek to making the point that the meaning of photographs is unfixed because people use and think about them in ways that were not yet envisioned at the time of their taking. What is so spectacularly unique about this book is that while others have written about the futurity of photography and its projected imaginaries, such assertions are usually purely speculative because they are primarily anchored in the scholar’s musings about the nature of the self, being, and interiority. Here instead we encounter a serious consideration of how photographs are entangled in the political economy of liberation, struggles for autonomy, and postcolonial state formation. Most significantly, we come to a new understanding of the ways individuals and communities in Africa thought about and shaped their own future.

Prita Meier
Associate Professor, Department of Art History and Institute of Fine Arts, New York University