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words: essays on photography: history; aesthetics; the politics of photographic imagery.

The Devolutionary Image:
Toward a Photography of Liberation

[this essay originally appeared in SF Camerawork Quarterly, Summer/Fall, 1989]
  portrait of crazy horse    
Figure 1.: Crazy Horse, Oglala Lakota warrior. Defeated the us cavalry on numerous occasions in defense of the black hills and national sovereignty. He was assassinated in 1877 by Indians working in the interests of the wasi' chu invaders.


"The whites are crazy! The whites are crazy!" --Lakota song, Ghost Dance. Wounded Knee, 1890[1]

The tidal wave of greed for gold and territory that swept the American West in the nineteenth century traveled under the auspices of Manifest Destiny, a confluence of the forces of capital and the logic of Social Darwinism. Technological advances in weaponry, transportation and communications accelerated the process of domination, but it was the attitude defined by European and Euro- American rationalism that ultimately provided the means as well as the end: political and economic control of the continent and its resources, at the expense of the natural environment and the indigenous population.

It is not surprising that the camera, as a product of nineteenth century science (along with the evolutionary theory that spawned Social Darwinism and its incumbent acts of organized brutality), became an accessory to the process of domination. And how fitting it must have seemed to the victims of that process -the natives of North America, whose idea of "vision" is as spiritual as it is physical -when the white man produced from his baggage a box that had the power to transcribe the world onto a flat paper plane. Here was a machine that could make of this landscape a surface; of this territory, a map; of this man, this woman, this living child, a framed, hand-held, negotiable object to be looked at, traded, possessed: the perfect tool for the work of the "wasi'chu," the greedy one who takes the fat.[2] This transcriptive use of the camera was consistent with all application of technology toward domination. The common purpose: mapping and possessing the territory and reducing the population and its living culture to voiceless movable objects.

No wonder Crazy Horse refused the camera. According to legend, this Oglala warrior, who remains to this day a symbol of sovereignty, principled resistance and dignity for his people, never allowed his picture to be taken. The popular explanation is the belief that the camera steals the spirit - literally[3]; but certainly the figurative aspect was not lost on Crazy Horse. Russell Means, a present day Oglala Lakota and co-founder of the American Indian Movement, has said:

My culture, the Lakota culture, has an oral tradition and so I ordinarily reject writing. It is one of the white world's ways of destroying the cultures of non- European peoples, the imposing of an abstraction over the spoken relationship of a people.[4]

One might say the same of the camera and the photographic process, born of Western rationalism and so often put to the uses of domination and surveillance. Means' rejection of abstraction is not unlike Crazy Horse's refusal, his noncompliance with the dictates of a techno-vision that imposes an abstraction on the lived relationships of a people and their culture.

The familiar photographs of Sitting Bull, Geronimo, and other leaders and warriors of the period can be displayed as either trophies for the victors or nostalgic fetishes of a romanticized past.[5] But the visual silence left by Crazy Horse, more haunting, more compelling, than any extant image of his contemporaries, cannot be appropriated. And although it was "trickery and treachery" that finally did Crazy Horse in,[6] his representation and his spirit remained outside that archive and in the keeping of his people only.


"I want a free country or death." --Augusto Sandino, Nicaragua, July, 1927[7]

"It was done for the dollar, mainly." --Eugene Hasenfus, Nicaragua, October, 1986[8]

top US Marines photo
Figure 2: U.S. Marines displaying the captured flag of of Augusto Cesar Sandino's Army for the Defense of the National Sovereignty of Nicaragua. After the battle of Ocotal, 1927. Sandino himself was never captured during the war. After U.S. withdrawal he was invited to Managua for peace negotiations and, in February 1934, was assassinated by Somoza's National Guard, Nicaraguans working in the interests of the Yanqui invaders. [Photo originally appeared in "The United States Marines: A Pictorial History, Lynn Montross (NY, 1959).]

Display of the captive before the camera lens, the condition Crazy Horse so ardently avoided, quickly became a ritual of power. The U.S. Cavalry photographically documented hundreds of captive Indians along their forced marches to penal colony reservations, and such images are commonplace in histories of the West.

The ritual was acted out as well during the U.S. Marine occupation of Nicaragua from 1927-1933. Here too, the camera was accomplice to the imposition of authority; and the photograph, like the captured flag in Figure 2, is an ideological surface, representative of territory. The Marines display the flag as if it were Sandino himself that they had captured, for the flag is sufficient to make the point in this symbolic seizure: "we (the Marines, as representatives of state and corporate power) are in control here."

But history betrays the deceptiveness of the image, for although Sandino and his Army for Defense of the National Sovereignty of Nicaragua had lost the battle of Ocotal, they subsequently waged a guerrilla war against the occupying forces for seven years, until the Marines finally withdrew. Like Crazy Home, Sandino came to symbolize for his people the spirit of resistance, a spirit that could not be captured by the descriptive apparatus of a hegemonist vision.[9]

Nearly sixty years after the battle of Ocotal, the ritual was played out yet again, but with a reversal of roles and to a wider audience. The familiar image of Eugene Hasenfus (Figure 3) being displayed not only as a trophy but as evidence of the continued US war against the Nicaraguan people was seen in newspapers and on television screens around the globe. The oppressor's medium was, for a moment, turned back upon itself.[10]

Eugene Hasenfus photo Voices from Wounded Knee
Figure 3: The image of the captured Eugene Hasenfus was transmitted around the world, here shown in "Valley News," West Lebanon, NH, October 8, 1986. Hasenfus, tried and convicted of terrorism and other crimes, did not share the fate of Crazy Horse and Sandino. He was pardoned and sent home for Christmas. Figure 4: Page 58 from "Voices from Wounded Knee,1973," published by "Akwasasne Notes." The captives pictured in the top photo were released after being disarmed.


One of these days, everything will turn; it's slow, but it's coming. For the last two years, here in 0glala, we have had sun dances again ... the white man will learn, too, they say, but we're not supposed to teach him everything at once, he must develop in a natural way.

--Sam Moves Camp, Oglala. Pine Ridge Reservation, 1981[11]

The centrist and statist tendencies that characterize "wasi'chu" colonialism or (depending on the geopolitical perspective of its victims) "yanqui" imperialism is presently being countered by the decentralizing forces of devolution.[12] Nationalist and anti-statist struggles, in which indigenous peoples are taking up arms against "first world" domination, have become a global phenomenon. The question arises, given the legacy of photography in the service of domination, as to what role photography might play within a devolutionist context.

The role reversal perpetrated by the Sandinistas for the benefit of the world media is a case in point. But here, although the message has certainly changed, the form, the code, remains the same, and does not indicate a use of photography that challenges or redefines the relationship between photography and power.

The work of Deborah Barndt, however, does offer an alternative. Barndt, a Canadian sociologist, educator and photographer, worked with Nicaraguan teachers in the early 1980s, instructing them in the use of photography.[13] Within the context of a national literacy campaign, instructors used interactive photographic techniques adapted from the theories of Paulo Friere (Brazilian educator and author of such works as Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Cultural Action for Freedom) to support the cultural empowerment of a revolutionary society. Moving "more and more away from an individualistic accumulation of knowledge to an awareness of social process," Barndt succeeds in devolving the photographic process itself. "Photographic authority" is transferred to the people; the previously unempowered use the medium to enhance their new social condition.

Photography can also be used to contradict state propaganda and to promote a new "regime of truth."[14] In 1974, Akwasasne Notes, "an international newspaper by, for, and about native peoples," published a book entitled Voices from Wounded Knee, 1973. A compilation of photographs, historical narratives, diary excerpts, tape transcripts and government memos documenting the 71 day long occupation of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the book is a moving account of an event and its historical and political context. It contradicts the image of the Indian in two of its spurious modern day forms: the "popular" image (running the gamut from the war-like savage to the romantic ideal popularized by Edward S. Curtis, to the "good scout" personified by the subservient Tonto), and the institutional image that inhabits the files of government agencies, particularly the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the FBI: the Indian as object of control, as potential threat to the "wasi'chu order," and as political target.[15]

In Voices from Wounded Knee, 1973 we again find instances where the photographic rituals of power are reversed (figure 4, top photo). But here the image is presented in an informational context completely controlled by an alternative publishing collective in such a way as to highlight the historical significance of the moment and the image; and photography is being used, as in the Nicaraguan literacy campaign, in the service of liberation.

Academics are fond of reminding us that those who remain ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it-as if the converse were also, therefore, true. But we should heed Bernard Nietschmann's admonition: "Media and academia are anchored in the state. Their tendency is to consider struggles against the state to be illegitimate or invisible".[16] To question the authority of the state is to also question the authority of the "technologies of power" - photography included.[17] And it would be best to keep in mind that more dangerous than those who are ignorant of history are those who do study history and choose to repeat it.

In its 150 year history, photography's complicity in the consolidation and centralization of corporate/state power has been inevitable, given its amenability to the silent techniques of surveillance and documentation. As we approach 1990, the centenary of the massacre at Wounded Knee of three hundred unarmed Native American men, women and children for the crime of impeding Manifest Destiny, we might well ask what photography offers the forces of devolution; and how those who are wresting power from their oppressors will put their oppressor's tools to use.

The potential for photography as a process of empowerment remains in the hands of photographers. If the spirit of Crazy Horse serves us well, then history, liberated from the official archives, will reside in the quality of our work.


(click on the note's number to return to text)

1. Quoted in Bruce Johansen and Roberto Maestas, WASI'CHU, The Continuing Indian Wars (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1979), p. 13.

2. "Wasi'chu" is a Lakota term describing the first Europeans to come into contact with them on the northern plains. Johansen and Maestas explain the term's modern usage: "Wasi'chu has come to to mean those corporations and individuals, with their governmental accomplices, which continue to covet Indian lives, land, and resources for private profit. "Wasi'chu" does not describe a race; it describes a state of mind." Ibid., p. 5.

3. For example, as related in Peter Matthiessen In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (New York: Viking Press, 1983), p. 8: "Because both [Red Claud and Spotted Tail) let themselves be photographed (which Crazy Horse, throughout his life, refused to do), it was said of these leaders that they had "let their spirits be captured in a box," and despite all the angry rhetoric with which they would greet the betrayal of the great Treaty of Fort Laramie, neither man would counsel war ever again."

Also, in Ian Frazer's "A Reporter at Large (Great Plains Il)" The New Yorker, Feb. 27, 1989, p. 40: "Assistant Surgeon Dr. Valentine T. McGillycuddy... got to know Crazy Horse perhaps better than any other white man did. He thought that Crazy Horse was "the greatest leader of his people in modern times." He asked several times to take his photograph, but Crazy Horse always refused. Crazy Horse asked him, "My friend, why should you wish to shorten my life by taking from me my shadow?" D. F Barry, a well-known photographer of Indian life, said he often tried to bribe Crazy Horse to sit for a photograph, without success."

4. Russell Means, "The Same Old Song," in Ward Churchill, ed., Marxism and Native Americans, (Boston: South End Press, 1983), P. 19.

5. The work of Edward S. Curtis is the prime example of the latter. For a critique of Curtis relevant to the present essay see Christopher M. Lyman, The Vanishing Race and Other Illusions: Photographs of Indians by Edward S. Curtis (Washington: The Smithsonian Institution, 1982).

6. Luther Standing Bear. " [Crazy Horse] represented the last stronghold of a weakened and all but subjected nation, so against him trickery and treachery was concentrated and finally prevailed." Quoted in Mathiessen, op. cit., p. 379.

7. Quoted in Gregorio Selser, Sandino, General of the Free (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1981), P. 80.

8. Quoted in "Prepping for a Covert Overt War" Time, November 3, 1986, p. 24.

9. The parallel between Sandino and Crazy Horse is a telling one in revealing the consistency of U.S. Government policy and strategy against those who stand in the way of corporate/state power, since the nineteenth century to the present day. See, for example, Karl Brentano, Under the Big Stick: Nicaragua ad United States since 1848 (Boston: South End Press, 1986); Johansen and Maestas, op. cit.; Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall, Agents of Repression: The FBI's Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement (Boston, South End Press, 1988); and Peter Mathiessen, op.cit.

10. It is interesting to compare the consequences of captivity. N. B. the captions to the illustrations to this essay.

11. Quoted in Matthiessen op. cit., p. 542.

12. Thomas Martin describes devolutionism as "a natural outgrowth of nineteenth century nationalism" and "an inchoate but rapidly growing ideology that could well demolish and replace the world's precarious left-right orientation by the turn of the century." See Thomas S. Martin, "Devolutionism: A New Global Ideology?" The Progressive Review, February, 1988, pp. 1-6.

The case of indigenous peoples requires a careful distinction between the definition of "state" and "nation." As Bernard Nietschmann observes, "To defend their nations from being annihilated, many people have taken up arms and are carrying out what are the world's wars. The very thing they are fighting for--the survival of their nation and nationality-- is the focus of distortion and misrepresentation by invading state regimes and most journalists and academics." The situation is particularly complex in Nicaragua, where a revolutionary government is simultaneously defending itself against a superpower and being challenged in its authority by an indigenous Indian population. Further complicating the matter is the presence of CIA support for some elements within the Indian resistance. See Bernard Nietschmann "Third World War" Cultural Survival Quarterly, Vol. 11, No.3,1987, pp. 1-16.

13. Barndt's work is discussed at length in Gail Fisher-Taylor and Lorraine Johnson, "Interaction, An Interview with Deborah Barndt," Photo Communique, Summer, 1985, pp. 1-1-35.

14. John Tagg discusses Michel Foucault's notion of society's "regime of truth," or its " 'general politics' of truth: that is, the types of discourse it harbours and causes to function as true" in relation to photography and power: "It is within this 'regime of truth' that we must situate the photograph if we are to understand not how photographic truth may be emancipated from every system of power, but how we may construct a a new politics of truth by detaching its power from specific forms of hegemony in the economic, social and cultural domains within which it operates at the present time." John Tagg, The Burden of Representation (Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 1988). p. 189.

15. The institutional image is discussed at length in the books cited above by Matthiessen, Johansen and Maestas, and Churchill and Vander Wall.

16. Nietschmann op. cit., p. 1.

17. Foucault tells how description itself, within the institutional framework of "technologies of power," became "a means of control and a method of domination." Tagg extends this idea to "the transmission of power in the synaptic space of the camera's examination." Tagg op. cit, p. 92.

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