The Trophy and The Appeal: Colonial Photography and the Ghosts of Witnessing in German Southwest Africa

JB Brager

To work with images of atrocity is a fraught project. Sedimented constructs shaped through racist and settler colonial violence continue to define the production and consumption of the visual, as well as memory practice and scopic politics. These retinal sedimentations must be looked at plainly and addressed openly, to name the ways in which history and identity shape the function of the eye. I turn to the understudied visual archive of German colonialism in South West Africa, with an emphasis on colonial photography, with the aim of tying the visuality of colonial violence in German South West Africa to broader studies of colonial photography, images of racial violence, and the ways in which these images circulated as discourse. I am particularly concerned with the location of witnessing, and the ways in which things look differently from different positions—what I refer to through the concept of parallax—and the effects of this on visual consumption. Images of violence travel, through a visceral witnessing that can be grotesquely pornographic—in the words of Claudia Rankine, “the dead body as an object that satisfies an illicit desire”—or evidentiary. I use viscerality in this context to think about a methodology of witnessing that attends to embodiment, experience, and feeling. The resignification of images, however didactic and captioned, depends on the eye and the gut of the viewer—the transhistorical viewer is not a passive or innocent witness. This is especially important in the context of the pornotroping tendency of white supremacist culture to fetishize the image, particularly of Black injury and death, and the ability of images of violence to re-traumatize survivors.

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JB Brager is a founding editor of Pinko Magazine, a working cartoonist, and an instructor of history and Women’s & Gender Studies. They received a PhD in Women’s & Gender Studies from Rutgers University, New Brunswick in 2018; this article is adapted from their dissertation, Bodies of Evidence: The Image, The Flesh, and the Crisis of the Human. They can be found online at https://www.jbbrager.com/ and on social media @jbbrager.

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