Can Photographs tell the Story of Black History and the Black Present?
Tina Campt is a historian who has turned to photography and visual culture to tell stories of black lives that have been left out of the history books. She spoke to Caroline Molloy about her work.
CM: First of all, I would like to ask you how you would like to introduce yourself for this piece? Your professional self? TC: My professional self is a little schizophrenic because I come to my position and my research through various routes. I have a PhD in German history and I began my career as an Intellectual Historian who then became a Social and Oral Historian in order to do the work that I did on black Germans. Then, based on those oral histories, I was invited to curate an exhibition that was showcasing those life histories. That led me to photography because I found that photography told their stories even more vividly through a different medium. So I find it important to emphasise that I’m not a scholar trained in either the history of photography or art history or media studies. I am theorist who has come to photography and visual culture because it speaks to people and speaks for people in ways that animate what they think of themselves in a different way than language and text. In my work I engage photography and visual culture as a textual formation but I think it’s a formation that also demands other kinds of engagement as well. So professionally, that is where I am. I define myself as a black feminist theorist of visual culture. The visual culture that I’ve been trying to understand more recently is contemporary art by black artists. And more formally, I am a professor of Humanities and Modern Culture and Media at Brown University, as well as a Research Associ-
ate at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa.
CM: How does it work with your post in America and your research associate position in Johannesburg? TC: The research associateship is not something that’s remunerated but it’s an affiliation that I find important and useful because it allows me to bridge multiple communities. I’ve been connected with researchers, activists and artists in South Africa through this appointment. Before, you described my work as focused on migration, and I describe my work as focused on diaspora and those are slightly different formations. Diaspora is something that is less about movement and more about connections – across different boundaries and territories and communities. It’s about those connections rather than the movements between those different sites, even though there is movement there. The affiliation with South Africa is incredibly important to me because it allows me to have the kinds of conversations about the value of visual culture for black communities between and among different black communities.
CM: You have published three books that segway together beautifully: The Other Germans: Black Germans and the Politics of Race, Gender and Memory (2004), Image Matters (2012) and Listening to Images (2017). In