White Noise

by zunguzungu

I’ve been reading Susan Sontag’s On Photography, and I’m quite sympathetic to the argument, for all its eccentricities. As is so often the case when a writer makes a strong, controversial, and ultimately influential claim, the real test of its sustaining worth is whether a softer version of its central point becomes so taken for granted as to cease even to seem to be a claim. In this vein, I would observe that you can cavil against particular flights of exuberant prose in this book without being able to chip away at the basic underlying soundness of the investigation. When she claims that “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge–and therefore, like power,” or that “the camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own,” she states simply and magisterially what I prefer to be explored carefully and skeptically, yet the soft version of those claims — the form of a question, a research agenda — seems to me to be undeniable. To what extent does a camera makes tourists of us all? Asking the question implies that to at least some extent it does, which I think is right, without implying that it always does, as I think (crucially) it does not.

This is where the strong version of her assertion, after all, falls short: sometimes being a tourist means not a relationship of power, but a position of instability, a dependence that dare not speak its name or a state of simple disorientation. This is why I’ve been obsessed with the idea of “zunguzungu” for some time now: while an “mzungu” is almost always a negative term (or at least most wazungu take it to be), there is also something to the bonds of solidarity it implies that is not wholly reducible to stereotypes along the lines of the fabled ugly American. To have been white in East or Southern Africa is almost inevitably to have been called mzungu, yet I wonder if the commonality of this experience is less an interpellation than a trial; it can be taken as a form of violence, but it can also be the necessary defamiliarization from which knowledge is produced. I didn’t know I was a wazungu before I went to Tanzania, but knowing — as I do now — that I am to some extent a tourist even when I return home, would only be threatening if I was completely wedded to the conception of myself that it places in jeopardy. I am not; to be large and to contain multitudes can be frightening (and disorienting), but it is also banal: people see you differently than you see yourself, and both you and they are right. And once you’ve been a tourist in that way, you have a perspective on the world you might not have had before, the sort of perspective I’m hopeful our new president will bring to the office with him: a sense of your limitations, yet one that can make you all the more conscious of your strengths.

Back to photography, Sontag writes that:

“A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it– by limiting experience as a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir. Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs. The very activity of taking pictures is soothing, and assuages general feelings of disorientation that are likely to be exacerbated by travel. Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses, they take a picture. This gives shape to experience: stop, take a photograph, and move on.”

I nod with recognition, and I share her familiarity with this process that so quickly leads to a certain kind of distancing from the subject, even of contempt. Yet, at the same time, are we so sure that taking a picture is nothing but a strategy of refusal? Nothing falls apart so quickly as a photographic narrative; nothing is so hard to pin down as an interpretation of a picture. As Sontag will put it later in the book, “In photography, the subject matter always pushes through.”

I guess this is why I’m so fascinated by the forms of desire Teddy Roosevelt experiences in Africa, and the ways he does and doesn’t shut them down in his writing, and photography. For all his appearances of naiveté, he was a wickedly intelligent man (getting people to misunderestimate his cunning was part of what made him so successful) and he was also a careful writer. When he was an mzungu, he knew it, and I’m tempted by the thought that African Game Trails “works” not because he convinces himself otherwise, but because he manages to instrumentalize that disorientation, that dependence, and that subjective limitation. And it’s worth noting that, for all his bellicosity, Teddy Roosevelt was actually a surprisingly peaceful president. I don’t have an explanation for that — nor am I looking for one — but it’s a suggestive fact, and while you can call TR a bloodthirsty maniac masquerading as a naturalist, and be right, his passion for nature preceded his jingoistic excess, and I’m not sure that the one can fully subsume or exist without the other. Sometimes to photograph people is not merely “to turn people into objects that can be symbolically possessed” but also to open yourself up to possession by that process, to derive new orientations from the subject of the photograph, and to become a new person. The meaning of being mzungu, in other words, might not be foreclosed and predetermined; sometimes it might signal the very possibility of an open-ended process of identity making. So might photography.