The Power Behind the Gaze


Malick Sidibe is a West African photographer from Mali known for his portraits of youth and youth culture in the capital Bamako. When I first looked at one of his photographs my body vibrated with complex emotions of love and frustration. Love because of the beautiful images of blackness staring confidently into the camera’s gaze; exuding life and power. It was a different representation of African people; one that veered away from the colonial images of Africa, as object, reflected in western culture and media. It made me realize how so much of my early exposure to Africa has been through a western and Eurocentric gaze, which treats Africa and African’s as objects to be observed, studied and exploited for the western viewer/reader. Africa has often been presented to me through the thoughts and gaze of White people. This, of course, effects the outcome of the work. For an example, when I look at photographs of Africans in the National Geographic there is a sense of distance between the subject and the photographer that feels cold. I believe that this is due to the material and cultural divisions between the subjects and their foreign photographers, who are there for their own purposes. There is no organic connection to the community; and they are not trying to build one that would support the self-determination of the community. Sidibe’s portraits, on the other hand, radiate a warmth that comes from the relationship between the photographer and his subjects.


During the imperialist scramble for Africa France seized Mali, where it ruled until 1960, when Mali achieved it’s ‘independence’. The European domination of Mali, like all colonized land and people, created an antagonistic, oppressive and exploitative relationship between the indigenous Africans and the European colonizers, who now controlled everything. African’s did not have access to luxury items, such as cameras. And the European ruling-class, who did, chose not to photograph the humanity of African people. That would go against their own colonial ideology, which justifies their dehumanizing actions. Sidibe had the talent and intellect as well as good luck to be able to study at a university and work for a French photographer, where he was able to get practical experience and access to a camera. At the time it was rare for a European photographer to sell a camera to one of their African employees.  In 1958 Sidibe opened up his own studio in Bamako, where he immediately got work taking photographs of the youth and their friends, parties and other gatherings. Sidibe was able to capture the movement of the people within the country during a revolutionary anti-colonial/post colonial period.

Sidibe has been doing photography since the 1950’s, and continues to work in the same little studio. However, it was only in the 1990’s that his work got any recognition in the west. This explains why I heard about him only a year ago, and why his photos immediately stood out in stark contrast to the sea of commodified images expressed in cultural anthropological studies and documentaries. Why is this so often the case? Because this is the legacy of imperialism. People, especially men, of European descent are given more privilege in society; even amongst the working-class, and this is due to western/ European Empire.  The development of capitalism throughout the world was/is through force that violently uprooted people from their lands, and either proletarianized them or enslaved them. In order to prevent class struggle developing among the different sectors of the oppressed (enslaved indigenous people,  enslaved Africans, European indentured servants and proletarians) the concept of ‘race’ was invented by the bourgeoisie helping to define a hierarchical division of labor. For an example, Africans/black people were defined as ‘inferior’ ‘lazy’ and ‘stupid’. This justified their enslavement and continual lower position within the division of labor post slavery. Materially, poor whites were not always much better off than black people, but often had more access to material opportunities and better paying jobs. This was, and is, at the expense of the oppressed brown and black people.

The division of labor is still incredibly hierarchical, and the fundamental conditions aren’t much different. People of color, who share an indigenous and colonial history, are still positioned within the bottom layers of the working class and unemployed. They make the least money, are the most vulnerable to state violence, fill up the numerous prisons, and continue to live in impoverished and oppressive conditions that are only getting worse with the economic crisis. White people have more material wealth and therefore more movement in society. They are able to travel and vacation in foreign lands. They have more access to privilege institutions, such as universities, where they are able to study abroad. I am not implying that people of color do not go to college; but the  fees/tuition hikes, along with cuts to financial aid, are effectively pushing out working-class people of color.

My focus on the white university student and their relationship to the colonial gaze was sparked up again recently after I read through a debate between my comrade Crunch and a mutual acquaintance about whether white college students should be able to go to Africa or not. Crunch was speaking to the material privilege white grad students have in bourgeois society, and how it gives them access to move more freely in this world, and the emotion that that stirs up in black people, who long for such a journey, but lack the capital to get there. The acquaintance seemed to take the position personally, disagreeing with Crunch’s comments, and asking him if white academics should only study in Europe, thus reproducing a Eurocentric view of history. Crunch was not trying to reproduce borders; rather he was trying to place the influx of white academics in Africa within the context of a colonial history and white supremacist capitalist system that has given white people more material and social privilege in this society, and therefore more privilege. I believe Crunch sums up the emotion and politics quite well below in an excerpt from the debate,

“White kids (the grad students going to Africa) have the privilege of accessing a land that is sacred to me and my people because of our connection to it and the trauma surrounding our removal from that space and the oppression of that space, on all levels, by the White Imperialist nations since they looked down and realized it was there to conquer. These kids, who usually have vestiges of white privilege because we are all socialized and have our own vestiges of the old society within us that need to be transformed, go to Africa with their White gaze and analyze, in some part from that, they then have the privilege of coming back and becoming an authority gaining social status, economic benefits or just “get into heaven” (anti-racist) points from everyone. And they, most times, have faulty- racist- or other wise incomplete and problematic analysis.

A lot of Black kids, from all over the Diaspora, don’t have that privilege because Black people, globally, have become mules to White Supremacist Capitalism and the permanent mascots of the under classes- meaning getting the worse material/spiritual/psychological treatment from the society. They cannot, or must work 10 times as hard as the white kids to access a land that should be free for them to access and would provide a kind of spiritual healing and knowledge. It would also heal the Diaspora in many ways.

Also, Africans need to speak for Africans. I don’t want to read someone elses study of shit. And if we say that those people don’t have the means of creating that study and having it seen then we must ask ourselves why? Which means we must confront White racism and the rape of Africa by the White imperialist West which is still murdering, raping, colonizing, and otherwise fucking up the country. White people need not go to Africa! Period! I thought this discussion was done when we acknowledged Sarah Bartman and Apartheid.”

The university is a product of the capitalist system, and therefore reflects the bourgeois social relations of worker/boss, master/slave, that structure the world creating an antagonism between who owns the means of production and wealth in the world, and who doesn’t. The objectification of the African through colonization is reflected in the university. The academy is not about reproducing revolutionary subjects; Its about reproducing and maintaining the structures of the ruling class. Sometimes this results in community programs and direct services too, but all this does is maintain the status quo. People of color have always been objectified within the academy, reflecting the objectification that occurs within society and has been occurring since our lands and bodies have been appropriated by the European ruling class. When white Phd students go to Africa they are representing these institutions and politics. And even if they personally disagree with them they must be mindful of them, because if that privilege is not understood then it will continue to be reproduced within our social relations. And that is not revolutionary.

Art, as an expression of the people, has always been a powerful weapon to inspire and nurture, and Sidibe’s photographs reflect that. It is so important for the oppressed to express their own truths and narratives, because we must understand and feel the power within them and our own agency. This will not be felt through the academic studies conducted by white grad students, which often leads to further silencing and invisibility. Through the sharing of our stories through words, visual art, theory and struggle, we become closer to each other. When we become closer to each other we develop understanding and compassion for our similarities and differences, while learning how to support each others own power together collectively. This work is revolutionary, because we live in a system, which denies us the opportunities and tools to do that. When we are alienated from each other we will divide and conquer ourselves, while the system reaps the benefits. This work is revolutionary, because when we come together on the basis of expressing each others truths we begin to see the truth about the system, and perhaps decide that such a harmful system is no longer necessary, because we have found each other. And finally, this work is revolutionary, because not only does it help us understand what we are against, but, most importantly, it helps us collectively cast visions for what we are for.


5 Comments on “The Power Behind the Gaze”

  1. Kristy says:

    Thank you, thank you for sharing this point! I just don’t feel like this can be said enough. I’m a white grad student in anthropology and I’m trying to consciously work from a decolonization and anticapitalism perspective — i.e. using the post-modern qualitative techniques of anthropology to expose the imperialistic and exploitative assumptions still inherent in much anthropological (or social science) work, and to use these techniques to work toward positive local change, the local being an area often ignored by anthropological studies that still romanticize the “foreign”. Probably stemming from my personal experiences with gentrification, I’m pursuing local work, in the Bay Area (where I grew up) to work on issues that I have a direct connection with — so i’m kind of the anti-anthropology anthropologist, and that is really reinforced by many of the reasons you mentioned here.

    I’m consistently shocked by the inability of some students, generally white and/or middle-upper class (with NO real world experience beyond things that are white, American and middle-upper class) who are passionate in talking about privilege on the one hand, but STILL plan to go off to some foreign land to “help” people they have no connection to or know nothing about without really addressing how this might extend from our own internalized normalization of imperialism and white or American manifest destiny (of course this extends beyond white students and Africa to many other situations). I think this is the #1 thing wrong with anthropology (or social sciences in general) to this day, and I think the #2 problem is the ivory tower academic focus of many institutions (love how this was put above) that praises studies of people rather than studies with people to help people (who want help from academics). There is a branch of anthropology that focuses on collaboration, empowerment and advocacy, but this work is largely ignored in academia, and of course is also implicated in horrific and exploitative development projects.

    As much as i can criticize those students, and as much as I know I have a different perspective than them, I need to be just as aware of my whiteness and the privilege it has afforded me, and what it is that brought me to anthropology and graduate school. And being responsible to my own beliefs means bringing this up in class and in my work often. Growing up in the inner city (beautiful diversity despite great institutional oppression), i have always been very aware of my whiteness, and I think I see this issue differently from my white peers because my experiences have been so different from theirs, and I feel really lucky for that.

    I see this perspective of confronting privilege more and more in anthropology, especially in work conducted by people of color and women, and among non-academic social scientists who are dedicated to fighting oppression. This goes beyond issues of race, class and gender, and extends to privilege of nationality. Further, it means privileging the knowledge of local people in local places. Unfortunately though, among the social sciences in general, most graduate level academic studies still entail going somewhere else to collect data on local conditions or people, then leaving, conducting analysis and publishing results for other privileged academics, with no intention or plan to help the people, communities, places or problems you were studying in the first place. In my opinion, the goal of any social science work should be to immediately provide something of benefit to the people you’re working with, but on a bigger level it is simply not ok to just go somewhere and just study people — like that’s not inherently paternalistic, imperialistic and exploitative — eww…not okay…for me, I have to ask those people, “who do you think you are?” I personally think learning with others so we can help each other and find creative solutions to different local problems is a much better technique if the goal is truly to educate. And i agree, there is no space for that in the current colonialist academic system — or at least the system tries to shut that out.

    I really hope as time passes local knowledge comes to be seen for the extreme validity and reliability it represents — i.e. why go to Mali to take pictures when we can learn far more from Malick Sidibe’s beautiful photographs.

    Anyways…sorry to go on so long, but there are wonderful points here and I find them central to my own process of re-learning.

    • chakaZ says:


      Thank you so much for sharing your experiences and weaving them into a dope analysis, that is both personal and structural. Your comment could really be an essay in and of itself. I really appreciated hearing your experiences within academia. It must be very difficult to be developing an anti-capitalist/decolonial praxis within the university. Although I am offering a critique of grad students and the university, citing anthropology, I have not gone to grad school and do not have that direct experience. I learned quite a bit from your comment. Even from the different language you use from your peers, ‘local’ v ‘foreign’.

      You do have different experiences then your peers, which inform the way you understand this world and interact with it. It can be alienating when you are interacting with those who have a different understanding based on the privilege that they are accorded. We live in a system based off of exploitation and oppression, and so their is uneven power informing all social relations everywhere. I am working class, black, womyn and queer. But I also have a college degree, which has given me more social power within this system. Privilege comes in many forms and quantities. I hate when people talk about it so mechanically or only in terms of discourse or language. Like, just acknowledge your privilege, but then do nothing about it to help develop a world, where such uneven material and social power exists. We must acknowledge power and difference so that we may better come together as a force attacking the source, the system.

      Thank you again Kristy for sharing your thoughts and experiences. Hella fierce perspectives. I would love to talk more with you about it. I am sorry that I didn’t get back to you about the occupy stuff. I am not good with messaging on the FB, but I would love to meet up and talk some time. I’ll email you.

      much love!

      • Kristy says:

        This actually came up this week in school, just the idea of visual representation, cultural appropriation, and…ughhhh, i see so many students on different pages (on very different pages from our professors in particular who seem to emphasize radical change), and its really interesting because there are very few students in my program who seem to have an idea of what Decolonize might mean, or more specifically how it applies to them. The students in my program seem to have a very hard time talking about their connection to everyday issues of inequality and that’s what concerns me. Not that it’s easy for anyone to talk about her experience of inequality (whether from a privileged or less privileged perspective), but I would hope it would become common practice…the path to working through our experiences and being honest.

        In any case, I’m so glad to have come back to this! I would love to hang out and talk…I moved to San Jose for school, but I’m working in Oakland still, and will be around a lot over the summer and would love to see you. 🙂 Hope life is treating you beautiful!

  2. whatis1997 says:

    “When I first looked at one of his photographs my body vibrated with complex emotions of love and frustration.”

    i am interested in hearing more of your thoughts on the frustration you feel when viewing photographs, and why that is. this complex and opposing mix of appreciation and inspiration with feelings of uneasiness are how i feel about pictures and photography in general. i tend to lean more toward the uneasiness of it all. i never really liked being photographed as a kid, and i still don’t. although i do see the value of photography and film in this day and age as a tool that can be used for the benefit of people who would otherwise be left out of the media, i think it is just that: a form of reproduction that can be used in these circumstances, but which i do not think would be of much value in a different kind of society that valued being in the moment and not a fetish of trying to preserve memories in a stale static frozen moment in time.

    i also can’t help but always think of what some north american indian groups say about what pictures do to us. and how it is not allowed usually in ceremonies. i think it invokes alot of what you write about the european anthropological gaze that sees people and the land as objects to be described and observed for later purposes. i am for a reclaiming of the sacred nature of our bodies that should be appreciated in their real form and respected in that way. i haven’t really explored my thought more deeply into this but i am interested to hear your and other’s perspectives.

    again, i appreciate this dope article

    • chakaZ says:

      Your thought’s and questions helped shake up the complexity of my feelings in a way that I didn’t fully flesh out in the essay. For this I am grateful, because it helps guide me within more deeply. Your words, so illuminating…Thank you.

      I share a similar feeling of uneasiness with being photographed. I did not appreciate the static/staged aspects of it as a child, and I still carry a lot of those anxious feelings when being photographed today. In general, it is difficult for me to feel comfortable with relating to technology. For an example, I hand write everything, because I don’t like typing on a computer. It doesn’t inspire me. It feels more organic to use my hands to write on paper; I feel like I can be more vulnerable and write with more ease of emotion. This is why blog posts tend to be less frequent. The same thing with camera’s; It’s hard for me to look at it and not feel awkward. It lacks a certain kind of intimacy. A lot of this has to do with the historical epoch we are under, and what is valued. I think you evoke that poetically here,

      “i think it is just that: a form of reproduction that can be used in these circumstances, but which i do not think would be of much value in a different kind of society that valued being in the moment and not a fetish of trying to preserve memories in a stale static frozen moment in time.”

      Our society views itself in terms of objects to be controlled, worked, worked upon, bought and sold. This effects the way we relate to each other, ourselves, the earth. It is not about honoring these things and being present. According to the ruling class, a camera is just a technological advancement that can be marketed and consumed for profit. There is no thought to the ways it destroys and shifts culture.
      I agree that we need to reclaim the sacred nature of our bodies and spirit. I believe that this will only happen through destroying this society so that we can rebuild a new one with a structure and culture that will reproduce such values and social relations.

      I am interested in what you mean when you talk about camera’s and film in terms of reproduction. I also see the usefulness of it as a tool for the people; a way to counteract the bourgeois media. But I guess I see it as more that just that. I see these mediums as art; a way for people to express themselves in all their complexities. We are so limited in our forms of expression in this society; and many of us are silenced. I carried a lot of my pain and trauma as a kid in silence, because there was no outlet for me to communicate. And sometimes showing emotion was punished. Turning to writing and visual art was a way for me to express my emotion in other forms when dialogue was not an option. I also grew to love the different ways I could connect with my emotions through different mediums of art. I survived through writing and visual art. This is how I fell in love with cinema and ended up studying it in college. As a kid, I appreciated being able to interact with my own emotions and the characters emotions through watching a film or reading a book. It allowed me to understand myself better, and to at least process some of what was going on around me. Even if it was in more cerebral ways. In some ways this has limited me, because I struggle with learning how to communicate through dialogue. But in other ways It has allowed me to be in touch with other parts of myself, and I appreciate that.

      Things are constantly changing and moving. I dream of new societies with new values. I don’t think the mediums of film and photography will be buried with the old society, but I do think they will take on new meanings and roles under a new society and culture.

      Thank you again for helping me sharpen the vision.

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