The Captive Photograph
Images seized from enslaved people are not private property to be owned, but ancestors to be cared for.
September 23, 2021
Sep 23, 2021
28 Min read time
Images seized from enslaved people are not private property to be owned, but ancestors to be cared for.
In March 2019 Tamara Lanier filed a lawsuit against Harvard University and Peabody Museum for “wrongful seizure, possession and expropriation of photographic images” of her enslaved ancestors, Renty Taylor and his daughter Delia. After Lanier’s mother passed away in 2010, she had started researching information on Papa Renty. An acquaintance called her attention to the existence of the daguerreotypes of her ancestors, which Elinor Reichlin, on staff at the Peabody, had found in 1976.
If spectators have the right to view photographed persons in scenes of captivity, Black people will forever be presented as “slaves.”
Reichlin’s preliminary research showed that in 1850 Louis Agassiz had commissioned these daguerreotypes under the mantle of authority provided by his position at Harvard University. Photography was just at its beginning then, and he used the project to prove his polygenic theory: that different human races had evolved separately and that white people were superior to others. Thus, the plate daguerreotypes of Renty and Delia (alongside those seized during the same photographic sessions from other enslaved people—Drana, Alfred, Jack, George Fassena, and Jem) are unlike other daguerreotypes commissioned by enslavers, which aimed to portray slavery as a paternalistic and benevolent form of white rule. These images had a different purpose: to capture in silver plates the inherent “truth” of white superiority. Stripping Renty, Delia, and the others bare in front of the camera was part of Agassiz and his collaborators’ plan: to let what they considered the naked truth of Black inferiority imprint itself directly from the bodies to the photographic plate, without the interference of clothing or other props that were frequently used in photographers’ studios. “If it is a shock to see full frontal nudity in early American photography,” writes the photography scholar and curator Brian Wallis, “it is even more surprising to see it without the trappings of shame or sexual fantasy.”
Until Lanier stepped forward and claimed that these were her ancestors, the daguerreotypes had been assumed to be the private property of Harvard University. That Lanier’s multiple attempts to communicate with representatives of university institutions were rebuffed testifies to the gravity and endurance of the institutional afterlife of slavery. Harvard’s dismissal of Lanier brings to mind Jewish German philosopher Walter Benjamin’s observation that when history is written by the victorious at the expense of the victims and survivors, the spoils become “cultural treasures.” Only the victorious are permitted to claim as legally theirs what was seized from others. The latter were deprived of their freedom and rights and continue to live under the institutional conditions that make their grievances go unheard. Should academic institutions base their ownership claim on the victors’ justice?
In March 2021 Lanier’s lawsuit was dismissed by a Massachusetts court. Though an appeal is pending, the court confirmed not only Harvard’s ownership of the daguerreotypes, but also the terms and the stake of the case. The court’s decision centered the question of possession—to whom does Renty Taylor’s daguerreotype belong? Yet Harvard came to “possess” these photographs through a cultural logic of wealth, property, and ownership that flows directly from slavery and preserves its lingering presence in our own era. Against this logic, I propose that we ask different questions. What if we insist on treating Renty as the person who was used against his will for others to extract an image of his enslavement, rather than as the object that was seized from him? Then, we must ask, where and with whom will Renty find peace and recognition of his rights?
Harvard came to “possess” these photographs through a cultural logic of wealth, property, and ownership that flows directly from slavery and preserves its presence in our own era.
The history of object restitution offers some guidance here as a form of historical accountability. It reminds us that the photograph is a social document, rather than an object to be possessed. I argue that, in their social contexts, both the taking of the daguerreotype and its continued ownership and display by Harvard University constitute crimes against humanity that need to be redressed. The daguerreotypes are not property that can be owned, but ancestors who need caretaking. This understanding is the only way forward if we wish to repair the harms of enslavement.
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Imagine if Renty’s relatives, who likely heard no word from him after he was kidnapped from the Congo and enslaved in the United States, could have had the opportunity to see his likeness alongside the millions of Americans celebrating the newly invented medium of the daguerreotype. We must question the privileges accorded to both scholars and the general public as viewers of these daguerreotypes. Instead of privileging their gaze, we should prioritize Renty’s relatives, in both Africa and the United States. Indeed, daguerreotypes were invented and perceived by millions to keep dear ones close to their hearts and in their homes.
In the 1850s American writer, scientist, and former Dean of Harvard Medical School Oliver Wendell Holmes described the daguerreotype as a “mirror with memory.” It is cruelly ironic that, during the same year that Agassiz revoked Renty and Delia’s rights to participate in the gifting of these “mirrors with memory” to their relatives, Holmes, known for his racist eugenics theories, revoked the admission of the first three Black students to Harvard Medical School. Not only does Harvard now keep these daguerreotypes from the relatives waiting to hold them, it also shaped the white supremacist principle on which photography was institutionalized and millions were enslaved. In holding these images as part of its archival and museal capital, Harvard also invites millions to view Renty, Delia, and others not as ancestors or relatives, but as enslaved people.
The images of Renty and Delia had a distinct purpose: to capture in silver plates the inherent “truth” of white superiority.
Today we face an urgent need to draw a clear line between scholarship and the perpetuation of violence—the latter of which can be partially repaired by attending to the voices, grievances, and claims of those who were excluded from participating in public debates about the regimes that enslaved them. Further, we need to attend to the way that practices such as photography have been shaped. We have the opportunity now—amid a wealth of scholarship and activism on the entanglement of photography, museums, and slavery, and based on increasing numbers of restitution cases—to redress what Renty and his relatives were deprived of in the 1850s. We have the opportunity for the unique imprint of Renty’s presence on a silver plate to finally find its place where it belongs—with his family.
Restitution and Historical Accountability
When it comes to the question of the restitution of objects as part of an accountability process for institutional complicity with totalitarian regimes—which I would argue includes the enslavement of Africans—one cannot ignore the U.S. commitment to restituting objects plundered from the Jews of Europe by the Nazis and other political regimes, notably the Vichy regime in France. The end of these disastrous regimes was marked by the postwar governments embracing a fundamental principle of restitution. Two early examples are the 1950s German Restitution Laws and the French ordinance of April 21, 1945, which enabled victims, survivors, and their heirs to claim confiscated and looted property. Dating from the years following WWII, these laws are still used to bring justice internationally.
One of the latest examples involves property held in the United States. In 2017 a French court ordered an American couple to return a Camille Pisarro painting they had purchased in 1995. Unknown to the new owners, the painting had been plundered from its original Jewish owner, whose heirs were living in France.
The importance the U.S. government accorded to restitution at the end of World War II is indicated by the special military corps of British and American historians, curators, art scholars, and museum directors called “Monuments, Fine arts and Archives.” Known as the “Monuments Men,” they are tasked with locating plundered art across Europe, tracking its provenance, and pursuing its just restitution to the original, primarily Jewish, owners.
Slavery in the United States ended without any proceeding akin to the Nuremberg trials, in which perpetrators were indicted and punished, and reparations and restitution followed.
Restitution was also mentioned in the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi leadership led by the former Allied powers, which sought to indict perpetrators for their crimes against humanity. The category “crimes against humanity” played a central role in the trials and was refined further in the years after. The German Jewish political philosopher Hannah Arendt—in her two major books, The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem (both published in the United States, her chosen place of exile)—significantly impacted how the term is understood today. Arendt analyzed specific Nazi practices and explained what distinguished them as crimes against humanity; but she also made clear that this type of crime was not reserved solely for Jews nor perpetrated solely by Nazis. Arendt argued that a polity whose laws were used in the process of committing crimes against humanity has an obligation to repair the social and political foundations of their laws. The only way to do this is to definitively end the lasting consequences of these crimes.
As an Arab-Jewish scholar myself, working in the tradition of Hannah Arendt, I feel a personal commitment to ensuring that redress, restitution, and repair are not solely the province of Jewish victims of crimes against humanity. Such an approach further exceptionalizes Jews at our own and other marginalized groups’ expenses. We should hold Euro-American institutions to the same standard of reparation for violence for all victims.
The Status of Photographs
In today’s scholarship and in the practice of archives and museums, it is widely acknowledged that photographs are not discrete items that can be “owned” or understood outside the context of their production—that is, the reasons they were taken, the power relationships between the photographer and the photographed, and the initial forms of use and display. Put differently, given the different lives and afterlives of photographs, one cannot assume that a photograph is just a photograph.
This is not just a contemporary belief. Throughout the history of photography, and certainly in its first decades when Agassiz ordered these daguerreotypes to be taken, questions about the nature of the daguerreotype, its ownership, and its proper usage were answered differently by diverse actors and institutions. It was never a given that the photograph belonged to the person who took it or the hands that happened to hold the plate or the print.
Photographs taken under circumstances of violence are not reducible to what is recorded in them, since the violence that enabled their creation does not disappear after the camera’s shutter clicks. Photographs taken to support violent regimes or acts retain the original violence in the image; they continue to sustain the original act of violence well after the image was produced. Numerous artists, scholars, curators, museum directors, communities, activists, and statesmen have made this point, seeking to recover, bury, withdraw from circulation, or restitute objects, images, remains, and other items that have been plundered or seized by violent regimes and are now held as aesthetic commodities in museums.
The photograph is a social document, not an object to be possessed. Photographs cannot be understood outside the context of their production.
Photographs are the outcome of an encounter between people—they are social objects—and their fate cannot be determined by the conditions of their original production. If photographs were produced through force and in service of a regime of violence, then their future should not be determined without hearing the victims and offering reparative justice to them, their heirs, or survivors of that regime. Participants in the photographic encounter, or their heirs and communities, who were initially denied the right to control their own image should be heard and taken into account. What is recorded in photographs is not yet over; redress is possible, and justice can still be granted.
Crimes Against Humanity
The daguerreotypes of Renty and Delia cannot be discussed with the legal terms usually reserved for photographs, as they could only have been produced as part of a regime that perpetrated crimes against humanity. Enslavement is recognized today by the United Nations and by International Law (Article 7, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court) as a crime against humanity. But slavery in the United States ended without any kind of proceeding akin to the Nuremberg trials, in which perpetrators were indicted and punished, and reparations and restitution followed. Though efforts were made to recompense formerly enslaved people during the early Reconstruction era, this was an uneven and failed process that never involved the specific mandates around restitution and reparations that followed in the wake of World War II.
Although the punishment of individual perpetrators is no longer relevant here, the term “crime against humanity”—introduced in Nuremberg by the chief prosecutor in the trials, U.S. Associate Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson—is still relevant here to understand the necessity of the restitution of these daguerreotypes.
Since the end of World War II, prominent political theory and legal scholars have attempted to parse the broader ethical, cultural, and legal aspects of this category. In her discussion, Arendt quotes Telford Taylor, the Counsel for the Prosecution at the Nuremberg Trials, who emphasized that these crimes are “not committed only against the victim, but primarily against the community whose law is violated.” Arendt concluded that it is “the body politic itself that stands in need of being ‘repaired.’” In 2004 legal professor David Luban clarified that these actions constitute crimes, not wrongs, because they “violate important community norms.” Thus, Luban argues, the community has the need and right “to vindicate those norms independently of the victim.”
A polity whose laws were used in the process of committing crimes against humanity has an obligation to repair the social and political foundations of their laws.
Arendt elucidates another major aspect of “crimes against humanity”: the creation of a racial order aiming to physically and/or politically eliminate groups of people from the shared world. This organized attack on human diversity is an attack, Arendt argues, “upon a characteristic of the ‘human status’ without which the very words ‘mankind’ or ‘humanity’ would be devoid of meaning.” As a regime, slavery created a world in which white people led and ran the different spheres of life, while Black people were eliminated as actors. But most white people did not perceive this as a crime. They did not view as crimes kidnapping, selling, purchasing, and forcing Black people to do different tasks; subjecting them to physical and psychological violence; or treating human beings as property. This owed to the regime of white supremacy and the belief in Black people’s natural inferiority, inflected with patriarchy and the subjugation of Black women in particular—a belief that Agassiz sought to uphold when he ordered the forcibly nude photographs of Renty, Delia, and others. In this way, even white people who did not directly enslave Black people saw them as potential slaves or as fugitive slaves who had to be returned to their “owners.” A world in which only white people were allowed to determine who could be property and what constituted a crime—and where the harm of non-whites was imperceptible to the system of law they enacted—constitutes a sustained attack against human diversity.
That the victims’ skin color is what made the crimes against them imperceptible in the eyes of the white inhabitants of Columbia, South Carolina, where the daguerreotypes were seized from Renty and Delia, is one of the signs of a crime against humanity. Making this crime recognizable and nameable—rather than unacknowledged and imperceptible according to enslavers’ laws—is at stake here.
Agassiz did not act in a vacuum; he was not a lone scholar pursuing an unpopular project. He was inspired by his professor Georges Cuvier, who worked at the Musée National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris and had access to the body of the enslaved Khoikhoi woman Sara Saartjie Baartman, who was publicly presented using the racist and pejorative name “Hottentot Venus.” Cuvier used Baartman’s body as proof of his theories of scientific racism. After her death he conducted an autopsy of her body and “proved” that her remains were markedly different from European corpses. Agassiz was also likely in regular contact with Dr. Samuel Morton, with whom he could discuss how the new technology of the daguerreotype might be used to prove his theories of scientific racism. Morton himself had a vast collection of skulls (“the American Golgotha”) which he used for the racial science of phrenology, proving the evolutionary superiority of some races over others through studying the skull. Other scientists and enslavers gave Agassiz inspiration and guidance or were directly involved in the production of his daguerreotype images. For example, a local physician, Robert W. Gibbs, used his plantation contacts and visits to select enslaved “subjects” of an ideal “type” for Agassiz’s photographs.
The Simple Truth
In the eyes of the white men who planned the photographic session, Renty, Delia, Drana, Alfred, Jack, George, and Jem were considered less than human—it was not their likeness that Harvard’s scholar sought to produce during the photographic session. Rather, the aim was to generate visual proofs that could justify the enslavement of Black people. This distinction is quite important: Agassiz, Zealy, and the others involved did not take photographs of slaves, but rather forced Renty, Delia, Drana, Alfred, Jack, George, and Jem to be photographed as slaves. Under the pretext that photographs carry an objective truth, these daguerreotypes were made to force Black people to stay captives of slavery, and serve as proof of their innate potential for enslavement. They could seize these images from them because they were enslaved, thus the images they seized were of their enslavement. The camera they encountered in the photographer’s studio was part of what the Black scholar Hortense Spillers describes as the “tortures and instruments of captivity.”
Lanier and Harvard are not equal parties debating ownership over a piece of property.
For too long, the images seized from Renty and the others were presented and discussed as images of slaves, ignoring the power of photography to prolong the status of “slave” forced on the photographed persons—the perpetuation, following Arendt, of a crime against humanity. In all its publications and interpretations, Harvard denies the simple truth of the matter: as long as spectators possess the right to view the photographed persons in scenes of captivity—with the photographs handled as if they are the museum’s property—Black people will forever be presented as “slaves.” This is yet another example of the violent afterlives of slavery.
But Harvard skirts this truth, instead positioning itself as a spectator who can “free” the photographed persons from their captivity. The statements Harvard has offered on the photographs position the institution as a white savior with the right to “preserve” this horror lest people forget—ignoring entirely the descendants of slavery and the fact that they never forgot their enslavement, as Lanier’s demand examplifies. Restituting these daguerreotypes to descendants, who are also survivors of this regime of slavery, accomplishes far more than displaying them to white audiences ever will.
Harvard’s various proposals of how best to exhibit the images—emphasizing the “reciprocal gaze” of those whose images have been seized, presenting the photographs in pedagogical settings not as “types” but as “portraits”—are creative and inventive, but they cannot address the simple truth of Lanier's claim. In Lanier’s claim, voiced by an heir who sees Renty as her ancestor, the paradox collapses. Renty is not in need of any savior, and certainly not by the institution that seized his image in the first place; he just needs to go home.
At home the image could perhaps be kept as people do images of their relatives: touched by hands, worn, forgotten, recalled, shown to others. Images get stained, placed in drawers, retrieved, lost, invoked in conversations and used to spark longing, even as their colors and contrasts fade away. But the proximity of the nakedness of enslavement might guide Lanier to touch this daguerreotype differently. The last thing Harvard’s experts should do after the photograph’s restitution is ask Lanier her plans for the daguerreotype. It is exactly the end of this reminder of enslavers’ right to determine how descendants of slavery are allowed to mourn or celebrate their ancestors that the Taylors’ reunification with Lanier could achieve.
Those involved were not taking photographs of slaves, but rather forced Renty, Delia and the others to be photographed as slaves.
A decision to allow Renty to go home might raise questions about how this might pertain to other objects held in Harvard’s museums and archives, and in similar institutions in the West. But it will not create a precedent, since precedents have already been created. Objects are constantly being restituted, including those plundered by the circle of Agassiz. The University of Pennsylvania announced its plans to repatriate human skulls from Morton’s collection, including several of the skulls of enslaved people. The museum director, Christopher Woods, said: “An initial phase of rigorous evaluation was critical for ensuring an ethical and respectful process around repair.” At the request of Nelson Mandela during his first year as president of an apartheid-free country, Sara Baartman’s body was restituted to South Africa and buried there. The French returned skulls of Algerian warriors they had seized in 1849. The Humboldt Forum in Berlin has recently announced its plans to restitute some of the Benin Bronzes, seized by British forces from West Africa in the nineteenth century. For more than seventy-five years, Jewish property has been restituted in the wake of Nazi expropriation and looting. And the list continues.
The whole idea behind the category of crimes against humanity, as was made clear in Nuremberg and since, was so to create a legal precedent—not to be used to secure unjust gains, but to prevent such crimes from being committed again. These objects were seized as part of a regime that perpetrated crimes against humanity. The day that Tamara Lanier recognized in Renty not “a slave” but her great-great-great grandfather, she invited members of the community to join her efforts to free her ancestors from captivity in a world in which their status as slaves was being prolonged, their freedom not fully recognized, and their rights not yet redressed.
Kinship, Property, and Rights
In photography’s first decades, when these daguerreotypes were taken, photographers did not have exclusive property rights in the images they produced. Harvard’s lawyers argue: “the rule is that a photograph is the property of the photographer, not the subject, and there are cases that we’ve cited in our brief that apply that rule even in cases when the subject of the images did not consent to the images being captured.” But this imposes one conception of photography retroactively on a complex history composed of competing claims about ownership and rights.
Visitors to photographers’ studios purchased the daguerreotypes produced by their presence in front of the camera—their daguerreotypes—and held them as property. On much less frequent occasions, photographers produced additional plates from the same pose and kept them, but this was largely permissible since the question of “who owns the daguerreotype?” was not yet standardized. That photographs taken of others, including photographs taken in their own studios, were automatically the property of the photographer was not guaranteed even when a case went to court.
Both the taking of the daguerreotype and its continued ownership and display by Harvard University constitute crimes against humanity that need to be redressed.
For example, in 1860, Louis-Auguste Bisson, the official photographer of Napoléon III, was commissioned by the painter Adolphe Yvon to take the emperor’s photograph for Yvon to use as a model for one of his paintings. When the painter realized that Bisson had printed many copies of the commissioned photograph, he feared that it would devalue his painting; he sued the photographer, and won. The court ruled that the photograph was Yvon’s property, not the photographer’s.
I don’t raise this as a precedent to legally determine who has property rights in photographs, but to remind us that the ownership of photographic images was undecided and in a state of flux at that time. This is still the case in our own time, as the debates over image banks or archives of colonial violence in former empires exemplify today. Photographs transcend any idea of private property and cannot be dealt with in these limited terms.
As I have argued at length over the past decade-and-a-half in my work across different academic fields, photographs are the outcome of different people coming together under different circumstances. These situations cannot be assessed using a single model since the “photographic event”—as I call this coming together of people—varies greatly, from relations of love, consent, and exchange to exploitation, coercion, and violence. Photographs transcend the question of simple ownership because the object itself was produced, seized, circulated, and used in ways that violated others’ rights. We are not solely dealing with the right of one party to own a certain object, but the rights of the other parties involved in the photographic encounter.
After abolition, many individuals and institutions who acquired their wealth through slavery did not question that they had done so by turning Black people into property, rendering Black people propertyless, and expropriating the fruits of their labor. Those who profited from slavery were not challenged in the decades following abolition, thus, their heirs have assumed that the wealth they inherited is rightly theirs or that their privileged access to it should be secured. Whenever this injustice enters the courtroom, it creates an opportunity to remedy it—for the sake of its direct victims first, but also to free the heirs of perpetrators from structural and institutional complicity in perpetuating their ancestors’ violence by not stopping the lingering effects of the crimes against humanity carried out in their society. Rejecting Lanier’s genuine demand to let her ancestors exit the museum, Harvard not only rejects the grievance of a descendant of slavery, but asks all of us to refuse to see slavery’s crimes against humanity and their lingering presence.
Photographs continue to sustain the original act of violence well after the image was produced.
These daguerreotypes of Renty and Delia are not property and are not Harvard’s property. Even after they are restituted to Lanier, they will not be her property: they will be under her custody or guardianship. These daguerreotypes should not have been taken. But they were taken, and they do exist. So, we should think about them as we would think about a family member who needs caretaking from close relatives.
The question of kinship here is primary. Lanier and Harvard are not equal parties debating ownership over a piece of property. These daguerreotypes were seized from Renty and Delia in a world in which, as Hortense Spillers describes it, “flesh [was] for sale, flesh [was] summed up as a medium of exchange.” Describing the transition from enslaved to free, Spillers counts “touch” as the first sense to be engaged after freedom:
Touch may be the first measure of what it means not to be enchained anymore. When I can declare my body as my own space and when you have to gain permission from me implicitly to put your hands on me, I think it makes a difference.
We do not know and do not need to know the details leading to the photographed persons posing to the camera fully or half naked to assume that they did not consent to be in the photographs, appear to each other, appear to those whites who trafficked in their flesh, or appear to us as naked. What we do know is that these daguerreotypes are the outcome of violence and cannot be approached as ordinary photographs.
Here is a photograph in which I deliberately removed Alfred in order to show this “isolated place,” the photographer’s (Zealy’s) studio that Renty, Delia, Drana, Alfred, Jack, George, and Jem were forced to enter. In the full nudity forced upon the photographed, he could conceal only the upper part of the headrest. Lanier claims that Harvard has no right to continue to touch her great-great-great grandfather, to force him to be half nude in front of others, to breach the touch between kin and replace it with a public gaze. Under slavery, Spillers writes, “kinship loses meaning, since it can be invaded at any given and arbitrary moment by the property relations.” Denying Harvard the property rights to what was stolen from her great-great-great grandfather and his kin is a way to repair kinship for Lanier, wounded by the long afterlife of slavery. “If ‘kinship’ were possible,” Spillers continues, “the property relations would be undermined.” If not then—now.
Expanding the conversations about ethical approaches to collections formed under regimes of violence pushes museums today to “deal with claims for the restitution of artefacts [sic] and the repatriation of human remains,” as German museum studies scholar Larissa Förster writes. This distinction is crucial in the case of Renty and Delia, as narrowing the question to solely focus on the restitution of museum items accepts the terms imposed by the museum, and the terms involved in their captivity. Lanier, in saying “this is my ancestor,” not a museum asset, also demands repatriation. Renty and Delia were forced to enter a museum collection and Lanier demands they be repatriated to where they belong: among their relatives.
This demand finds justification in the fact that these daguerreotypes turned museum objects could not have been seized without Renty and others first being kidnapped into slavery. The light reflected from their naked bodies and captured in daguerreotype plates was also abducted. Any technical or scientific explanation of the procedure of the daguerreotype cannot ignore that these would not exist without the subjects being forced to have a portion of their naked skin open to the light and reflected onto the sensitive surface of these plates. These daguerreotypes are, in a literal sense, the remains of their presence, forced enslavement, and unwilling nudity.
Harvard and Harvard’s lawyers cannot impose one conception of photography retroactively on a complex history composed of competing claims about ownership and rights.
Given this history, Harvard should have immediately renounced any claims of ownership to these images. But the university still has the opportunity to encourage Black people to consult its archives and restore their connection to kin that Harvard has in its holdings, and work to ensure that all its faculty and students learn from Lanier. Harvard now has the opportunity not only for restitution and repair, but to further its pedagogical and scholarly mission along these lines. No property held against kin is needed to do so.
Restitution as Family Reunion
When Renty, Delia, and the others were forced to go to Zealy’s studio, they didn’t encounter a photographer who wanted to interact with them to produce their likeness. They encountered another enslaver, invested in the regime of slavery, for whom there was nothing more obvious than the fact that they were slaves and must be made to surrender their bodies to perpetuate their plight. (Zealy himself was an enslaver, holding six Black people in captivity and counting them as his property.) The entire session at the photographer’s studio, involving several white people, was devoted to producing visual proof that Renty, Delia, and the others were who the enslavers and profiteers wanted them to be: slaves.
This was possible because the regime of slavery relied on creating a society of peers who recognized not only the right of whites to enslave Blacks, but also the potential of each new technology to reaffirm the regime—a society of peers whose crimes against humanity are, for the perpetrators, rendered imperceptible, “natural.” This imperceptibility is materialized in these daguerreotypes; since their creation, viewers have been asked to recognize “the absolute power of masters over the bodies of their slaves,” here obliged to pose naked.
Restitution demands that we hear from different places and people and attend to the provenance of items in our museums and question their status as “private property.”
And the imperceptibility of the crime to the eyes of perpetrators still persists, exemplified by Harvard and the Peabody Museum’s expectation that Renty, Delia, and the others continue to provide scientific proofs with their bodies—now in the service of Harvard’s “educational mission” and the institution’s self-study. As the Black artist Carrie Mae Weems said, these daguerreotypes stand for the way “Anglo America—white America—saw itself in relationship to the Black subject.” This is true not only in what could be seen in the daguerreotypes, but in the institution’s obstinate denial to recognize Lanier as the heir of Renty and his kin.
• • •
Restitution demands that we hear from different places and people and attend to the provenance of items in our museums and question their status as “private property.” Restitution asks that we consider these items in museums to be the ancestors of the communities from which they were taken, part of a life-world that was destroyed through the process of colonization, enslavement, or plunder. This was the premise of the 1990 U.S. Federal Law of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), and it is repeated all over the world. As two recent articles on the repatriation of the Benin Bronzes illustrate, art held in museums is not property to those from whom it was taken, but ancestors: headlines read “‘They’re not property’: The People Who Want their Ancestors Back from British Museums” (The Guardian) and “In the West, the Looted Bronzes are Museum Pieces. In Nigeria, ‘They Are our Ancestors’" (New York Times).
Renty never owned the daguerreotype that was seized from him. Obviously, if he had ever been asked, he should not have been enslaved, and this daguerreotype should not have been brought into existence. What was seized from him is congealed in the photographic image itself—it is a remnant of his presence, an imprint of his flesh interacting with light, that Harvard continues to claim as a museum asset. “He is my ancestor,” Lanier argues, not your “medium of exchange.” Lanier claims the restitution of the object, but expects the repatriation of her ancestor’s remains.
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September 23, 2021
28 Min read time