Editor’s Note: This endorsement is part of a special edition that Hyperallergic published on the ongoing legal case to return the photos of Renty and Delia Taylor to their descendants.
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As an African photography scholar of Congolese descent, I have dedicated more than 10 years of my research to the study of the Congolese people’s history of their own images. An important part of this effort has required to reconstitute predominantly dispersed and suppressed bodies of photographs, as the violence of colonialism has importantly been exerted upon Africans through a control of racist representations, as well as through a hegemonic circulation of these representations. Because he was born in the Congo Basin, Renty Taylor’s image is evidence of
photography’s key role as a “tool of empire” that extended well beyond the borders of the Congo and the African continent with the crime of slavery, as is made clear by the daguerrotypes of the enslaved father, Renty Taylor, and his daughter, Delia Taylor. One of the crucial stakes of Tamara Lanier’s pursuit of restitution is to remove the portraits of her ancestors from a global economy of images that have de-humanised them, have destroyed families and communities, and have humiliated fathers in front of their daughters. From a larger, African-centered perspective, it is the possibility of repairing a cosmogony breach, one that allows a rightful honoring of ancestors, one of a homecoming. Every re-exposition of these images as propriety of Harvard University, is another denial of the care and reparation that ancestors need to be peacefully put at rest.
Of all photographic processes and products, daguerreotypes are historically the most tactile, for they are protected in often ornate cases that the viewer holds, opens, and discloses for their eyes only. Who holds the images, both metaphorically and literally, is a matter of crucial importance;
who is allowed to touch determines how the portrayed subject will be touched and remembered. By allowing to return the portraits to Tamara Lanier as rightful guardian, the court will recognize the precedence of care for these persons, over Harvard’s claim of ownership of these daguerrotypes, and in this way, it will put an end to a unconsented intimate relationship of touch and visual examination of Renty and Delia’s bodies, one core foundation of slavery.
Mark Sealy, Decolonising the Camera: Photography in Racial Time (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2019), 109.