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Open Access Publications from the University of California

White Shoals, White Shrouds: Reflections on the Ethics of Looking at Captive Bodies

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In the winter of 2018, I presented a conference paper on a set of nineteenth-century photographs from the national archive of the French colonies. The series, titled “Types Comoriens” (Comorian types), comprises seven photographs commissioned by the French École Coloniale between 1890 and 1896. The École Coloniale was a French colonial school created in 1889, and dedicated to the recruitment and training of French colonial administrators. The school was instrumental to both the institutionalization of colonial knowledge and the development of French higher education. The images are full-length portraits of seven young Comorian natives, naked, standing in front of a white background. My paper looked at the beaded strings that the indigenous islanders wore  around their waists, which I traced back to an East African puberty ritual called unyago. Subsumed in the minutiae of my anthropological analysis, I did not register the violence that had been folded into the photographic frame. Nor did I realize that I, myself, was reenacting the voyeuristic gaze of the colonial photographer by re-producing these images in my conference presentation. For the purposes of my presentation, I cropped the subjects’ naked bodies but decided to show their faces. Even then, this timid gesture seemed insufficient, uncomfortably incomplete.

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