activism / image / image value / photography

“I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance”

sojourner_truth_lectureHere’s a fascinating post from Art Blart (aka: Dr. Marcus Bunyan). Its an archival project from the The University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) who are currently running an exhibition on the runaway slave Sojourner Truth, who was an abolitionist, feminist, and orator during the 1800’s and the American Civil War. It not only documents her fervent drive for equality but it also speakes about her relationship with the image and the use of the photographic carte de visite as a propaganda tool to expose the realities of injustice.

Her use of the existing technologies of the time to disrupt the status quo is a testament to the power of simplicity and the effectiveness that the image can bring to raise awareness of social and political issues. “Truth used her image, the press, the postal service, and copyright laws to support her activism and herself.” It also reflects her understanding of the value that images carry, as she equated her own image as a commodity. The wording on the cards is also carefully considered to speak to her own image and “Truth’s use of the first-person present tense “I sell” declares her ownership of her image: to sell it, she must own it. Most significantly, by using this caption Sojourner Truth knowingly aligned her photographs with paper money.” (source: BAMPFA).

In a strange way it makes me think of Ferguson, Baton Rouge, Nice, just to name a few. But it also makes me think of the ubiquity of the image in our times, the agency that it might or might not carry and whether we have reached a ‘saturation-density’ that has marganilised the images affect. But what makes Sojourner Truth’s story different is that she has made a consious decision to employ the image as a tool, not only for self-expression but as a means of dissent as well. Here intent becomes a function of outcomes and observation is left to those who interpret them.

Her possession of self is intimately tied to the photographic depiction of her bodily form. She sells the photograph to support the body and, as her agency, the images become a form of self-actualisation. In this sense the image that she controls becomes her holistic body, for she never displays her injured hand or the scars on her back that she were inflicted on her during slavery. (Bunyan, 2016)


[image] Unknown photographer (American) Captioned carte de visite of Sojourner Truth (back) 1864. Albumen print mounted on cardboard. 4 x 2 1/2 in. UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, gift of Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby

During the Civil War, a ferocious debate raged about whether paper could represent value like coin. Paper greenbacks – the first federally issued banknotes in American history – were attacked by those who believed that money was not a representation but a “substance.” Hard money advocates (naively) believed that gold was value, not its representation…. Like paper bills, cartes de visite functioned during these years as currency and as clandestine political tokens.

Sojourner Truth’s very terms, “substance” and “shadow,” were economic as well as photographic metaphors in the fierce debates about money: shadow was aligned with the abolition of slavery, substance with proslavery and anti-black sentiment. Sojourner Truth knew this opposition very well. She was making cheap paper notes, printed and reproduced in multiples, featuring her portrait. She had invented her own kind of paper currency, and for the same reasons as the government: in order to produce wealth dependent on a consensus that representation produces material results, to make money where there was none, and to do so partly in order to abolish slavery.

The photographs of Sojourner Truth register only her appearance, not her commanding presence. They are shadows, and some are more elusive and mute than others. Yet the printed words – name, caption, and copyright – remain forthright: her speech, authorship, and recourse to law coexist with her image. Those printed words force us to acknowledge the illiterate woman’s authorship, as well as her eloquence, her agency, and her legal claim to property, even as we value these humble objects. [source:]



[image] Unknown photographer (American). Captioned carte de visite of Sojourner Truth c. 1864-65. Albumen print mounted on cardboard. 4 x 2 1/2 in. UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, gift of Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby

Exhibition dates: 27th July – 23rd October 2016 ‘I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance’ Former New York slave Sojourner Truth (which literally means “itinerant preacher”) strategically deployed photography as a form of political activism. This deployment is part of a long tradition of photography being used in the African American struggle for political change, from […]

via Exhibition: ‘Sojourner Truth, Photography, and the Fight Against Slavery’ at The University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), Berkeley — Art Blart

Dr Marcus Bunyan* is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne. (source:

* He makes great images too! HERE

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