“Never liked nobody that’s been mean to me
I’ve got a heart full of stone and I hate the misery
Then you came along into my life
Destroying me more, mounting up the toil and strife”
— “Fool for You” (1968) by The Impressions
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to state we’ve an obsession with (and aversion to) intimacy. My own curiosity emerges from an admittedly unsettled place, the unsettled place within which formative knowing and loving of my sexual self emerged: through non-platonic interactions with (and, early on, unrequited desire for) white men. It was a space and place as fulfillingly self-actualizing as it was profoundly self-estranging as any process of negation would be. This exploratory desire is spawned from a sentimental plexus of capitalistic starvation, loneliness, and (the myth of) scarcity with an abundance of uncultivated human interaction, a collective internalization of our undeservingness of happiness, and, most urgently, of some longing. Intimacy has become a white whale, and so its documentation becomes a pathological quest for capture, a long elusive trophy. But the prize is not necessarily the photograph itself. This inquiry around visual manufacturing is far less about artistic feasibility and more an experimental hypothesis about the human condition: an attempt at a particular elicitation of emotion/response, a mutual acknowledgement of alienation and some kind of affirmation through a dedication to alleviating a hurt and empty space. Rather, some lifelong oeuvre containing a satisfactory expression of my Truth, of shared cathartic truths: truths that galvanize and permit the humanizing questioning and reparative soul work that we often formalize as creative and scholarly inquiry for the sake of the heartache from which we try to create distance and dissociate and translate into visuals so that it might be democratized and shared. Capitalistic romance is really “the confused…the psychotic, and plasticized sensation” (so sayeth the Lorde) as the erotic is stolen from us and pure pornographic sensation is marketed in its stead. And so how do we extricate meaning from exploited desire?
What does it mean to manufacture intimacy or to explicitly articulate a production of intimacy as creative intention? And if the affective production is an auto-production, one from within, is a moment altered (read: cheapened, intruded upon, disturbed) by/through the camera’s participation—a proxy for a gaze, a voyeur, an invitation of an audience, a surveillant technology—and presence? Could this method become a kind of sousveillance1 alerting the state about our most private socialities? Or does documentation, actually, just offer yet another visualization of our humanity that can be consumed but is largely negligible and unmoving beyond ourselves, just like front-facing body cameras affixed to murderous police officers (one example of sousveillance) that gets broadcasted in a Black death-saturated twenty-four-hour news cycle? What is the boundary between the reality, authenticity, and legitimacy of a produced image? Marie Hyld’s Lifeconstruction depicts intimacies between the photographer and people she met on the internet, quite convincingly even! She produces visual representations of interactions we know to instinctively code as “intimate” even after knowing her method of recruitment (and that she knew some participants for only ten minutes before the photograph was taken). Does this “inauthenticity” render the images “illegitimate”? Does the staging diminish the “reality” of the vulnerability and feelings captured, conveyed, and evoked?
Desire, curiosity, longing/revulsion, contempt, and taboo each—among other things—contour the boundaries of what we understand to be non-platonic intimacy. The stated description of some idealized notion of a sacred intimacy should be juxtaposed with a more complicated and even mutually (though not equally so) villainous set of desires. My own desires for white men, both socialized and innate (i.e. evolution-conditioned physiological response to stimuli), cannot be uncoupled from a sometimes murderous rage: an embodied diasporic memory and intergenerational familial trauma (as well as my own sexual trauma, the afterlife of which presents unpredictably). It’s gazing at your sleeping partner, a man you’ve been crazy about for months, and your fuzzy feelings of warmth and affection dipping jarringly and without warning into ambivalence and disgust for more than an unexpected and accidental split second and allowing those feelings to linger because they trouble your ecstasy too much to dismiss. Sarah Kane’s Skin depicts a multifaceted intimacy, one coupled with an oft dreamed of cathartic act. Marcia, a Black female honeypot, if you will, coaxes Billy, a white power type, into her flat. They have sex. She proceeds to humiliate, mark, scrub raw the skinhead’s skin; she consumes her partner after allowing him to fuck her, she is a black widow spider and he is her unsuspecting male whose copulatory desire is unknowing sexual sacrifice. (But then mightn’t he still accept even if he knew his fate? Aren’t certain white male longings also self-annihilatory to some extent, because some “self” must be destroyed in order for them to give and receive love as full human beings?) After his torture/her act of retributive justice, he bleats for her pitifully, a submissive and almost masochistic cry for his Dominant’s attention and affection after she defiles his body. But her sadistic enjoyment is not so straightforward as she, too, needs soothing and consolation after her performance.
They hate us, we know they do. The violent nature of their socialization is almost banal in its obviousness, and yet it seems impossibly difficult to acknowledge as a root cause of Anthropocene evil and disaster. Writing about the Freikorpsmen (the German soldiers who would go on to become Adolf Hitler’s brownshirted paramilitary Sturmabteilung), Klaus Theweleit describes how these men are desirous and deeply contemptuous of all women beyond the select few they pedestal (a woman-hating action in itself). Their chosen noblewomen are “made the possessor of the erotic body for two purposes: for lovemaking and for the representation of the power of [their] overlord, whose commercial wealth [and social standing] made the secularization of her celestial flesh possible.” This is the objectification-deification of white womanhood, the particularly classed and particularly ancestried virtuous ones. The female form became pure capital itself, and
just as the external gold was mined from the body of the world’s peoples, this internal variety (the new male ego with its new freedoms) was extracted from the body of subjugated femaleness. The patriarchal bourgeoisie, arming itself for a new departure toward world domination, depended equally on both forms of subjugation. (…It was two aspects of a single conquest that set up white masters over the colored nations of the world and placed the dominant male ego of the emergent bourgeoisie society in a position of domination over women in his own society. He would continue to empower those women as the colorful raw material for shaping the images and setting the boundaries that were so necessary to secure his domination.)
The rest of us lessers were relegated to non-women, some of us barely human, if at all. We were more ape-like than anything else, as noted by Thomas Jefferson in his 1785 Notes on the State of Virginia where he asserts that male orangutans preferred Negro women to females of their own species (even as he repeatedly sought carnal comforts in and produced six children with his wife’s mixed-race half sister, Sally Hemings, who was both his chattel property and a “lover” thirty years his junior—a truly monstrous intimacy). Because we are not human, we could not be violated; because we were inviolable and exist(ed) in a state of sexual excess, we were consumable and available to white men, to slave masters, in ways their women were not. Morgan Parker reminded us that some of the ways of looking at a Black girl including “sex,” “Sally Hemings,” “rape,” “sex,” “Hottentot Venus,” “trouble,” “chocolate,” “exotic,” “sex,” “easy,” “thong,” “darkie,” “booty,” “witch,” “dying,” “trouble,” “sex,” “lips,” “tragic,” “sex,” “slut,” “queen,” “dead.” Is it possible for them, including a different nice man who amorously referred to me as a “dirty Black girl” mid-sex and without previous permission that I would never give, to love us? Are we legible to them? Should we endeavor to be? Does being seen, being more visible, make us more free? (They can never make us free. If freedom were sexually transmittable we Black women would/should be long emancipated by now.)
There is little sense or function in apologizing and self-flagellating for the things you yearn for because these non-rational desires are not curtailable even after the presentation of sobering historical context. There often exists inexplicable gravitation towards deep dissonance and anguish because each are often more accessible than much-needed brutal self-interrogation. And so how do the actors, these lovers/“lovers,” wordlessly narrate these multitudes? Can they? Must they? Are depictions of some kind of love real, authentic, and/or legitimate short of these confessionals or are they simply projections and articulations of post-racial myth-making? If/when I show myself sharing close space with a white body (à la Renee Cox’s People’s Project: Mfon & Lover (2000), a portrait of a foregrounded profiled Mfon Essien and a backgrounded white male lover marked by both by an elegant tenderness and, per Tina Campt, “a tension—a tense selffashioning of/in stasis”2 ), are perceived mutuality beyond artistic performance and my choice of intimate partner a traitorship because of my abandonment of “Black love”? Because for whom is my expression of intimacy and desire when our photography as Black women is hastily ghettoized as “Black women’s art” and imbued with presumed meaning and intention from both Black and white/non-Black typological directions? Kareem Reid rightfully notes that we are “still expected to perform the politics of [our] work as much with our bodies and self-image as accessible, relatable, representative, and literal models of a visible, public and fashionable concoction of feminist activism in order to explain the context of the work.” Our work is by us and for us, but weighted with expectations that far exceed the work itself and our own needs expressed and contained within it.
Collectively discussed Black [psychosexual] liberation is often male-centered and offer reclamations through interraciality, whether through political coalitionbuilding or romantic and sexual intimacies: we will be freed by a racially ambiguous and nondescript beige future, we’re told.
Black men and white women access a special thing in their relations to one another. The Black man is able to access that which was never supposed to be accessible to him: the most prized possession of the colonizers, whose position he one day aspires to occupy (which the likes of Eldridge Cleaver, offering ghetto Black girls as practice for this mission, reproduced in offering the rape of white women as “an insurrectionary act”). Fanon describes this mythological belief in freedom through white flesh—a myth some seek to actualize through an externalization of our neuroses as colonized people—as a thing that “must no longer be an obstacle to understanding the question” of Black liberation. The white woman is able to abscond her responsibility—per whiteness—to produce more white offspring and so ensure the maintenance of white majoritarianism. Through a focus on the needs and desires of Black manhood, we are denied much beyond roles as receptacles for violence and trauma that is not our own. Fanon writes: “Those who grant us our findings on the psychosexuality of the white woman may well ask us what we have to say about the black woman. We know nothing about her,” [italics my own].
A shared sense of Black self has been wounded, though not indelibly, by the colonial experience. We collectively describe the power in making families and communities together, but within these gendered aspirations for power, we sometimes still cannot be seen. Tending to these wounds is the “wake work” mission Christina Sharpe has led us on. What is producing intimacy in our blackened zone of non-being in a [protracted] moment where we are also containing and battling white myths in which our bodies are “the carriers of terror, terror’s embodiment, and not the primary objects of terror’s multiple enactments”? What is the manufacture of intimacy, in whatever meaningful form we can articulate it, in the belly of the ship where, also in the throes of an uncertain journey, we dream of freedom and familiarity and nostalgic (both real and imagined/idyllic/ idealized memory) release?
“She is not naked as she is,” John Berger writes. “She is naked as the spectator sees her…to be on display is to have the surface of one’s own skin, the hairs of one’s own body, turned into disguise which, in that situation, can never be discarded.” He offers entrée into conversation about photovisuals and the erotic, which Audre Lorde refines in describing that the erotic is not the incapacitating demand of endless extraction by and for others. It is rather a bridging “sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual” that seeks to mediate “what is not shared between them” and “lessen the threat of their difference.” What does it mean to photograph a body that can be nude but never naked? To take a self-portrait within a body when that body can only be objectified and never self-subjectify and self-make? (Recall, here, Fanon’s sociogenic thinking that blackness exists only as an “Other” in contrast with whiteness, and Sylvia Wynter’s subsequent offering that liberation comes through annihilating the anti-Black genre of human as Man.) This is the metaphysical dilemma of Black womanhood, and assertions of insurgent gaze offer opportunity for new and re-contextualized semiotics of Black [always already gendered] embodiment.
The camera, then, becomes both the insertion of a self-asserting gaze and an extension of self. (Capturing intimacy, too, begets a representation of self through/with another. Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is this intense, messy, fraught, confounding, diaristic work at its best: a narrativization of an autonomous epochal self whose existence is dependent upon the others with whom these intimate moments are shared.) In capturing the self, though, Carrie Mae Weems deftly demonstrates this in her Kitchen Table Series (1990) and previously in Portrait of a Woman Who Has Fallen From Grace and Into the Hands of Evil (1988). We see this also in Renee Cox’s chameleon spectacularity, Mfon Essien’s postmastectomy bareness, Delphine Fawundu’s exploration of African womanhood, Zanele Muholi’s sapphic expressions, Hélène Amouzou’s autoportraits, Stacey Tyrell’s whiteface, Jenevieve Aken’s interrogation of women’s social roles, Nona Faustine’s archival disruptions, Naima Green’s tender #attractionexperiment, and scores and scores of others.
This nature of both art/studio and vernacular photography offers another means of creating autobiography. It can be an articulation of potential and possibility and imagination as much as it offers permanent capture of impermanent and insurgent reality; we project onto a photograph our own meaning-making and translation as we allow the photographer to present their own story. Intimacies further provide opportunity for a self-determining/defining politic: Who am I on my own, and how am I actualized by, through, and with another? What is the meaning of my decision to be naked (not nude) with you? What would it mean if I would and could never? Skin’s destruction (the neutralization of a violent neo-Nazi is an unarguable social good) is followed by an emotionally conflicted aftermath. Is Marcia doubtful, plagued with remorse, weighted by inescapable tensions within all natures of intimacies? I loathe white men as a class: their very existence counters my unwavering desire to annihilate whiteness. And violence against my oppressor is self-actualizing! So then what is the source of this seemingly paradoxical Stockholm Syndrome compelling return again and again to a space saturated with deep resentment?
This is not a plea, an apology, a begging for my stance to be “acceptable.” It is merely an attempt to define and clarify artistic obligations inscribed by the boundaries of “Black women’s photography.” Visualizations of intimacy are unvocalized yearnings for creature comforts as well as confrontational promptings of internal reckonings, often contradictory and deliberately avoided ones. The Lorde reminds us, do not forget, that Eros, the mythological “personification of love in all its aspects” is “born of Chaos.” In more familiar mythology, Eros was the offspring of the goddess of love, Aphrodite, and the god of war, Ares (a fitting coupling); but as a primordial god, he was the fourth to emerge after/potentially of Chaos (the empty chasm of nothing created out of the cosmological separation between heaven and earth), Gaia (Mother Earth, herself), and Tartarus (the abyssal and torturous underworld). And so through these erotic artistic endeavors we are forced to engage the flattening cliché that “the heart wants what the heart wants,” as though “the heart” and “the mind” are separate. In recalling the erotic is not pure sensation in abstentia of feeling, but rather a powerfully feminine affective politic and a lens with which we might honestly and earnestly self-reflect and share and acknowledge our respective needs and realities, we might begrudgingly, affirm this cliché’s truth.
1. “Sousveillance,” coined by virtual reality researcher Steve Mann, prefixes sous-, meaning “below,” with -veiller meaning “to watch” to create a perspective of watching brought down to a human level as opposed to hierarchal “surveillance” done by an authority. It is usually done using wearable devices or other personal technologies; it is a recording of a phenomenon or activity done by one of its participants. Coveillance is when people watch one another, this larger inquiry is a metaveillance, seeing sight itself.
2. On the perceived frictions in the Alfred Duggan-Cronin’s 1928 photographs of South African Bavenda women, Campt writes: “It is a friction that requires us to read their stillness through the gaze neither of the photograph who shot them nor of the ethnographer or collector who acquired them. We must engage them instead as tension—a tense self-fashioning of/in stasis…Each of them appears to hold back, hold in, or keep something in reserve—in preparation or anticipation of something to come. The muscular tension they display is an effortful balancing of compulsion, constraint, and refusal that vibrates invisibly yet resoundingly through these images. They are tensions that are not necessarily accessible when we focus on the visualization of stillness. They become perceptible only when we attend to the quiet frequencies of stasis.”