The Picture Library: The Liberal Eye by Nesrine Malik

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The Picture Library: The Liberal Eye by Nesrine Malik

On Photography

To accompany our exhibition The Picture Library, Guardian columnist and author Nesrine Malik reflects on the legacy and significance of  The Guardian Archive in the newspaper’s’ 200th year and asks what it tells us about the lens through which we are shown the world.  

The Guardian's 200th anniversary year arrives with a history and a newspaper archive that seems not just a record of the past, but of a world that no longer exists. Our position, standing as we are after the suspension of the pandemic, removes us as viewers from a linear time continuum. We are looking at a past sealed off by the experience of the pandemic, a world that was before a great halting, before great loss, and before a great test to our economies and public health systems, one that many countries have failed.

But in many ways, the images do exist on a continuum that leads to where we are today. The origins of so many of our discontents are here.  So many of our stubborn inequalities, both in the divide between the developed world and the South, and within the developed world, start with the assumption that the better off are deserving, rather than fortunate. That there is a peaceful centre and an encroaching unruly periphery - an Us and Them. In the photographs taken over the years, the distinction between Us and Them is ever present, a reflection of the fact that those behind the images themselves, the journalists, editors, and photographers, hail from the peaceful centre, the heart of an establishment of male and white comfort. 

The liberal eye is not exempt from the hazards of centering its own perspective, despite its claim of objectivity. It may in fact, be more prone to them. It is hard, as journalists, to be politically oriented towards social justice and redistributive economic arrangements, but to have little experience or familiarity with social injustice or economic hardship. And so often, the moral certainty of sound politics prevents further interrogation of all the ways in which journalists bring unconscious biases and assumptions to their very certain views of the world. 

That unconscious bias is evident in the images that capture the demographic divide between subject and object. Entire groups of identities, people of colour, the itinerant, the poor, the Irish, are mostly objects, immigrants on the rough end of racism and discrimination, or people caught in conflict and sectarianism. Then there are those identities who are mostly restive and angry - black people rioting in the US, Muslims protesting in the Middle East. This cohort of Them are either victims or villains, motivated by crude impulses.

The subjects of images, the figures who are themselves the story - actors, politicians, artists, are on the other hand mostly white and Western, and achieving. They are people to profile, to learn from, and to celebrate. Where the two, us and them, are joined in single images, they are either in conflict, with immigrants of colour on the docks as the target of white anti-immigrant protests, or in a state where one is accepting the benign noblesse oblige of the other. Commonwealth nation heads gather around a proud single white British figure. In this image, they are grateful supplicants, not ex-colonies freed from one state of subjugation and about to enter into another exploitive relationship. Men of colour sit either side of a white priest, the recipients of the white man’s burden manifested in Christian Aid. Feral and outside, domesticated and grateful when allowed inside. 

These photos, secondary and illustrative to the news and features that accompanied them. Some, like the image of a Harlem vagrant, provided the visual scaffolding and were easily recycled in reports that perpetuated racial stereotypes.  

Later, these objects become more animated and vocal. They are photographed as activists and civil rights leaders, more alive but still at odds with the societies in which they live. In other instances they are movingly captured as early immigrants in the UK, as a first wave of Muslim immigrants in Manchester in the 1940s, and  Asian new arrivals from Kenya and East Africa. These images tell the other part of the more visually gripping story, which is that even though many of these immigrants were not extended a warm welcome, they were nonetheless, welcome. 

The Guardian is a British newspaper situated in the West so perhaps not unreasonable to expect that its perspective be rooted in its geographic and cultural position. But it is the degree to which the archive seems to prop up prevailing racial and geopolitical hierarchies that is striking. In that sense it is an honest reflection of the colonial imperial powers that shaped the status quo, rather than a challenge to them. 

The opposite is true with inequalities closer to home. The newspaper’s record as reflected in the archive is strong on challenging unfair industrial relations, supporting feminism, and gay rights. The archive is rich in attendance of HIV awareness marches, gay rights parades, and landmark moments when women were incorporated into exclusive male spaces.

But those males and their spaces also dominate the record. The public school boy and man is a sort of super subject, the prototypical Us, the original native state against which everyone else is defined and measured, and found wanting. And still, after 200 years, born to rule, and often, misrule.

It seems unavoidable that we will look for clues here. What did we not question enough? Who did we enable? Our appraisal of history depends on our circumstances when we are looking back. The archive seems almost like a series of threads that help explain to some degree, our current state. It is impossible to separate the archive from the pandemic stricken era. We stand, not at a vantage point, looking below at the landscape that we travelled to get here, but at a low point, looking up at all the layers of political, social and economic decisions that buried so many in a world where the virus claimed lives thirstily along the lines of ethnic and class lines. What emerges is a larger tragic picture of excess, of hubris, and of unexamined assumptions. 

But this is also an archive in which much appears to change over time. The texture of the images becomes less intimate, less invasive in treating the lives of others, more neutral, respectful, more stylised. Some of that is down to the evolving technology and texture of photography, but there is alongside that an unfolding awareness of what could amount to exploitation. A 1970s image of a nameless teenager, hunger stricken in the Biafra would be difficult to publish today. It would also be less likely that the famine would be presented as something in which the ‘Oxbridge-educated British mandarins’, as war correspondent Fredrick Forsyth called them, had no part in. 

With this increased sensitivity, protagonists are allowed to strike a pose, to prepare and compose themselves before their pictures are taken, rather than being snapped in passing, sometimes clearly in the split second when they become aware of the camera. But some of the old themes remain embedded. The differences in treatment still persist. The stories we choose to emphasise remain segregated by race and class, only with a veneer of political correctness - one that often stops us from scratching underneath the surface. 

The Guardian has witnessed, narrated, campaigned for, and achieved significant global change for the better over the past 200 years.  But much of that change in the UK has fallen short of what is necessary to really bring about a liberal politics of freedom and solidarity domestically and internationally. The archive invites us to think about how sometimes the world changes just enough so that it can stay the same.

Anti-Apartheid demonstrators being removed from the South African Airways office, Peter St, Manchester. Don McPhee, 1972. Courtesy, Guardian News & Media Archive.

The Picture Library

The Picture Library, organised in collaboration with The Guardian Foundation, delves into the legendary Guardian picture library runs from 25 Jun - 26 Sept 2021.

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