Back to this photograph. At the most basic level it depicts a group of men. But, of course, we read into it far more than that. As Roland Barthes would argue, it is the connotations of what this photograph depicts which jar the viewer.
Why is it troubling? Well, for one thing, it upsets notions of imperialism and race. It dismantles the notion that all blacks (or other racializeed people, for that matter) were oppressed, and that all whites were their oppressors.
This image follows the trope of the colonial missionary – the heroic man of the West among the “savages” of Africa. Dr. Sheppard, in his crisp white suite, draws the viewer’s eye from across the bare chests of the men in the centre to his starkly bright body rather quickly. The viewer is rapidly made aware of a number of binaries in the process: half-naked/clothed, dark/bright (or black/white), “tradition”/”modernity,” “savage”/”civilized.”
Yet what this image also shows, as many scholars have begun to argue in the past four decades or so, is that the idea of race is constructed and fluid. Who could belong to the category of “colonizer” and who could be made part of the category “colonized” was determined by a number of factors, of which pigmentation was only one. While Sheppard was certainly “black” to American (and more generally Western) audiences, he was comparatively “white” to the Kuba among who he is here pictured.
But back to the image itself. The reverend looks quite pleased, proud even, as he stands beside this group of men. It seems as if he is displaying them for what will become a photograph or a lantern slide documenting his trip (Sheppard was an African American missionary). The gaze of the photograph (I don’t know who exactly was taking the picture, but we can certainly assume it was not a local) is explicitly colonial. The only people in the photograph who are not being presented (at least overtly) as objects are the two gentlemen book-ending the group. The rest of the men in the photograph are “others” who have been subjected to the Western gaze, and added to Sheppard’s collection of trophies from his African adventures.
Perhaps at this point it is worth giving some more historical background. Reverend William H. Sheppard was an African American missionary, as mentioned before, of the Southern Presbyterian Church. He was the first black missionary to go to the Congo – at that time the Congo Free State. His mission was made possibly only by the presence of the (white) Reverend Samuel Lapsley who agreed to accompany Sheppard on his mission – the only way the church authorities would even consider letting Sheppard go to Africa. Lapsley died shortly after the pair reached the Congo. While Sheppard went on to play a significant role in uncovering the atrocities of the Red Rubber Regime, he was also part of a generation of missionaries and explorers who functioned within the framework of imperialism in Africa. Certainly, this is something that can be seen within this photograph. At the same time, however, he was subjected to institutionalized racism in the United States – something Adam Hochschild (who’s fantastic book King Leopold’s Ghost gives a snapshot of Sheppard and his work in the Congo) suggests Sheppard was in some ways hoping to evade by going to work in the Congo [152-153].
This picture was taken in 1909, well after Sheppard’s work on discrediting Leopold’s reign of terror had begun. The man on the left, William Morrison, was the publisher of a missionary paper which published some of Sheppard’s work. This photograph was taken en route to a trial at which the pair, along with their Kuba “witnesses” (they were not part of the legal proceedings), pictured between them, were to be taken to task for making allegations against a certain rubber company. With this in mind, we begin to see the faces of the Kuba men as being defiant, meeting not necessarily the colonial gaze, but the gaze of an audience who was being made to understand the horrors of the Red Rubber Regime. Their faces and stances are alive with a voice which was not heard by the colonial proceedings of the trial in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa), but one that nonetheless had a powerful existence.
Perhaps it is all these layers which make this image so fascinating. Perhaps the punctum – that is, what strikes you (violently, even) – in this photograph is the complicated picture of late nineteenth century imperialism in Africa which it forces the modern audience to engage with.