Reading Images Against Racism
by Su-Ying Lee
The Mandarin word shìchǎng translates into “wet market”—a term that entered Western vocabularies with reports of the COVID-19 pandemic due to the theory that the virus was passed on to humans by an animal sold in a Wuhan, China wet market. Media misrepresentations of the markets have been prolific, drawing readers to join xenophobic calls for their global eradication, perpetuating a long history of associating racialized bodies with disease. In most neighbourhoods there is a wet market located within walking distance. These markets—which exist on six of the seven continents and go by many names—are natural meeting places. In afternoons, school children, parents, and elders transition together out of daytime activities into family and social time as they prepare for the evening meal. Local markets reflect and affirm the cultures and traditions formed by communities over hundreds of years. Ultimately, the condemnation of wet markets is merely one example of how gathering spaces are besieged by whiteness and other forms of normativity that are corroborated by poor media literacy, denying groups their essential places and ways of living and being together.
The volume of these entwined problems became increasingly troubling to me when I noticed a social media post made by an art colleague in late April. Without comment, they posted a Guardian article titled “Halt destruction of nature or suffer even worse pandemics, say world’s top scientists,” written by Damian Carrington, environment editor. Below the headline is an image of the butcher section of a wet market. Four Asian people are visible. In the foreground, at the viewer’s left, a man wearing an apron and sanitary mask worn below his nose and over his mouth stands slightly away from a meat counter, where his eyes rest. His body is turned toward the camera. Behind him is a woman in profile, nose and mouth covered with a mask, standing at a display of whole chickens, in rows, lit by pendant lamps. He wears a ketayap, she a tudung, head coverings indicating that they are Muslim. Partial views of two men wearing masks over their noses and mouths are in the background. Above them hang white-and-red striped flags with a navy blue rectangle in the upper left bearing a yellow crescent and 14-point star. Various cuts of meat, a scale, a bowl, cutting boards, and knives are on the counter and haunches of meat hang above. Occupying the bottom right quarter of the image is the head of a cow. The image description: “A poultry butcher at a market in Kuala Lumpur.” Masks, a wet market, meat that westerners may find confrontational, and Asian people—these have recurrently been used as representations of the pandemic, but why? Why was this image chosen by the newspaper? How are the parts of this news story to be read as a whole? And what effect does sharing this representation have?
Although the shared Guardian article was a catalyst for this exploration, I have seen many art colleague posting unchecked information in light of recent events. Those of us working within art, it would be assumed, have a level of attunement to images, an understanding of how to analytically approach them, and the critical ability to perceive their implications— in short, visual literacy. I spoke to Thy Phu, whose research and public humanities practice examine the intersections between media studies, diaspora, migration, vision, and justice. When looking at photographs, Phu reminds us, we must begin with these fundamental questions: what’s in the image? What isn’t in the image? How do objects in the image relate to each other and encourage identification with the perspective that is primarily emphasized? What kind of identification does the composition encourage? While asking these questions, it is essential to be aware that we bring our own biases, and to critically unpack why certain stories resonate with us, so that we may understand how we as viewers shape the meaning of an image. Photographs, a seemingly innocuous inert object existing in a period of time, are activated by viewers who play a major part in making meaning. As such, we must consider: who is looking? Who is being looked at? What’s the relation ship between the person who is looking and the person who is looked at? How am I as a viewer implicated?
To return to my case study, Carrington states that deforestation, expansion of agriculture, farming, mining, infrastructure development, global travel, and exploitation of wild animals bring humans in contact with animals, where 70 percent of emerging human diseases originate. All to reiterate that “we did this to ourselves,” as the subtitle “Exclusive: only one species is responsible for the coronavirus—humans—say world’s leading wildlife experts” had pronounced. But which humans does the writer consider responsible? Near the end is a quote stating that the pandemic was brought about through the wildlife trade, “in particular the wildlife markets, the wet markets, of South Asia and bush meat markets of Africa.” Although the environmentally destructive activities that North America, Europe, and others wholly participate in were listed to begin with, “Yellow,” Brown, and Black humans are given prominence in both image and text, in effect exempting the former regions from culpability. Carrington’s accusations follow in the footsteps of the British colonial invention of tropical medicine used as a tool of European “expansion” to declare populations diseased and dispossess them of their lands, the perceived existential threat of East Asians encapsulated in the phrase “yellow peril,” and myths about the physiology of Black bodies created to justify enslavement. Although these racializing systems were formalized in the 19th century, their legacies continue today.
Given the article’s brief word count, the image is a substantial part of the “text.” The image of the wet market is used to illustrate the writer’s point that racialized people are too near to animals, making them the cause of disease; tailored for the white gaze, it was selected to evoke repulsion and perpetuate othering. Wet markets differ, and it’s misleading to imply that they all sell wild animals. Not to mention that the un usual animals sold legally for meat in China’s wet markets are raised on small-scale farms. The not-so-subtle subtext of racism in this piece seems ingrained to the point of being considered appropriate to repeat.
I continued this discussion about photographic literacy with Heather Rigg, formerly of the CONTACT Photography Festival, who now works as the curator of exhibitions and public programs at Gallery 44, and is a co-founder of mama. Her work at CONTACT included the curation of An unassailable and monumental dignity (2017), an exhibition that explored the representation of Black men in the public sphere. Through this exhibition, and her ongoing curatorial research, Rigg recognizes that a broad problem exists: photographs are unquestioningly read as truth. For this reason, she discusses intersectionality, the implicit racism that is part of the medium’s history, and ethics as part of the Contemporary Photographic Art course she co-teaches at Ryerson University. Rigg emphasizes scrutinizing captions—and the role that they have played in creating versions of history—as one way of making inquiries into context. She reminds us, too, that the media participate in generating propaganda through the continued use of racist imagery and text that validates and normalizes white supremacy. In the Guardian article, the caption provides the distinction that the poultry butcher is at a market in Kuala Lumpur, supporting the writer’s mounting racial propaganda. Poultry butchers and local markets exist in the publisher’s geographical context, too, and to avoid this is again to bypass the West’s part in environmental and health crises.
Heather and I turned to the complexity of developing methods for critically reading images, for those of us who are portrayed through limiting narratives, and came to identify the role that embodied responses play. Ideologies such as ableism, heteronormativity, and white supremacy are dependent upon enforcing belief in a normative body and thus deny self-definition and inherent worth to those who fall outside such narrow terms. Under such strictures, our images are abject and discomforting. The mechanisms of normative belief systems dismiss the embodied reactions of those that they illegitimate, negating our discomfort. To remain attentive to those sensations is to resist those ideologies, taking agency to unravel imperialistic images and their claims to veracity. Embodied responses to images are a valid and valuable location from which to read against structures of power hoarding.
Body-mind engaged reading can be demanding, especially now when discourses in broad community spaces can be found to lack sensitivity and nuance, and sometimes show up as outright attacks. One essential socially produced space, online communities, has become a platform for the attack of another, thewet market. Because of this, the internet, which has been a solace as a stand-in for in-person community for some, is at the same time an emotional and psychic minefield for many. The news of COVID-19, and the social conditions it brings to the fore, comes through a never-ending feed alongside a great reckoning with the abuses of power and privilege that reverberate into our own art communities. In relation to these matters, I observe the desperate haste to demonstrate that one is on the right side and is making the right argument—instead, it comes across as hollow at best. Investment in sharpening visual and media literacy, and cultivating a consciousness of one’s social location, is a more potent way to contribute to collectively producing intentional online gathering spaces that are beneficial to more of us and avoid reproducing harm.
None of us has a universal perspective. Art consists of a vast ecosystem of individuals— including artists, curators, educators, marketers, fundraisers, directors, writers, editors, publishers, and so forth—making decisions about which images to communicate through. I encourage everyone, but particularly those with any degree of decision-making power to put forth selected images, to return frequently to the sets of questions that have been discussed. Though harmful historical beliefs and practices may seem distant, they continue by way of reader participation and replication. Posting an article with a racist angle—because I believe it is sometimes done without malice—reveals that bias exists deep within the unconscious, unchecked. These posts demonstrate how institutional racism endures, through effortless replication of harmful stories by individuals within. The voices insisting upon account ability, radical change, and divestment from white supremacy from art institutions are reaching a crescendo. These demands are part of the greater project of liberation that is gaining ground, and require profound care toward your role as a maker of meaning.