My dissertation research investigated the role of photography in shaping the figure of the citizen, from the late-nineteenth century through to the present. “Picturing Imperial Citizens: the Colonial Office Visual Instruction Committee’s lantern slide lectures, 1902-45” (2014) considered the construction of imperial citizenship in photographs produced by the Colonial Office Visual Instruction Committee (COVIC): a project developed by the British government in 1902 that used geography lectures and photographic lantern slides to teach colonial schoolchildren about the land and peoples of the empire. By examining a mode of colonial education created in the British Empire at the beginning of the twentieth century that combined photography with geographical instruction, the dissertation contends that photography’s relationship to citizenship is historically constructed, colonially inflected and pedagogically reinforced. Viewers must be taught to “see” citizenship in photographs through a pedagogical process that occurs both inside and outside of the literal classroom. While the dissertation finds that photographs are not capable of guaranteeing the rights of citizens, they do offer spectators the opportunity to contest the logic that separates citizens from non-citizens (following Ariella Azoulay’s thinking about the civil contract of photography), and to insist on recognizing and making claims for those subjects otherwise obscured within legal framings of citizenship.
My current research considers how photography has structured race and citizenship as categories of belonging in Canada before 1947, when the first citizenship laws were passed in Canada (the first in the British Empire to legally codify the status of the citizen). Before 1947, citizenship, like race, was an imagined category of belonging and exclusion that was constituted through representations—both textual and photographic—rather than through law. By paying attention to these extra-legal dimensions of citizenship, this research hopes to show that, like race, citizenship is a highly constructed category of belonging, used by both the Canadian government as a tool to manage the population, and by citizens and would-be citizens (including immigrants, illegal “aliens” and indigenous subjects) as a language of resistance and political activism.
Looking for the presence of racialized subjects in the photographic archive who use their engagement with the camera to make claims from the position of the citizen, this research analyzes how photography worked to make race and citizenship into visible categories of belonging and exclusion, and considers how contemporary artists are working to make these weak and non-citizens visible to the public in the present through installations, online archives and performances. By providing this historical context for the emergence of citizenship as a photographable subject in Canada, I hope to complicate contemporary understandings of citizenship and photography as universal languages for claiming rights, demonstrating the ways they were also used for projects of colonial management, racial exclusion and the erasure of indigenous sovereignty.