Citizen Subjects: photography, race and belonging in Canada

by | Sep 16, 2017 | Photography, Research | 0 comments

When Canada’s first citizenship laws came into effect in 1947, photography had already been representing this mode of belonging in the country for more than 50 years. Citizen Subjects: photography, race and belonging in Canada explores this unique context that allowed Canadian citizenship to emerge as a subject of photography long before it became a legal category. Building on research conducted in local, municipal, and national archives from coast to coast, this multi-year research project explores the intersections of photography, race, and citizenship, testing the promises—and limitations—of visual representation in securing identities and rights.

Comprising exhibitions, scholarly articles, a series of newly commissioned public installations, and an interactive website that allows users to build a visual vocabulary of citizenship, this interdisciplinary project invites audiences to think critically about questions of belonging in and around Canada’s sesquicentennial year. How did subjects use the camera to make claims for equality as citizens before the law offered them any such protections? What are the gestures, expressions, poses, and modes of dress that we recognize as performances of citizenship? How were race and citizenship imagined, and pictured, alongside one another?

Two important dates in thinking about visuality and citizenship frame the project: it starts in 1900, which marks the introduction of the cheap and portable Brownie camera by the Kodak Eastman Company, and greatly expanded access to camera equipment to marginalized communities, and it concludes with the enactment of Canada’s first citizenship laws in 1947. These were, somewhat unbelievably, the first citizenship laws in the British Empire. The period between the end of the Second World War and the start of the Cold War is also important because it marks a host of other nationalist and de-colonial movements worldwide, including the passing of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Man, the partition of India and Pakistan, the start of apartheid in South Africa, the Non-Aligned Movement, and the destruction of Palestine and the creation of the state of Israel, among many others. Focusing on this period between 1946 and 1948 illuminates how Canadian visual culture participates in global and transnational movements and forces the spectres of the transatlantic slave trade and settler colonialism to come back into view.

In a contemporary moment marked by increasing restrictions on citizen rights, such as Bill C-51, public debates about the global refugee crisis, and political movements such as Idle No More and Black Lives Matter, the project of building a visual vocabulary of citizenship takes on political urgency for a wide range of audiences in Canada. By examining how citizenship appears in photographs, Citizen Subjects develops critical knowledge about why certain subjects continue to be left out of legal framings of citizenship and builds the public’s visual literacy for recognizing current claims to citizenship by immigrant communities, people of colour, and Indigenous subjects. As modes of digital photography and online platforms for visual dissemination continue to grow, the findings of this research have broader implications for citizen journalism, for popular understandings of how we picture citizenship, and for citizenship and immigration policy formation.

Citizen Subjects examines materials held in collections across Canada, including:

Archives of Ontario (Toronto, ON)
Black Star Agency, Ryerson Image Centre (Toronto, ON)
City of Toronto Archives (Toronto, ON)
Library and Archives Canada (Ottawa, ON)
Multicultural History Society of Ontario (Toronto, ON)
Nova Scotia Archives (Halifax, NS)
Rare Books and Special Collections, University of British Columbia Library (Vancouver, BC)

Citizen Subjects: photography, race and belonging in Canada is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Parts of the research informing the project have also received support from the Ryerson Image Centre’s Elaine Ling Research Fellowship and Fulbright Canada.

Research Assistants: Samaa Ahmed, Chantelle Hope, Benjamin Hunter, Maya Wilson-Sanchez