Picturing Canadian citizenship in the Black Star Collection

by | Aug 8, 2016 | Photography, Research | 0 comments

Throughout the month of June, I had the pleasure of working in the Black Star agency’s collection at the Ryerson Image Centre (RIC) through their Elaine Ling Fellowship. During that time, I looked through more than 3,300 photographs in the collection, as part of the early stages of a five-year research project that examines how citizenship was pictured in Canada between 1900 and 1948. The goal of this fellowship was to investigate how citizenship emerged as a photographable subject in Canada, alongside representations of race and ethnicity, and to examine how representations of Canadian citizenship responded to the visual cultures of civil rights, immigration and nationalist belonging that circulated in American and international newspapers during the same period.

The Black Star Collection, like most archives, follows its own internal, and often eccentric logic. In this case, the RIC has maintained the subject headings used by the photo agency to organize its prints, most of which seem to be determined by world events, geography, or what constituted “typical” photographic subjects at the time to make it easier to supply illustrations for news and magazine stories. “CANADA / EDUCATION-COLLEGE MONTREAL AND TORONTO” or “CANADA / PEOPLE (CHILDREN)” are typical ways of organizing some of the thousands of images in the collection, and demonstrate how wide-ranging and impossibly broad the Black Star photographers’ interests were.

Since my hope was to look across these various discrete subject headings to find multiple instances when racialized subjects in Canada may have used their encounter with the camera to make claims for citizenship before 1948, much of my time in the archives as spent looking for any material produced in Canada during this period. Though the majority of the Black Star photographs were taken in the United States, and most are dated after 1950, several hundred images were taken in Canada before 1948 by commercial photographers and photojournalists, including Don Coltman, Richard Harrington, Don Rutledge, W. Eugene Smith and T.J. Wheeler. The focus of most of these images is on indigenous subjects (problematically labelled “Indians” within the subject headings), and particularly on family units as they negotiate the natural landscape, but several also document the urban social landscape in Canada, including public demonstrations and democratic events, such as a referendum on implementing the draft during the Second World War. These photographs provide valuable evidence of the diversity of Canada’s population during this period and helped me to begin to identify the formal conventions most often used by subjects and photographers to claim the position of the citizen: a central goal of my larger research project.

Another important component of my time in the archives was to use the Black Star material to ask how civil rights were pictured in the United States during the period under study (1900–1948), in the hopes of tracing the cross-border exchange of images that helped Canadians define citizenship as a visual category before it was formally codified in law. Canada’s adoption of the Citizenship Act (1947) well into the twentieth century means the idea of citizenship, and its representation, had circulated in the US for more than 150 years before being enshrined in Canadian law, shaping the experiences—and representations—of minorities, immigrants and indigenous groups on both sides of the border. Photographs by Ralph Crane, Russell Lee, Franklynn Peterson and several unknown photographers illuminated the strategies that subjects used to claim equal rights, or to attest to the violation of their civil dignities, in segregation-era America. Many of these images circulated internationally and would have helped to form the visual vocabulary of citizenship that Canadian subjects and photographers turned to when staging images of their own.

One of the benefits of working in such a capacious collection was the ability (thanks to the incredible work of Charlene Heath and Jackson Klie at the RIC, who helped sort and scan material before my arrival) to scan an array of visual culture from the same period to think about the other kinds of images that spectators would have had available to them as readers. It quickly became clear that a study of how citizenship came to be pictured in Canada needed to also consider how world events shaped transnational definitions of citizenship in 1946 (when Canada’s first citizenship laws were passed in parliament), 1947 (when Canadian citizenship came into effect), and 1948 (when the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Man was passed). By examining the photographs produced during this three-year period, it became clear that representations of everyday life in Canada and the US were markedly different, in both content and tone, from those in Europe, Latin America and Asia. Post-war rebuilding, workers’ strikes, international immigration, and economic collapse characterize many of the images of Europe and England taking during this period, while international political events, such as the creation of Pakistan in 1946 (leading to a huge influx of refugees into India in 1947 and 1948) and the partition of Palestine in 1948, feature prominently in several photo essays. This visual lexicon of citizenship (or non-citizenship) in the wake of social trauma and political upheaval are a forceful trope; representations of everyday citizenship in Canada would have invariably been in dialogue with these starker images of suffering. Being able to survey such a wide range of images from this period has been generative in allowing me to analyze what—if anything—makes the visualization of Canadian citizenship unique, and how these representations had to negotiate contemporaneous events on the world stage as they circulated.

Building on the groundwork laid during my RIC fellowship, the next stage of my research will involve analyzing how these images were presented and circulated in print media to make these would-be Canadian citizens visible to the public. Key to this research will be a consideration of how readers responded to these photographic representations of racialized citizens, looking for letters to the editor, political pamphlets, and other forms of public print media that demonstrate that spectators understood these photographs as images of citizenship.