Image as Oppression or Liberation

Sean Yeager

This essay will examine the role of representation in facilitating colonialism and white supremacy. I will compare the discussions of images within The Colonial Harem written by Malek Alloula with those in Black Looks: Race and Representation by bell hooks.

For Alloula, the postcard captures the essence of colonial voyeurism and "becomes the poor man's phantasm" because "it straddles two spaces: the one it represents and the one it will reach." He describes this effect as happening across all colonized cultures, but says that the relationship between images and oppression is complicated in Algeria, where "Draped in the veil that cloaks her to her ankles, the Algerian woman discourages the scopic desire (the voyeurism) of the photographer." This dissonance means that, "The exoticism that he thought he could handle without any problems suddenly discloses to him a truth unbearable for the further exercise of his craft." The exchange becomes an act of resistance because the Algerian woman can view the colonial voyeur, and not the other way around.

hooks also discusses the link between representation and racialized repression, summarizing that "From slavery on, white supremacists have recognized that control over images is central to the maintenance of any system of racial domination." This is due to the more general phenomenon that, "the real world of image-making is political." Images are so central to identity that, "We experience our collective crisis as African American people within the realm of the image." In particular, hooks focuses on the prevalence of negative depictions of black people and how it leads to internalized racism. This can be seen in her students, who "wanted to talk about black self-hatred, to hear one another confess (especially students of color) in eloquent narratives about the myriad ways they had tried to attain whiteness, if only symbolically." This moment of realization is important for hooks because it indicates how deeply these false images have penetrated.

The main difference between the texts is that Alloula strictly discusses the ways that photography may be used to facilitate subjugation. In his schema, liberation occurs by resisting the camera, or any image making device which reinforces the colonial practice of othering. While hooks also recognizes the image's role in maintaining the oppressive status quo, she identifies it as a battleground—a place to unravel white supremacy. She advises, "As a radical intervention we must develop revolutionary attitudes about race and representation. To do this we must be willing to think critically about images." hooks offers more hope for the future by saying that "the logic of white supremacy would be radically undermined if everyone would learn to identify with and love blackness." In light of her previous quotation, this necessarily involves changes in the representation of blacks.

Both texts agree that images shape discourse. They demonstrate that images may be used to establish, reinforce, or undermine hegemonic structures. The ethical artist must bear this in mind and consider the ramifications of the work they produce.


Alloula, Malek."The Colonial Harem. Theory and History of Literature 21 (1984): 3-26.

hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: South End Press, 1992).