Why Representation Matters: Photography, Community, and Narrative in A Kind of Return
Representation matters. The images that make up our shared sensory world have the capacity to influence how we see that world and the people who inhabit it. However, those images are not necessarily neutral – what we see represented and how that representation takes place can function as interpretive lenses through which we understand reality. Media representations of particular events, individuals, or groups can encourage ethical reflection on both self and world, though they are just as likely to stunt nuanced engagement, instead fostering easy – and ultimately harmful – stereotypes and binaries.
The exhibit, 9 Bats, by Jalani Morgan, on display at University of Toronto, Scarborough’s Doris McCarthy Gallery from September 24, 2019 to November 30, 2019, offers viewers images of Devon, a fictional 5-year-old boy falling in love with the sport of baseball. As a documentary photographer, Jalani Morgan has centered the issue of race in his previous works, and 9 Bats is no different. Through a series of photographs, Morgan creates space for viewers to contemplate issues spanning from representation of black players in contemporary baseball, to the normalization of everyday black stories that avoid a “positive-negative” binary. It is not uncommon for media representations of blackness to focus on one of two narratives: 1. The narrative of black suffering, which emphasizes violence, criminality, racial prejudice and bigotry, and other negative experiences, and 2. The narrative of black excellence, which emphasizes extraordinary achievers from communities of colour. Both ends of this binary may ultimately be reductive, erasing the complexity of normalcy and the power to simply be human – at once flawed and resilient, marred and marvelous, able to succeed and to fail. Morgan invites viewers to witness Devon’s journey as a young, black baseball player, a child with potential, enthusiasm, intentionality and the means to pursue those intentions, equipped to take on a new opportunity and to do so in a way that reduces him neither to his success or his failure. Here, the simple act of learning and playing a game takes on significance far beyond the frame of each photograph.
For your final two major writing assignments for the course, you will compose an annotated bibliography. Each entry should include the full bibliographical information for the text (using MLA 8 format), a 1-2 paragraph summary of the book, essay, or chapter in question. Each summary should include the work’s key thesis/argument and a reflection on the text’s applicability to your own research topic or area of interest.
All essays should include discussion of the following prompt:
The DMG exhibit, 9 Bats, implicitly pushes back against dominant media narratives, stereotypes, and representations of blackness and members of black communities. What are the dominant narratives, stereotypes, and representations critiqued by this exhibit, and why do these warrant countering, both from artists (as in this exhibit) and from scholars (e.g., bell hooks and other scholars who write about race and representation)? Why are artists and scholars concerned with representation, and why are both negative and positive stereotypical representations of blackness potentially problematic and worthy of countering, in both artistic and academic pursuits? How do artistry and academia mutually support and reinforce each other in exploring such challenging and important issues?