Accepted paper:

Sculpturing shadows: absence as agency in a colonial photograph from Senegal


Thomas Reinhardt (LMU Munich)

Paper short abstract:

The paper explores local Senegalese ideas about light and shadow that break with Western notions of shadows as purely indexical “holes in the light”. Drawing on alternative epistemologies of photography, it discusses indigenous concepts of shadows as carriers of symbolic meaning.

Paper long abstract:

Western tradition defines shadows first and foremost as absences of light. This concept leaves no room for interdependencies between shadow casting object and shadow that are not strictly indexical. The same holds true for conventional ideas about photography. The possibilities of digital image processing notwithstanding, there remains a firm belief in a clearly defined cause-effect-relationship between object, apparatus, and artist. In the photographic act, 'agency' is attributed exclusively to the person behind the camera. In my paper, I will explore indigenous ideas about light and shadow that break with this view - at least with respect to one specific photograph. The image in question has been taken (respectively: given!) about a century ago in Senegal. According to Western standards, the photographer has done a poor job, contrasts being too strong and parts of the object remaining hidden in the shade. Local interpretations, however, read the interplay of light and shadows as indicator of an intentional message sent out by the depicted Saint to a future audience. The distribution of light and shadows, thus, is not thought of as indexical but as symbolic carrier of a divine subtext and beneficial power. Accordingly, artistic variations of the motif usually pay very close attention to getting the shadows right. The forms they take on the photograph are not only drawn and painted but glued in sand, stitched on rugs, cut from wood and carved in trees.

panel P35
Light as material culture, experience and practice