The Exhausted Bodies of the Colonial Spectacle


The images published in Libération on September 21st and 22nd, 2018 announcing to great fanfare the release of the book Sex, Race & Colonies are appalling. We experienced a visceral pain when we came across them.1 It doesn’t seem to be the same for everyone. So be it. Shamelessly, the front page of the weekend edition consisted of a half-naked black teenager, her hand held by a predatory white colonizer who looks three times her age, and three additional images with half-page photos of the same ilk, or worse, inside. The images are also displayed in the online version of the articles. As we were writing this text, other photographs from colonial sexual predation were splashed across the pages of Mediapart (09/22) and Le Monde Afrique (09/24).2 We also discovered a similar article in The Conversation (09/19). Once again, under the pretext of denouncing or analyzing colonialism, those kind souls are renewing colonial violence through circulating images of non-white women and girls too humiliated and assaulted.3 As if reproducing these images could no longer be profoundly detrimental to these women’s dignity, as if these images were no longer affecting the descendants of these women and all the heirs—on the victims’ side—to this colonial violence.)

The pedagogical virtues of abjection

These victims in the published photographs are ours, they are from where we come, from our lands, from our families. We are not distant, nor detached from these bodies. Even today, we carry the weight of these violent hypersexualizations, of these hyper-accessibilities to the colonized body with us, every day.
“Are we supposed to hide the truth?” we are being asked with indignation, and an extraordinary amount of dishonesty or stupidity – take your pick.

It is, of course, obvious that this horrific history must be told as much as possible. Many of us did not wait for Libération, nor the academic explorers to do so. The circulation of these images is by no means necessary for the production of the truth. And these images will not miraculously change the position of colonial history deniers.

What it does undoubtedly is that it re-stages the horror in a sensationalist way, displays and renews the humiliation, shines a voyeuristic light on the crime without any consideration for the victims.

The need for a collective recognition of imperial crimes ought never to prevent us from being critical of the means we use to talk about them or show them. We are absolutely not grateful to those who use their power to exhibit under the pretext of education.
Shocking, baiting, and reproducing violence is anything but pedagogy. Pedagogy is a complex undertaking that must be thought of with all the people involved. This is not a little tourist expedition between privileged parties, and it is not self-congratulation among one’s own either.

The upcoming book (edited by Pascal Blanchard, Nicolas Bancel, Gilles Boetsch, Dominic Thomas and Christelle Taraud) from which these photos come costs 65 euros. At that price, who is the targeted readership? In which bourgeois living rooms will these odious images once again end up?

Violence, Statute of Limitations and Personality Rights

To the question of whether these photos should be shown or not, we respond unequivocally: shouldn’t the people in the photographs be the first to answer?

Did the humiliated women and children shown in these photos, or their relatives, give their permission? Does anyone even know their names?

We categorically reject the idea that due to the historical colonial barbarity these people lost their personality rights, their right to respect and dignity; that they should be condemned for eternity to be exposed in the barbarian countries that colonized them. Do these people have no right to peace, no right to finally escape this violent fixation?

It matters little to us if some argue that the statute of limitations have passed: the crimes of colonization are imprescriptible since there is no real and far-reaching policy of Reparations (psychological, cultural, economic, spiritual reparations etc.).The possession and publication of images of these crimes must remain legally and morally problematic.

Who owns the rights to these images? And within the framework of a fair and healthy model of Reparations, of real decolonization, who should own them?
We believe that it is imperative that these images, resulting from the devastating plunder of bodies, be returned to the communities who were subject of these assaults.

We categorically reject the alibi of historiography. Who needs to see images to be convinced of sexual domination, of sexual assault? Who needs to view images that play with the limits of child pornography in order to condemn them?4

And how can one ignore the relation between the ease with which these bodies are exhibited and the fact that they are non-white bodies?

How one can ignore the fact that the exhibition of non-white bodies in situations of suffering, degradation and humiliation recurs time and time again to the point of making us sick.

Some object that these images only humiliate the colonists…
Where are their names then? Where are the names of white subjects in the pictures, the name of the photographers, the name of the culprits?5 Where are the ongoing trials? Where are the white supremacists that these images keep awake at night?

And how exactly can photographic mediation which is part of the apparatus of violence, miraculously « suspend » the degrading and humiliating effect on the victims?
It is only possible if one assumes that there is an expiration date on the pain of others. Only if one considers, with a dangerous relativism, that through the past circulation of these images and the passage of time, this violence has now become interesting, watchable, accessible.
Only if one doesn’t give a damn about the feeling of the victims and thinks what is sacred is the act of denunciation—denunciation at the expense of the victims then.

Those who accuse us of puritanism, of political correctness and in a twisted way, displace the question and turn it into a simple matter of being »for or against pornography » are despicable but they bear witness to the inescapable and intrinsic ambiguity of the advertised project. Certain people still clearly intend to derive sexual pleasure, a scopic satisfaction, from these images of Others’ bodies, images taken in the context of colonial and militarized occupation; of racial, economic, cultural, and linguistic domination; and the crushing of peoples, in an all-around context of dehumanization.Such a context cancels or blurs out any notion of consent! Let alone in relation to children, who were not even old enough to give any consent!

Behind the alleged denunciation of colonialism that motivated the publication of these images, we see colonial impunity and good conscience in action leading to a complete carelessness and disregard toward the victims. And one of the unspoken things here is that there will never be real and concrete justice for the tremendous violence that these photos show and that they carry.6  The perpetrators were never compelled to be held accountable. The victims of the photos are probably no longer able of filing a complaint.
Are these bodies unworthy of justice?
The statute of limitations has lapsed, but do not move along folks, there is something to see here!

So what?! Will this be our justice: exhibition? Why does it so resemble the crime itself?
And as it often happens in France, it is the heirs and beneficiaries of white supremacy who set the terms of justice.

Living With These Images

We will not engage here in a long elaboration of the harm that comes from the belief in the omnipotence of the image.
We will not dwell on the book here; we will come back to it at another moment.

Many academics have worked and are working on these issues without feeling the need to show images like these.

But the media that wanted to talk about these issues could have easily chosen to engage with it differently.
These images can be described7 and that would have been enough.
Victims can be anonymized, blurred. It is possible to hide the genitals. They can be de-pornographied, desexualized.
But it is certain that these choices would be less appealing for sale, less shocking, less attractive.

While one of the articles in Libération mentions the questions the book’s co-editors supposedly asked themselves about circulating the images – yielding deeply problematic answers – the newspaper made no mention of its editors’ own choice in publishing the images. Libération decided to make these images widely available again in public spaces, in news kiosks, in stores, and on the internet.

In truth, all of this is testament to all of these people’s desire to create a media stunt at any price.

And this « stunt »is mixed with the constant flow of numerous racist attacks, symbolic or concrete, in France and everywhere in Europe against us and ours. It mixes with the racialized sexism that affects black, Asian, Arab, Berber, Polynesian, Melanesian, Indigenous, Latina women, that affects all non-white women. This sexism manifests itself in the hypersexualization, fetishization and other colonial legacies which were for a long time conveyed through these kind of images, amongst other ways. It manifests itself in access to health care, to employment, in the injunction to be silent, and so on. It manifests today, when everybody feel free to touch the hair of black people. Still today, people feel free to tear at women’s veils, in the eternal obsession of Islamophobic France. Still today, many female migrants are trapped in prostitution networks. Racialized sexism and hypersexualization continue to manifest itself in the violence suffered by non-white sex workers, from the general population and the police. This hypersexualization is exercised wherever non-white bodies are made vulnerable and condemned to be accessible (prison, Centre de Rétention Administrative, migrant worker hostels…) and it is also exercised on non-white men.

Of course, we could give many other examples of permanent re-traumatization.

How to approach a book that seeks to tackle the necessary question of colonial sexual predation but is actually a medium that allows for the widespread re-circulation of violent images of sexual predation?

Showing Violence Does Not Prevent From Reproducing It

Those who oppose us by extolling the virtues of the monstration and exhibition of iconic historical pictures to avoid the repetition of past crimes need to show us the anti-fascist Europe that emerged from the images of the concentration camps. Is it the Europe of San Calogero, that of Salvini, Di Maio, Orbán, that of Chemnitz, that of Calais, where the French governments and their police have been infamous for years? That of Frontex? The one that transformed the Mediterranean into a cemetery for tens of thousands of migrants?
They must also explain to us why these images did not prevent French barbarity from sweeping Indochina, Algeria or Cameroon, etc., or did not prevent France from exporting, in Argentina, Chile, the United States, its « counter-insurgency warfare doctrine » forged by repressing the movement for Algerian National Liberation.
The list would be endless.

And then, how many images would it take to finally understand?1, 4, 1200? More?

Yes, French denial of French colonialism makes the media coverage of colonial sex crimes rare. But no, this should never justify such degrading practices.
Practices that are extremely profitable to those who capitalize on our histories and our suffering if we may add.
Journalists cannot be satisfied with just trying doing their jobs; they must do their jobs with at least a minimum of ethics and reflection.

Word Choice

There is a lot to analyze in the content of the articles. We will just note this:

The front page of the print edition of Libération announces, « 97 researchers unveil an unknown part of six centuries of Western domination. »
In which bubble do these people live who speak of “unknown” history? Who are they kidding?
We, the descendants of the colonized and bearers of this history, have never had the luxury of « unknowing »colonial sexual violence, its traumas, its persistence or its reminiscences!
This violence is accounted for in many of our works that speak of slavery in the Caribbean or the United States.
Yes, it is found in our literature, in our films, in our bodies. But it is also in many other colonial representations (commercials, paintings, cinema, etc.) that the West regularly spit in our faces.
We do not have the luxury of « unknowing, » and given the number of colonial wars veterans in Indochina and Algeria or in Cameroon, the rest of the population should not have that luxury either.

We do not have this luxury, and who can speak of unknowing given the euphemisms and relativism that accompanied the 2017 release of the movie Gauguin?
Can we speak of unknowing when we view the well-documented continuity of sex tourism in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean? The sexual violence related to militarization as in Okinawa, Haiti, Trinidad, etc.? And the testimonies of rapes against minors committed by French soldiers during the Operation Sangaris in Central Africa in 2013? Or the multiple sexual abuse cases involving humanitarian organizations in Haiti, Africa or Asia?

Predators seem to know this « part” of colonization very well. They never seem to tire of these (neo) colonial lands where the possibility of consuming bodies made vulnerable by imperialist domination is limitless; an infinite reservoir of bodies to scrutinize, palpate, violate, etc.8 with complete historical impunity.

Unknown? No. Repressed, hidden, denied, obscured, shameful, enduring. The question is actually not that of unknowing but of a compulsive repetition and of an inexhaustible power of repetition and denial.

And what about the verb « to unveil » used in the title? And these words quoted from Christelle Taraud, co-editor of the promoted book: « we can not deconstruct without unveiling »?Why use this word here, given the violence it carries in the history and contemporary occurrence of racialized sexism?

What about the use of the term « sex safari” in another title?9 The semantics of animalization and hunting, under the guise of deconstruction, are part of the same colonial tradition, as if it were a game or simply about making a pun, as if the colonial sufferings were disembodied.

We will end with these words of Pascal Blanchard who states « nudity is part of the marketing of the colonial expedition. »But isn’t it exactly also part of this book’s marketing? Of the media appeal of recent publications about this book?
And if this « marketing » is common, isn’t it because in the end all this is still and always part of the « colonial expedition »?

White looks and perpetual spectacle

Despite the shock, the violence, we observe without surprise the inexhaustible capacity of French racism. In a certain way, the exotic spectacle of violence suffered by colonized bodies, and the falsely naive rediscovery of the magnitude of these colonial crimes are perpetually replicated.
The truth behind the distribution of these photos is the truth of a white gaze that insists on being central in the narration of suffering.
The reality is that of the monstrous desire of white supremacy and its networks of distribution to be the main voice, the one always authorized to set the terms of our sufferings, and to be its symbolic and real beneficiaries.

It seems that they will never tire of their deadly philosophy of discovery.

In any case, we ask nothing. We fight for our emancipation and will continue to fight. We criticize, expose, and will keep doing so.
We will continue to refuse to dialogue with white supremacy in ways that only feed the society of the spectacle.We will continue to organize and self-educate.

We know very well that soon, authorized non-white voices will say how all of this didn’t shock them, that it is our objections that are shocking, puritanical, that they threaten freedom of expression or are communautaristes10 , in short, any supposedly degrading word in this beautiful France of the Enlightenment. We know that the non-whites who participate in the book will play their part and explain to us how we should receive it.
But all that is also part of the spectacle.

Cases Rebelles Collective

(We warmly thank Ariella Aïsha Azoulay for the translation and Jessie Kindig for the edits.
The original text in French is available here on our website)

  1. In some cases, we were literally forced to see these pictures in all their unfiltered violence because they were lying on a table in our local library, they showed up in our social media feeds etc. []
  2. Pascal Blanchard, Christelle Taraud, Dominic Thomas, Gilles Boëtsch et Nicolas Bancel, « Les imaginaires sexuels coloniaux ont façonné les mentalités des sociétés occidentales » [«The sexual imaginaries have shaped the mentalities of Western societies » Excerpt from the introduction of the book] []
  3. And images of men too since they were also victims of sexual predation, of hypersexualization, etc. However, they appear in a tiny number of the pictures published in the press. []
  4. Of course, we have not seen all the images reproduced in the book, but among those that circulated in the press and online, some represent children. []
  5. Only the name of Jean-Louis Charbans is featured for a picture taken in 193O. []
  6. These pictures do not only “bear witness” after the fact, they are part of the apparatus of sexual violence in question. []
  7. Paradoxically, two articles do describe the pictures and still feature the pictures. []
  8. But isn’t it what the book also sells by including 1200 illustrations? []
  9. The title refers to Pascal Blanchard’s own words in his interview “These images are proof that colonization was a huge sex safari”. []
  10. From the french neologism, “communautarisme” sometimes translated as “ethnic separatism or factionalism”, “ethno-racial factionalism” []