For the past few years, the Camp House, a coffee shop and venue in downtown Chattanooga, has been hosting Theology on Tap, a monthly series which hosts Christian thinkers from all over the country. These thinkers range from pastors to authors to Covenant’s own Dr. Elissa Weichbrodt.
On November 1, people gathered at the Camp House to hear Weichbrodt speak at 6:30 p.m. Her talk was entitled “Looking Justly: Photography, Race, and Gender.” It focused on the ways that images, whether we realize it or not, are always in conversation with each other; a fact that is paramount in understanding the ways that images shape visual culture and our own personal image archives. Consequently, images can act as both blinders and eye-openers to injustice and the Fall.
Dr. Weichbrodt began by chronicling the ways that photography as an artistic medium has been used to shape images of race and prove white superiority over minorities, particularly in the United States. She discussed the conception we often have of photography as objective truth—we put trust in photos that we don’t put in other images because we don’t think of photos as “made” images in the same way as other media; in our minds, photography often stands out as a means of documentation instead of a curated reality.
Therefore, photography has often been used to further define our preconceived notions of what reality should be. It reinforces cultural expectations for both femininity and masculinity. After introducing these cultural expectations, Dr. Weichbrodt began to unpack what Biblical expectations for femininity and masculinity are.
She argued that what the Bible defines as good womanhood or manhood differs greatly from what our culture says is good womanhood or manhood. Likewise, Dr. Weichbrodt discussed how Biblical notions of “race” really center around the human race, and not any specific race as we think of it today on earth. Heaven doesn’t focus on black and white, but instead includes diversity and doesn’t seek to segregate.
Next, she went on to talk about the 1957 Johnny Jenkins photograph of the integration of Little Rock Central High School and how it changed perceptions of the black body, specifically the black female body. Elizabeth Eckford clearly best occupied the space in our visual archive for the dignified body: she stood with straight posture, contained arms, and the kind of poised-but-stoic facial expression that all upstanding young women should have. The only exception was that Elizabeth Eckford was black. However, by being this kind of image, she created a new space in our archive for the black body—instead of the hypersexualized black woman, Elizabeth Eckford became the dignified black body in pain.
Dr. Weichbrodt concluded by explaining that as Christians, we are called to recognize the dignity of others. Doing this means examining our own personal visual archives—the things that make up our implicit biases and tell us what to believe—and perhaps becoming more aware of the things that we may (or may not) be including in our archives, and how they affect our view of the world around us.