Mediating racial images 1

After the publication of the book Die erwachende Sphinx and the premiere of the eponymous film in August 1927 (and before producing their ‚Äėunder-age‚Äô versions Als Dreij√§hriger durch Afrika, in August 1928, and Mit Kamera, Kind und Kegel durch Afrika, in November 1928), Ross was touring with his film and intensely busy marketing the first load of his African products. One of the formats he chose to answer questions he had received about his journey, either in letters or during discussions after his lectures, was a captioned series of photos that conveyed ‚Äėfriendly‚Äô imagery of Africa‚Äôs black population.

Ross‚Äôs move away from political (colonial and/or economic racial) discourse was not only a matter of publication context (the Ullstein-owned Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung was one of the biggest popular magazines read by large segments of German society) nor of the new target audience of children. Arguably it was also a way to steer clear of the one-sided, appropriative reviews that the book, lectures, and the film had prompted. In general, right-wing publications tended to interpret them as an affirmation of colonialism and racist segregation, while the left praised them for their social sensibility (although it objected to their sketchy political agenda; (see The social democratic interpretation of racial tensions and Racial tensions as an argument for new global politics). A deliberate mixture of contrasting images seems to have been an advisable response to such  a divided reception. In the photo series, racially determined prejudice, implied uncivilized habits, and the claim for white hegemony that justified exploitation of the black population went hand in hand with the assertion of ‚Äúinternational understanding‚ÄĚ and the intimate and adventurous character of a family trip.

Two of the images were published again in Mit Kamera, Kind und Kegel durch Afrika (no. 1 and 4), at least one of them was made during the shooting of Die erwachende Sphinx (no. 7); the rest seems to have come from a privately owned stock of photos. However, the page Ross conceptualized was introduced by a heavily stylized magazine cover that shows the friendly, smiling traveler in the greatest harmony with two Kavirondo women and a warrior of that tribe, rather uncommon among the contemporaneous depictions of white travelers and black ‚Äėsubjects‚Äô.

Katalin Teller

Colin Ross. Na, wie war’s denn in Afrika? Antworten in Bildern auf die Fragen, die nach meiner Reise an mich gerichtet wurden. Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung: 1927 Nov 27; 36 (48); 1981.

Topic: Race
Case: Speaking engagements

See also

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