Abstract

This essay considers the ethically complex figure of the feminine witness to suffering by thinking in-depth about photographer and installation artist Carrie Mae Weems's installation From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried (Weems 1995–1996). The essay is concerned with interpreting the controversy surrounding From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, controversy that focuses on the question whether Weems is ethically wrong to show, in her series, daguerreotype images of enslaved and arguably humiliated women, images that Weems rephotographs and re-presents, drastically altering their original presentation. In interpreting this controversy, I forward an original reading of some aspects of Weems's series while commenting on the fact of the controversy in contemporary criticism. I focus my inquiry on the juxtaposition of two figures in the series, photographs that Weems has rephotographed and altered by tinting and inscribing: an image of George Specht's “Nobosodrou, Femme Mangbetu” and daguerreotypes of enslaved fathers and daughters taken as part of a nineteenth-century anthropological study. I consider how the Specht image functions as a problematic figure for the witnessing of images of enslaved Americans. This 1925 image is positioned as a witness insofar as Weems constructs her installation in the form of a very complicated sentence that crosses and weaves between images. My argument ultimately draws from Arthur C. Danto's notion of a “project of identity” that the artist respects, or fails to respect, in her subject. Commenting on Danto's useful paradigm, I conclude the essay by suggesting that Weems deploys the witness function in From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried in a way that respects the “project of identity” of the abused photographic subjects whose images she recasts. Reading the controversy surrounding this series as a reflection of its power, I work dialectically through considering key aspects of representations of witnessing the sadistic mistreatment of other human beings.

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