"Images can dehumanise us. They can make it easier to kill people,” says Mark Sealy, curator of Human Rights Human Wrongs, currently on exhibit at The Photographers' Gallery
“I grew up in Newcastle, sat on buses with characters calling me ‘Chalky’,” says Mark Sealy, founder of Autograph ABP. “I still carry the legacy of that. I know what it’s like to be called a n*****r; I had to go through all that shit. And that’s just a simple game, the menace of little kids.”
For Sealy, these experiences haven’t stopped, they have simply become subtextual. “We do it on a cultural and political level,” he says. “We create fear in others. Look at the history of the representation of Jewish people before the Holocaust; images can dehumanise us. They can make it easier to kill people.”
Sealy has no qualms about recounting such memories to a journalist, describing himself as a “militant nightmare”. But if he is, he’s managed to break the mainstream anyway – born in Hackney in 1960 and raised in Newcastle, he won an MBE two years ago for services to photography and is currently in the midst of a PhD at Durham University, researching the link between photography and cultural violence. We’re sat in Sealy’s office above the Rivington Place gallery in London’s Shoreditch, the headquarters for Autograph ABP, a charitable photography foundation that focuses on black identity and representation. Often reappraising forgotten or overlooked archives, it’s a quietly radical organisation because it asks us, again and again, to think about who writes history.
We’re here to talk about Sealy’s new exhibition, Human Rights Human Wrongs, opening at The Photographers’ Gallery rather than at Autograph ABP due to scheduling issues, “and because their audience needs it”. Featuring more than 250 prints from the Black Star press archive, it aims to unpack some of the myths surrounding the Civil Rights Movement. “The show is trying to create a context for the framing of these stories,” Sealy says. “To challenge the idea of the single image and the decisive moment. I’m asking why things become seminal.”
I ask if it’s a rebuke to how we understand the Civil Rights Movement; Sealy says not, but that it does provide a wider context. “It’s problematic to look at history in terms of one distinct movement – as if things begin and end there,” he says. “You can’t look at an event like Selma [Martin Luther King Jr’s 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, now the subject of an Oscar-tipped film] in political isolation, but I think our image culture still does so. We can’t fall into that trap.”
Sealy believes our understanding of rights, race and representation has become mythologised and romanticised, safely zipped up into the past rather than thought of as a movement that continues today. “So the show pays attention to the fact that Martin Luther King Jr was in conversation with African independence leaders, that Malcolm X was making a hajj to Mecca,” he says. “We know that these things were happening, and they were without doubt inter-connected to what was happening in America. We know that pan-African ideologies were essential to their thinking. But it’s not talked about.”
The show is framed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948 at the Palais de Chaillot, Paris. Article 6 of that declaration gave all humans the right to representation. “I wanted to explore what that means – culturally, politically, racially and visually,” says Sealy. “Because this term ‘universal’ and the idea of rights is actually deeply problematic.
“Debates surrounding race and representation have not always been linked to the question of human rights, but visual representation is fundamental to what rights we have. Unless we resist these cultural erasures, unless we make that which is seemingly uncomfortable into something visible, then it will continue.”
And this, he says, is anything but historical. Look around the world now, he says, and “vast swathes of people – refugees, the asylum seekers, economic migrants – have no rights at all. And that makes them ‘no ones’. How is this not a matter of extreme urgency?”
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