The description is submitted to:


Session R6407 (Picturing the Middle East and its Diasporas: Memory, Migration, and Archives in New Digital Landscapes), 2021
This presentation will focus on family photographs, their recent proliferation in digital archives, and their use in research projects concerning enslavement. While these sources are referred to as "family" photographs, I argue that these photographs are representations of a household, which included their enslaved domestics. With the recent spike in interest in enslavement in the Iranian, and more broadly, Middle Eastern context, these photographs have received special attention from researchers in their ability to shed light on relational dynamics between the enslaver and the enslaved.

Little has been written on the use of photographs from an enslaving family to discuss those they enslaved. Photographs, such as these, have been published in books, archives, and even social media accounts where descendants of the enslaving family claim the photograph as proof of intimacy between their families and their enslaved domestics, referring to enslaved women as “second grandmas” or other terms of endearment. Even less attention, however, has been given to the very lack of photographs from the families of freedpeoples and their descendants in these same archives. It seems that photographs as evidence of benevolence only exist from the enslaving families.

Further, the nature of black and white photography in 19th and early 20th century Iran further obscures racial and ethnic demarcations of enslavement, leading to simplistic determinations of a racial binary imposed from a 21st century lens both in academic and non-academic settings. These problematic determinations are further exacerbated by their circulation on social media, where the same individuals share the photos without much context but describe them in reflections on race relations in Iran. Again, photographs of enslaved peoples are wielded to demonstrate the compassion of the enslaving family, with no mention from descendants of the enslaved. Overall, this presentation will highlight some of the various problems and pitfalls of relying on such photography for the study of enslavement and race in Iran.