Citizen Subjects: Photography, Race and Belonging in Canada

When Canada’s first citizenship laws came into effect in 1947, photography had already been representing this mode of belonging in the country for more than 50 years. Citizen Subjects explores this unique context that allowed Canadian citizenship to emerge as a subject of photography long before it became a legal category. Building on research conducted in local, municipal, and national archives from coast to coast, this multi-year research project explores the intersections of photography, race, and citizenship, testing the promises—and limitations—of visual representation in securing identities and rights.

PROJECT OBJECTIVES: 

  • To source representations of racialized subjects in local, municipal and state archives in the lead up to 1947 and to analyze the visual vocabulary that subjects used to present themselves to the camera as citizens;
  • To evaluate how photographic claims to citizenship in Canada participated in global and transnational understandings of citizenship around 1948, a period of intense activity around de-colonial, civil rights and nationalist independence movements;
  • To engage recent debates about citizenship, race, and photography by problematizing these terms’ historical conjunction with colonialism;
  • To disseminate findings through a one day public symposium at OCAD in Fall 2018, an exhibition at Gallery 44 and Critical Distance in Toronto in Spring 2019, journal publications, conference presentations, pedagogical activities, and an online archive;
  • To visualize the effects of changes to citizenship and immigration law, with the potential to inform Canadian policy formation. 

Comprising exhibitions, scholarly articles, a series of newly commissioned public installations, and an interactive website that allows users to build a visual vocabulary of citizenship, this interdisciplinary project invites audiences to think critically about questions of belonging in and around Canada’s sesquicentennial year. How did subjects use the camera to make claims for equality as citizens before the law offered them any such protections? What are the gestures, expressions, poses, and modes of dress that we recognize as performances of citizenship? How were race and citizenship imagined, and pictured, alongside one another?

Citizen Subjects is framed around an important date in thinking about the history of visuality and citizenship it Canada, focusing on the period leading up to the enactment of Canada’s first citizenship laws in 1947. These were, somewhat unbelievably, the first citizenship laws in the British Empire. The period between the end of the Second World War and the start of the Cold War is important for thinking about Canada’s relationship to global and transnational politics, because it marks a host of other nationalist and de-colonial movements happening worldwide, including the passing of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Man, the partition of India and Pakistan, the start of apartheid in South Africa, and the destruction of Palestine and the creation of the state of Israel. Examining race and citizenship between 1946 and 1948 therefore illuminates how Canadian visual culture participates in global and transnational movements, and also forces the spectres of the transatlantic slave trade and settler colonialism—two global processes foundational to twentieth century politics—to come back into the frame of how we picture belonging in Canada.

In a contemporary moment marked by increasing restrictions on citizen rights, such as the recent cap on Syrian refugees permitted into Canada, public debates about the global refugee crisis, and political movements such as Idle No More and Black Lives Matter, the project of building a visual vocabulary of citizenship takes on political urgency for a wide range of audiences in Canada. By examining how citizenship appears in photographs, Citizen Subjects develops critical knowledge about why certain subjects continue to be left out of legal framings of citizenship and builds the public’s visual literacy for recognizing current claims to citizenship by immigrant communities, people of colour, and Indigenous subjects.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:
Timeline of World Events (1947-48)
Blog post about in-progress research
Classroom on “Spectatorship, race and citizenship” (Video program curated by Gabrielle Moser)
Instudio Article "Picturing Race and Citizenship — with Dr. Gabrielle Moser" by Heather Beaumont"

This research was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Creator: 
Image of gloved hands handling photograph.
SSHRC Logo
Monday, September 25, 2017 - 12:00pm
Lab Member: 
Gabrielle Moser
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