Photography and Civic Engagement

Photographic Portraits as Social Capital and Social Theft

By Laura Wexler, Ph.D.

Photo of Laura Wexler, PhD

Laura Wexler, Ph.D., is the Charles H. Farnam Professor of American Studies, and Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies at Yale University, and Acting Co-Chair of the Public Humanities Program at Yale, where she studies the photographic reproduction of race, gender, sexuality, class, and region from the mid-nineteenth century to the present.  In 1999, she founded and continues to direct the Photographic Memory Workshop at Yale. Along with many essays, chapters, presentations, and reviews, her publications include Tender Violence: Domestic Visions in an Age of U.S. Imperialism, which won the Joan Kelley Award of the American Historical Association, and Pregnant Pictures, with photographer Sandra Matthews.

Wexler is co-author of Photography and Collaboration: A Potential History, examining the history of photography through the lens of collaboration, along with co-authors photographer Wendy Ewald, photographer Susan Meiselas, and scholars Ariella Azoulay and Leigh Raiford (Thames & Hudson, 2023). She is also at work on a monograph titled The Awakening of Cultural Memory, analyzing photographs as sites of memory that helped to produce and resist the politics of White supremacy in post-Reconstruction Louisiana.

The following essay is adapted from Laura Wexler’s lecture Photography & Restitution: The Civil Potential of the Image, and the question-and-answer session that followed on November 20, 2022, hosted by CENTER for The Democratic Lens discussion series.

By 1900, the upper reaches of the Southern elite had largely accomplished its goal of being made whole again economically. The sons of former slave holders used social networks to aid their recovery after the Civil War by marrying up. Photo: "Vintage photograph of a young man and woman from the Victorian era circa 1880." © iStockPhoto, ID 82748912

If we are to comprehend how “photography has evolved to be an essential device for influencing the history, culture, and future of the national narrative,” as The Democratic Lens invites us to consider, it will be necessary to inquire deeply into the structures of that exchange. 

It is electrifying that the earliest articulations of the democratic value of photography were made by former American slaves.

At a particularly low ebb of the Civil War, when it was still unsettled which army would win, when the scope and scale of death, disease and destruction seemed endlessly unhinged, the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass offered the nation a prescription for progress: photography.

 In Douglass’s analysis, photography was, first of all, a democratic form. Douglass wrote, “Men of all conditions may see themselves as others see them.” At the very least, as Douglass had earlier argued in the newspapers he edited, photographs could counter the nasty and disfiguring images of racial difference that were circulating widely in political cartoons doing public as well as private harm. Also, like the telegraph, the steam engine and the railroad, he thought, photographs could foster increased sympathy between socially segregated communities of people who could see more clearly in photographs than in paintings the things they shared. Beyond this, Douglass also understood photography’s greatest promise: that people could use it to discern not what was and is, not what we already share, but what yet still might be.

"Douglass also understood photography’s greatest promise: that people could use it to discern not what was and is, not what we already share, but what yet still might be."

Photographs could give to those who study them the ardent, uncompromising, and wholly necessary impression that a different future is possible. 

What Douglass saw in photography was not solely that it expanded communication, self-representation, and the ability to speak across social difference. He saw that photographs could imbue citizens with enhanced power to imagine and share forms of community with which they were not already familiar. 

I like to think that in Douglass's own life, a picture may have led to a recalibration of the possible. One of the first things he did when he emancipated himself was to go to a New York daguerreotype gallery and get a picture made of himself. In the image taken right after his victory over his master, did new possibilities of life appear?

A depiction of a daguerreotype gallery in New York City in the 1840s. Shortly after emancipating himself in 1838, Douglass arrived in New York City and visited a daguerreotype studio to have his portrait made.

The very idea that just when he ceased being, according to American law, a subject who was fungible property himself, Douglass wished to make an object of his own image, is a complicated one. Perhaps this transaction was not as benign for a man who famously used to be “a thing,” as he puts it in his several autobiographies.

Douglass had himself photographed repeatedly over his lifetime. These portraits demonstrate a determined and deliberate control of his image, asserting his continually recognizable presence as a retort against the evacuation of that presence leveled by the social death of slavery. Through them, he became an icon, recognizable wherever he went.

In the book Picturing Frederick Douglass, authors John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd and Celeste-Marie Bernier state that abolitionist Frederick Douglass was the most photographed man of the nineteenth century. Photo: Southworth & Hawes, c. 1845. Onondaga Historical Association Museum.

Yet it is just here, where we encounter Douglass's deepest hope for photography as a democratic vista, that we may also perhaps find its deepest injury. Why was it necessary to keep repeating the event of the photograph? Might it be that the public social capital of a photograph diminished rapidly in the public sphere for African American men and women? Douglass might repeatedly present his own pose as a public figure for public consumption, but he could not singlehandedly reinvent the context in which such pictures would be displayed. Because Douglass understood the camera as a weapon, he knew that after the war there would be a need of pictures still. These pictures, he believed, would point the way to the future of American democracy. But he was unsure where the nation would find “the supply.”

In the 1880s and 1890s, pictures of eligible young Southern men and women were cultural capital in a literal sense.

Douglass’s enemies also grasped the world-making power of photography. The Southern elite in defeat weaponized photography too. If Douglass used portraits to emphasize his rightful place on the public stage, Southern patriarchs used portraits to assert their claim on American domestic space. This defeated population, profoundly aggrieved, instrumentalized private life to be made whole.

The cessation of the Civil War left more than 750,000 dead, including over one-sixth of the entire Southern white male population. As many as 1. 2 million Americans had enlisted in the Confederate army and taken up arms. The loss of the formally enslaved persons they had previously considered household property produced one of the largest transfers of wealth in human history. Lacking African American labor, many Southern plantation owners had to sell their land at steep loss at auction. 

The steepest losses in Southern white families’ wealth occurred at the top of the economic ladder. While Northern wealth holders above the fifty-fifth percentile experienced an approximately 50 percent increase in property holding over the 1860s, the value of property owned by Southerners fell nearly 75 percent. The drop was especially pronounced for personal property: those in the top 10 percent of Southern wealth distribution experienced a 90 percent drop in the value of their personal property while real property wealth was cut approximately in half. 

Yet, new data analysis by economists has shown that by 1900, the upper reaches of the Southern elite had largely accomplished its goal of being made whole again economically. It has been suggested that this restoration was accomplished less through social policy, inherited ability, entrepreneurial skills, or specific human labor. Rather, “Slave holders’ sons used social networks to aid their recovery.”

Family photographs can be sites of enormous pain, as well as the most precious memory. The investment in restorative, redemptive White supremacy was real in the marriages of the former slave-holding elite in the South at the turn of the century.

First, close social ties between slave-holding families facilitated investments in new ventures. This perhaps is no surprise. But “secondly,” say the economists who wrote the study, “We document that slaveholders’ sons married spouses from other former slaveholding families, particularly families that did not experience wealth losses as large as their own during the war period. And thirdly we find that slaveholders who had surname-based connections to the most elite families recovered most quickly.” In other words, the sons of the ruined planters married up. Within one or two generations, they had largely replenished the wealth their fathers lost. The authors conclude, “Marriage networks and connections to other elite families may have aided in recovery.”

The conclusions of this study make me think that we need to look again at photography as a scene of production and exchange. Apparently, we ought not to think of photographic studios as business enterprises merely. They were nodes in social networks long before Facebook was a gleam in anyone's eye. We should see that in the 1880s and 1890s, family portraits of handsome, eligible young Southern bachelors and beautiful, refined young White women were not simply a private expression of personal and family pride. They were cultural capital in an astonishingly literal sense. And they were enormously effective.

"The conclusions of this study make me think that we need to look again at photography as a scene of production and exchange."

Frederick Douglass, who lacked inherited cultural capital, searched for a way to circulate his photographs as signs that would permanently secure the aura of his humanity. But judging from the number of portraits that he made, he could never quite alight on a single image.

At the same time, Southern White boys, representing the inherited social capital of White supremacy, could hardly shake it off. Such images worked well into the next century to avert the honorific gaze of custom and the law from men and women who were photographed at the scene of lynchings, and thus were witnesses, if not accomplices, to the crime.

Photographic studios were not merely business enterprises. In the Reconstruction South, they were nodes of social networks long before Facebook was a gleam in anyone's eye. Photo: Louis Prince’s Photographic Studio on Canal Street in New Orleans, courtesy of Washington Artillery.

In the redemption of Southern whiteness, photographs provided a significant means by which those who committed the crimes recovered their prosperity. The impunity of these family photos are what I have been calling “social theft.”

In conclusion, I would say it is not wrong to follow Douglass in emphasizing the civic democratic potential of photography. But there is very difficult work to do before we get there. Photographs do equip diverse American communities to do this work because diverse American communities know full well to refuse a photograph’s record of what was never so. But we first must untangle the full account of historical investment in the Whiteness of the family photograph before the civic promise of photography can truly be unleashed. 

Roland Barthes wrote in Camera Lucida that photography is violent “not because it shows violent things, but because on each occasion it fills the sight by force, and because in it nothing can be transformed or refused.” It is extremely difficult, as Barthes explains, to resist the way the photograph immediately fills the eye. It is the seeming inevitability of the picture, its oneness with the appearance of the world, its authority, and its completion, that allows it to steal our democratic heft.


• Ager, P., Boustan, L., and Eriksson, K. “The Intergenerational Effects of a Large Wealth Shock: White Southerners after the Civil War.” American Economic Review, 111 (11): 3767-94

• Stauffer, J., Trodd, Z. and Bernier, C. Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century's Most Photographed American. 2015. W.W. Norton.

• Wexler, L. Tender Violence: Domestic Visions in the Age of U.S. Imperialism. 2000. University of North Carolina Press.

• Wood, A.L. Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940. 2011. University of North Carolina Press.

Text © Laura Wexler