Reflections on Photography and Society; Robert Mapplethorpe and the Presentation of the Black Body.

Dennis Kimbugwe | Thursday, November 18th, 2021

Over the years, I have had to learn what the absence of a wholesome portrayal of me and other minoritized peoples signifies, but I have rarely been given the opportunity to truly question what the presence of unwholesome portrayals means. As I read the text from chapter 13 of the book entitled “Czech Photography in the 20th Century by Vladimír Birgus and Jan Mlčoch,” only one statement about Jindřich Štreit’s work seemed to resonate with me and it states “…At one level they are a penetrating sociological study, at another they are a generalizing portrayal of the elementary values of life and the threat to those values.”In part, this statement affirmed some of my feelings when I look at Robert Mapplethorpe’s work, particularly that which concerns itself with the Black body.

For a group of people who were/are not used to seeing themselves reflected in media at all, it is easy to feel the need to take whatever you can get. At first glance, as a Black queer person, I was enamored by the beauty of the photographs and I was left under the impression that his work did a lot to legitimize the concept of Black beauty and therefore acting as some form of representation for the group in which the Black people in his work belong.

With the exception of the first few times, my previous encounters with Mapplethorpe’s work always left me feeling ambivalent. I believe that this state of ambivalence came about because I couldn’t reconcile with the fact that even though there were bodies that looked like me, there was still a missing layer. I felt as though the work could be something more and yet it was just one thing. Was the photographer even interested in the other layers besides the first ones? Was he interested in who these people were or who he wanted them to be? Maybe he was interested in who he thought they were, but what then does that tell us about how he views Blackness?

For me, these questions are always left unanswered which is why the photograph and moment I chose to recreate was one I hoped would inform me of what it must have felt like to sit there, and be looked at but not seen, right before a beautiful record is made just for it to be looked at and not seen, all over again. As I created the photograph, the frustration, fear and discomfort I felt gave me an idea of what it probably must have felt like to be in that position.

One would argue that Mapplethorpe took the same approach with everyone he photographed regardless of their race, gender, and sexual orientation.  I believe it is important to take into account that both the individualized and collectivized identities of minoritized people are more fragile than those of what is considered the majority. In my opinion, this means that there is little to no room for misunderstanding, mishandling, or misrepresenting these identities because the likely damage they suffer might be irreparable.

In conclusion, the material and exercise pushed me to confront and question the idea of presentation and how it is often used but packaged to appear as representation. At this point in time, I am of the view that the Black bodies portrayed in Mapplethorpe’s work were merely presented but not represented.


1.     Figure 1: Dennis Kimbugwe’s artwork, recreation of Ajitto, 1981 by Robert Mapplethorpe.
2.     Figure 2: Stills from “Mapplethorpe” 2018 by Ondi Timoner (01:18:21 – 01:18:36).
3.     Excerpt from the book “Czech Photography in the 20th Century by Vladimír Birgus and Jan Mlčoch” Chapter 13 “From Humanist Photojournalism to Subjective Documentary Photography” page 204.

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