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Early photographs of slaves are quite rare, and they require particular care to interpret.

For example, is it right to call this daguerreotype photograph from around 1850 a portrait? In her book, Delia’s Tears, Molly Rogers argues that we should not call photographs such as this one “portraits,” because that word implies that the person sitting for the photograph had a choice in how he wanted to be represented ― that the image would be in some real sense a projection of his own self-understanding.

But for an enslaved person being posed for the camera by an owner, this could never be the case. And so, in viewing an image such as this, of the ”Richards family slave,” we need to be very careful about what we think we are seeing, because all of the elements here might have been arranged by the legal owners or by the photographer, and almost certainly not by the man himself, on his own initiative.

For a meditation on the meaning of this photograph, see "Work and the Poetry of Sterling Brown: Reclaiming Forced Labor,” by Anita Patterson, on our essays page.