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The series of photographs of emancipated slaves to which this one of Wilson Chinn belongs (see here for more in the series) constitutes one of the first times that mass-produced photography was used as propaganda in a campaign for a political goal.

Is it fair to ask if Chinn and the other former slaves, including five children, were once again being exploited by this posing of them for the camera? Or is it more likely that having endured and escaped slavery, they were perfectly willing to lend their visible forms to this publicity campaign? If so, these photographs would embody their agency as an expression of their new-found freedom.

So then would it be right to call this photograph a portrait of Wilson Chinn, in the way it is hard to call portraits the daguerreotypes of Delia, forced into the photographer’s studio to serve as an illustration for a scientific theory, or the unnamed Richards family slave? They both had no agency in how they appeared for the camera, and a “portrait” usually implies the person portrayed has some choice in how she or he is to be portrayed. Yet we also speak of “taking” someone’s portrait, and so there is a sense that we might capture the essence of a person without their knowing or against their will, as often happens in photojournalism.

Would Chinn or the other emancipated slaves from New Orleans freely choose to show themselves in this way, for example in chains, as we see Chinn, if they wanted to make a portrait of themselves? Or would Chinn, like Frederick Douglass telling the story of his slavery and freedom, understand this kind of portrayal as what would in fact best tell the story of who he was and hoped to be?