Living Laboratories as Emotional Sites


I found this image while I endlessly scrolled through Tumblr, immediately stopping to take a closer look. The image was taken by Ian Berry, a British photojournalist, in South Africa in 1969 and was captioned “A young black girl looks after a baby girl for a white family.” This image, coupled with its caption, strikes me as a reflection of the emotional turmoil and/or emotional imbalance within a living laboratory.

At first, I was simply focused on the expression of the young black girl’s face; her expression is one of discomfort, resignation, and detachment. I couldn’t help but feel an extreme amount of sympathy for the girl, who looks like she feels everything but comfort. Her physical position in the car also reflects a sense of discomfort; she’s leaning forward onto the structure in front of her, which can be indicative of her need for physical support or exit from the car. While her expression is one that captivates and intrigues, the juxtaposition created between the young black girl and the white baby is intensely effective in relaying a message. This message is one that speaks volumes on the dynamic between black and white bodies; while the young black girl feels discomfort, as expressed by both her facial expression and position in the car, the baby behind her is sleeping. The contrasts are extremely direct; the young girl is awake; the baby is sleeping; the young girl is uncomfortable and distressed; the baby has a space to rest and looks relaxed.

What I’m trying to convey is that a living laboratory has physical components, as seen through the weaponization of medicine on black bodies, but it also has psychological and emotional components as well. This image has nothing to do with physical harm or violence, yet, as seen in my analysis, I believe that it has all to do with the emotional impact of a living lab and its oppressive dynamics. I do believe that when discussing and viewing a living laboratory we should focus on the physical harm or violence imposed on people of color, but I think it’s also just as important to openly discuss the different ways violence and oppression manifests itself. What do you all think is an effective, or the most effective, way in dismantling and reframing a living lab?

One thought on “Living Laboratories as Emotional Sites”

  1. You made a great point with this post. I cannot agree more with the fact that living laboratories are defined by the emotional and not solely physical impact of prejudice. I would even say that the lack of a way to convey the emotional state of people who have experience of being living laboratories in scholarly articles robs us of the perception of the terror these people went through but which are very real and maybe could be portrayed only through images and songs.
    What I find interesting in the picture is the way space is allocated between the two figures: the baby which is so small relative to the girl, but at the same time occupies a lot of room, while the black girl looks squeezed. I think it serves to represent the idea that in the 20th century there is no place for a person of color in South Africa, one of the countries with the largest white populations on the continent and people of color are, in a way, forced to start looking for their place in the world.
    To answer your question, I think that the most effective way to redefine a living lab is indeed to take into account the psyche of the people and maybe start thinking about the sustained physical harm as an exhibit of a psychological damage and the fact that the transformed mentality is an issue persisting for longer and which is more detrimental to the position of an individual in their community and their society, and hence reflects on one’s completeness as a human being.

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