Documentary typologies for Eugenics
There was widespread interest in eugenics in Europe during the first half of the twentieth century. Eugenics is based on the idea that some characteristics are ‘better’ than others and that you can improve the human gene pool by encouraging reproduction between people with desirable genetic traits and discouraging reproduction amongst those with less desirable traits. Clearly the belief that some groups were inherently genetically inferior could be used as a justification for all kinds of behaviour, from colonial rule to modern day racism.
Scientific Racism: The Eugenics of Social Darwinism. one-hour BBC4 documentary
Implicit in eugenics was the idea of classification or objective measuring – pigeon-holing people into particular groups according to their genetic characteristics and treating them accordingly. The Victorians, for example, believed that you could identify criminal ‘types’ through their facial characteristics.
Photography was adopted as a useful tool to facilitate classification.It was manipulated and used by racists and propagandists to endorse a ‘science’ to the public. Such photography effectively dehumanised its subjects and turned them into research objects although its creators might have argued that it was simply documentary – showing what was there. It also served a journalistic function, publicising and legitimising racist organisations and ‘celebrities’ like Margaret Sanger.
In America the eugenics movement was well funded and they produced plenty of indicative material.
Francis Galton photographed immigrants as they arrived in America, often at Ellis Island. He identified 46 different races through measurement and through facial characteristics on photographs. Charts were compiled to show what to expect visually of the Negroid Insane Criminal and the Negroid Criminal. Margaret Sanger’s ‘Negro Project’ sought to restrict the black population, and thus improve the American population, through ‘planned parenthood’ masquerading as health care and family planning.
For more on Malthusian eugenics and the Harlem Project,
The Nazis took this to the extreme by exterminating groups who failed to match the Aryan ideal – Jews, black people, homosexuals, Roma, people with learning disability – and eugenics fell into disfavour after World War II as a result.
The Baldwin lecture and a perspective on post genome race: