To Make Their Own Way in the World

About the Book

To Make Their Own Way in the World: The Enduring Legacy of the Zealy Daguerreotypes

Edited by Ilisa Barbash, Molly Rogers, and Deborah Willis
Foreword by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Photographic Essay by Carrie Mae Weems

Winner, 2021 Rencontres d’Arles Book Awards (Historical)
Bronze Medal, 2021 Independent Publisher Book Awards (Photography)

“Pictures, like songs, should be left to make their own way in the world. All they can reasonably ask of us is that we place them on the wall, in the best light, and for the rest allow them to speak for themselves.”

Frederick Douglass

To Make Their Own Way in the World: The Enduring Legacy of the Zealy Daguerreotypes is a profound consideration of some of the most challenging images in the history of photography: fifteen daguerreotypes of Alfred, Delia, Drana, Fassena, Jack, Jem, and Renty—men and women of African descent who were enslaved in South Carolina.

Made by photographer Joseph T. Zealy for Harvard professor Louis Agassiz in 1850, the daguerreotypes were rediscovered at the Peabody Museum in 1976. Since that time, the images have drawn worldwide interest, provoking wide-ranging interpretation and raising critical questions about the history and conditions of slavery, racism, representation, and identity.

To Make Their Own Way in the World features essays by prominent scholars from the disciplines of history, anthropology, art history, and American studies. Together, they explore such topics as the identities and experiences of the seven people depicted in the daguerreotypes, the close relationship between photography and race in the nineteenth century, and visual narratives of slavery and its lasting effects. The authors also examine the ways contemporary artists have used the daguerreotypes to critique institutional racism in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

With over two hundred illustrations, including a portfolio of stunning new photographs by contemporary artist Carrie Mae Weems, this book frames the Zealy daguerreotypes as works of urgent social and intellectual engagement. With strong resonance with the events shaping American lives today, this groundbreaking multidisciplinary volume is part of Harvard’s ongoing efforts to grapple with the university’s and the country’s historical and enduring connections to slavery.

“At this moment and in these divided states of America, perhaps more than at any time since their rediscovery in 1976,” Molly Rogers writes, “the daguerreotypes of Jem, Alfred, Delia, Renty, George Fassena, Drana, and Jack command our attention, demanding that we look closely, listen intently, and speak out—however difficult this may be—giving voice to all that we have learned.”