Polaroid, Power and Western Imperialism

Witold Kanicki

Keywords: Polaroid; Colonization; Imperialism; Americanization; Photographic weapon

Participation: presential

Historians of instant photography often see it as a microcosm of an ideal America, "combining the idea, technology, organization, business, corporation, brilliance, speed, colors, candidness, reliability, competitiveness, progress and, last but not least, the entertainment" (see Ewing, 2017). Perhaps, it was Polaroid's identification with America that influenced instant photography to be used not only in the amateur family practice of Westerners, but also in various moments of promoting Americanness around the world. The Polaroid, which seemed like an innocent toy, was also sometimes an excellent means of controlling people, spreading imperialism, subject to racial conflict, and even colonization or aggressive promotion of the American (or just Western) point of view. The paper will focus on various (often unknown or marginalized) uses of Polaroids as a tool for consolidating power through photography and photographic technology.

While it might seem that in the hands of werstern tourists, instant photography cameras only served the role of travel documentation, numerous accounts point to the use of Polaroids in the process of winning over locals or as a magical device used to assert cultural dominance. It is for these reasons that anthropologists have used the Polaroid during field research, enchanting natives with the magic of the technology. However, the most striking examples of instant photography's entanglement with the apparatus of power, dominance and oppression are shown in police and court photographs, and especially in the ideology of apartheid in South Africa. Polaroids were also used during the Cold War by the security services of various countries of the former communist bloc. On the other hand, Americans, aware of the cultural value of the Polaroid, were eager to ship and promote instant technology in countries such as People's Republic of Poland, thus emphasizing the superiority of capitalist industry. In the days before the digital age, political dissidents (as well as various minorities) enjoyed the intimate benefits of instant photography, using it to defend themselves from the authorities or to fight the oppressiveness of the regime.


P. Buse, The Camera Does the Rest: How Polaroid Changed Photography, Chicago- London 2016
E. Carpenter, Oh, What a Blow That Phantom Gave Me!, New York 1974.
W.A. Ewing (ed.) The Polaroid Project: At the Intersection of Art and Technology, London 2017
E. J. Morgan, The World Is Watching: Polaroid and South Africa, Enterprise & Society, vol. 7, no. 3 (SEPTEMBER 2006), pp. 520-549


Dr. Witold Kanicki (Born 1979) – is an art historian, assistant professor in Department of Art Education and Curatorial Studies, University of the Arts in Poznan (Poland), and former guest lecturer in Zurich University of the Arts (Switzerland). He worked as an independent curator and critic. Recently he published a book on Wacław Nowak’s Polaroids (Wacław Nowak. Polaroid - an imported process, Poznań/Lusowo 2021) and its specificity in the communist country. His PhD book (Ujemny biegun fotografii) concerned the history of negative images in art and was published in 2016 by Słowo/Obraz, terytoria editorial house. Author of more than 50 articles, published in scientific journals, as well as in catalogues of exhibitions and magazines on contemporary art and photography. A member of editorial board of „Membrana Magazine” edited in Slovenia. Participated in many conferences (Including: 2nd International Conference in Photography and Theory, Ayia Napa, 2012, Cyprus; 3rd International Conference in Photography and Theory, Nicosia, Cyprus, 2014; Photography and the LEFT, Lisbon, 2016, Portugal; Faktizität und Gebrauch früher Fotografie, Rome 2017). Currently works on the history of Polaroid in Poland.