How did photography reflect the values and stereotypes that underlay European colonialism?

On par with the written word, photography is a potent tool of historical documentation.  The advent of still picture devices, as they were crudely called during their initial days, coincided with the peak years of European colonialism.  While the concept of photography is a valuable aid for a historical scholar in presenting “facts”, the prevailing prejudices and biases of the imperial powers had influenced its ultimate usage.  Though, photography had to pass through the veils of imperialist prejudices, it still remains a significant medium of studying history and the mindsets of the people who made that history.

To start with, photography was employed during the 1860’s for research purposes in the so-called “racial-science”.  This was an age when Darwin’s theory of evolution was revolutionizing the society.  Yet, some deviant off-shoots of the theory of evolution like “social Darwinism” and “racial group selection based evolution” were gaining ground as well (Landau, 1999).  Many scholarly works based on such misunderstandings of the theory provided photographs as evidence of their hypothesis.  Carl and Frederick Damann’s Ethnological Photographic Gallery of the Various Races of Man in 1876 and Isaac Schapera’s 1930 work, The Khoisan Peoples of Southern Africa portray the indigenous African people consistent with the existing prejudices and myths.  It was believed at the time that the African peoples were intellectually inferior to the European races, while the formers’ anatomy is stronger and more robust. Photographs printed in these books reflected such stereotyping, in that, only such specimens were chosen that were consistent the existing hierarchy of imperial power.

Elsewhere in the world, in the recently discovered New World, “mobile photographers operated in working class city slums in much the way photographers did in Africa or Asia”.  Referred to as “expose” photography, these collections depicted the realities of the American Dream.  While some capitalists prospered, the majority of the lot had to live in conditions of grinding poverty and grief.  The suffering of the social underclass of the Americas was a field of study that attracted little attention, as it is against the interests of the Establishment of the time.  While the American brand of capitalism is hailed as the best economic system by its proponents, the realities captured by the developing art of photography showed the darker undercurrents to the mainstream view.  What it also exposed is the non-humanitarian and greed based values held by the political and business elite of the fledgling America (Landau, 1999).

Big game hunting was much more than a colonial pastime.  It was also a way in which the imperialists asserted their superiority over their subjects.  It was also an implicit suggestion of the European colonialist’s control over the wilderness in particular and nature in general.  In this context, photography acted as a valuable tool in propagating this “assumed” superiority of the white imperialists over the conquered lands and its people.  For example,

“The indexical and iconic sign of the trophy was designed by skinners and taxidermists to hide their own work; they fashioned it to look untouched. Similarly, the labor of porters, guides, and gun-bearers often fell outside the frame of vision of the narrator and his photographs, and pictures of animal carcasses doubled this exclusion” (Landau, 1999).

There are a lot many examples in the above discussed theme, where the art of photography was hijacked by the colonial powers for propagating their own mythical aura as well as in documenting realities “selectively”, so as to fall within the framework of the existing imperial world order.  Hence, contemporary photography reflected the values and stereotypes that lay at the foundations of European Colonialism.

Work Cited:

Paul S. Landau, Photography and Colonial Vision, Department of History, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, United States, 19 May 1999