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Source Magazine: Thinking Through Photography - Web Articles - Writers Prize - A Sinister Memoriam - Addressing the Violence of British Colonial Photography - by Harvey Dimond. Posted: Sat 16 Jul 2022.

WRITERS PRIZE: 16 / JUL / 2022
Addressing the Violence of British Colonial Photography
by Harvey Dimond

A photograph from Christina Sharpe’s book In the Wake: On Blackness and Being has been branded on my memory ever since I first saw it two years ago.

Reproduced as a black and white image in Sharpe’s book, the photograph shows a young Black girl, maybe around 10 years old, in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. She had been pulled, miraculously, from the rubble of a building more than two weeks after the disaster, by which time most hopes of finding people alive would have abated. She is shown lying down, staring directly into the lens; stuck on her forehead is a piece of adhesive material with Ship written on it, in black marker pen. The material has been stuck on her head, branded almost, by US Army soldiers, as they wait to evacuate her from Port-au-Prince to an unknown destination.

This photograph, taken over a decade ago, speaks so clearly to how photography continues to be used as a weapon of Euro-American imperialism - particularly in regards to the recording of anti-Black violence and death. In the context of the U.K, however, we must also look to our photographic archives to confront the violence of our colonial histories.

What options do we have - or what questions should we pose, to the archives and the institutions that hold photographs from across the British empire. Do we open up the archives for all to see - to lay bare the evidence?

Repatriate the photographs to the communities and countries of origin?

Or, do we burn these institutions to the ground?

Mark Sealy explores some of these concerns in his book Decolonising the Camera: Photography in Racial Time, specifically exploring the ‘practices’ of two colonial-era photographers - Alice Seeley Harris (1870-1970) and Northcote W. Thomas (1868-1936). Both are white British people who moved between the roles of ‘missionary’, ethnographer, photographer and anthropologist, all within the imperialist framework.

The scale of the British’s imperial photographic project is staggering - there are 250,000 photographs from British-ruled India at the British Library alone. There are 8472 photographs from the former colonies at The National Archives at Kew, and 2259 photographs at the Bristol Archives.

[Re:]Entanglements, which is one aspect of the Museum Affordances project based out of SOAS, University of London, has been working to confront the colonial photographic archive. They have traced the movements of Northcote W.Thomas, a colonial ‘anthropologist’ who created photographs of people in Nigeria and Sierra Leone between 1909-1915. This mapping project has allowed them to find, in some cases, the relatives of people that Thomas photographed, and to give them copies of these images. While this project is doing important work to restore these photographs of African people to their relatives, the fact that the original exposures and photographs remain in British institutions means the authenticity of this gesture is questionable.

It’s inescapable - this relationship is still colonial. These institutions are still denying Black people access and ownership over something as affirming as their own heritage and identity, and telling them that ultimately, this should not - and will not belong to them. The only way to make this relationship fair is to relinquish and repatriate all the materials related to these images to the nations, communities and individuals that they belong to.

The most menacing and dehumanising aspects of Thomas’ images is how the subject’s names are not recorded, but replaced instead with a numbered code - either written on boards held above the subject’s head or physically inscribed on the exposures themselves. These images have a direct visual lineage with the photograph of the young Haitian girl taken in 2010. The resemblance to the full-frontal portraits taken by Northcote W. Thomas is distressingly obvious, the colonial ethnographic purpose still present. These images were taken around a century apart, and while it has shapeshifted ever so slightly, the violence remains the same.

[Re:]Entanglements is also the name of an exhibition currently open at the University of Cambridge’s Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, a collaboration between Professor Paul Basu of the Museum Affordances project and Dr George Agbo at the University of Nigeria. The exhibition features photographs from the British colonial era in Africa; a very rare public display of photography of this kind, which is usually conveniently hidden from public view. This exhibition creates an excellent opportunity to begin a discussion about the legacies and curatorial futures of colonial photographic works. As the discourse changes in European countries, and the pressure builds for the rightful repatriation of stolen goods from former colonies, the conversation about how we deal with Britain’s photographic imperialism will become more urgent. While the question of ownership of these photographs could be seen as more complex than the question of ownership of physical objects (due to the fluid qualities of photographic reproduction) I think the solution to both is the same - repatriation. White curators and museum professionals also have the responsibility of questioning the ethics of showing this work in the public realm, especially to majority-white audiences in majority-white spaces.

Image (top): Haiti Struggles For Aid And Survival After Earthquake PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI - JANUARY 21: A child waits to be medivaced by U.S. Army soldiers from the 82nd Airborne to the USNS Comfort on January 21, 2010 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Planeloads of rescuers and relief supplies headed to Haiti as governments and aid agencies launched a massive relief operation after a powerful earthquake that may have killed thousands. Many buildings were reduced to rubble by the 7.0-strong quake on January 12. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images).

Image (bottom): A man in Iyede, Delta State, Nigeria, 1909 NW Thomas was the first government anthropologist appointed by the British Colonial Office. He conducted surveys in what were then the British protectorates of Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone 1909-15. This was the height of colonialism and its outdated attitudes and notions of superiority are reflected in Thomas’s project. A number board was often held above the subject’s heads to identify the photographic plate and individual; its effect is to further dehumanise its subjects. All photographs: NW Thomas/courtesy of the Royal Anthropological Institute.

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