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The Colonial Lens of Imperialist Photography

Below is a photograph clicked by G.E Dobson in 1872 titled ‘Group of Five Young Andamanese Women’ and described in Zahir R. Chaudhary’s 2012 book, ‘The Afterimage of Empire’. Three years after Dobson took the photograph, he laid out the details of the people’s lives in it in a paper published in the ‘Journal of the Anthropological Institute‘. The woman featured in the centre of this image was from the Andamanese Orphan School, and Dobson had met her while she was walking to a church “dressed in white”. However, in the photograph, Dobson deemed a ‘primitivistic‘ representation of the women as more accurate, making them appear “destitute of clothes, shaved, and greased with a mixture of olive-coloured mud and fat”. After all, Dobson, like several other Western photographers at the time, was mostly interested in supplementing the facile narratives created around the innate dispositions of ‘foreign tribes’.  

Group of Five Young Andamanese Women, G.E Dobson (1872)

Objective reproductions or schematic realities?

Perhaps the surviving allure around the Indian photographic archive from the British Raj lies in its unchallenged power to persuade. However, in referring to this archival collection as ‘Indian’, the claim is possibly rendered as paradoxical as it is unidiomatic. The arrival of the camera in 19th century India occurred close to its invention in Europe—and in the hands of foreign elites, photography soon morphed into a popular administrative tool. The camera came to embody an imperialist agenda. The British used it to meticulously catalogue the various representations of history and culture: from landscapes, architecture and memorial sites, to indigenous communities and populations. These images reinforced the colonial stereotypes that posited India as a disparate nation in dire need of intervention from British political and economic regimes.

By creating vicarious visions of tangible reality, photographs are deemed precise, objective reflections of the truth; their only marked deviations expressed by form instead of content. On the whole, this may hold. But photographs interpret reality as much as they capture them. Photography’s colonial encounters in India suggest an implicit idea of the ‘Chaotic East’, bringing into question the ‘objective’ value that the camera seeks to hold and promise. There is a certain sense of manipulation behind what is a seemingly natural form of visual storytelling. In this process, the almost false illusion of objectivity is often abandoned. The result is a heavily subjective production of this reality, continually altered by the photographer, as well as the subjects and the subsequent onlookers.

 For instance, one of the earliest ethnographic records titled ‘The People of India’, contained albums of over 468 photographs representing the “tribes and races of Hindustan”, inadvertently lending to the development of an allegorical interpretation of India in the minds of British historians. One of the photographers whose work featured quite several times in this project was Willoughby Wallace Hooper. Known for his images of communities suffering from the Madras famine in the 1870s, Hooper also had his work circulated in British newspapers to legitimise the importance of Britain’s social and military intervention in India. Often, these photographs would supplement the historiographies discussing frequent patterns of famine in the Indian subcontinent. Descriptions of the famines would be limited to vocabulary ranging from ‘natural calamity’ and ‘shortage’ to ‘starvation’ and ‘drought’; in essence, condensing socially created catastrophes to merely natural ones. Then having failed to elucidate the human-nature of violence inflicted upon the famine victims, these photographs discarded any semblance of ‘truth’ that they declared to maintain. 

Madras Famine victims, Willoughby Wallace Hooper (1871)

Images as sites of conflict 

The camera was first introduced in India in 1839, following the daguerreotype process, which involved producing detailed images on copper and silver-coated plates. Yet, it was only after 1857 that India witnessed the widespread growth in photography. It then becomes useful to locate the history of colonial photography in India following the Sepoy Mutiny aftermath. 

For the British army officers and academicians who travelled to India post the Mutiny events, photography provided a platform to capture a new-found interest that the violence of the revolt had incited. In 1863, photographer Samuel Bourne took a photo of a ruined gateway from the Siege of Delhi, one of the conflicts of the uprising and rebellion of 1857. In this image, the viewer’s focus is initially drawn towards the blank stretch of space instead of the dilapidated gate. The actual site seems too far off from the photograph’s position, and the space in between looks too excessive and unnecessary. It is almost as if the picture beckons its viewers to visualise the unfolding of the violent events in the empty space depicted ahead. Such aberrant composition techniques are standard in the photographs of the sites of the 1857 revolt. Through the representation of absences and emptiness, these photographs allude to the uncertain notion of death, in effect symbolising the threat of not violence, but that of insurgency and revolution.

Site of the ‘Siege of Delhi’, Samuel Bourne (1863)

On the other hand, photographers like Narayan Virkar carried a different approach towards documenting the trails of conflict and mass violence. By the beginning of the 20th century, Indian photographers had begun to emerge in the mainstream. Although not usually backed by famous photographic societies established by English scholars and government officials, there was still a rising trend that saw more Indian photographers adopt their own unique visual forms of storytelling. Virkar was known for his photographs of survivors of the Jallianwalah Bagh massacre. In some of them, the survivors kneel next to a wall, pointing their fingers at large, circled bullet holes, clearly marking them as evidence of the atrocities committed against their relatives and loved ones. Here, the symbolism of death and violence takes on a different form. The survivors’ faces and expressions appear almost faded in the grayscale image, with no trace of emotion visible. The idea then seems to naturally impart a sense of spectral disquiet, echoing the tragedy that befell thousands.

Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, Narayan Virkar (1919)

Studio aesthetics and Indian portrait photography 

The advent of photographic studios in India also occurred concurrently with the other photography developments across the subcontinent. While the English elite did not hegemonise this space, portrait studio photography followed a standard visual logic characterised by Western painting conventions. Portrait photography entails a kind of performance that is not typical of landscape or architecture photography. In the studio, performance translates to gestures and poses that constantly vary based on the subject’s relationship with the space. While colonial portrait photography outside of studios often involved one-dimensional explorations of ‘race’, studio aesthetics and conventions allowed for negotiable reproductions on silver prints. Here, the photographic space would not solely be controlled by the English photographer, and the subject would have some power over their relationship with the camera. However, this engagement with the studio space also varied with the class and caste positions of the photographed subjects.

Hand-coloured studio photograph

Indian modes of photography involved hand colouring monochromatic images. A gold leaf would be applied with a thick coat of paint, leaving behind a strikingly coloured print with a flattened composition. But the 19th and 20th-century Indian elite classes, royals and Bhadralok would often have their individual or family studio portraits taken much in the same way that the British elites did. For example, in several individual portraits of men in authority and positions of power, the photograph’s subject would be the focal point of the camera and other paraphernalia would be muted to direct all attention to the figure in the centre. They would ideally stand with one foot forward, one of their elbows slightly jutting out in the air or resting on a chair or a table. At times, the chiaroscuro lighting would be employed so that a shadow would fall on one part of the subject’s body, giving him a nuanced three-dimensional appearance, and adding a sense of temporal materiality characteristic of Western artistic traditions.

In ‘On Photography’ (1970), American philosopher Susan Sontag writes that still images are never “clear windows of reality, but defined by culture and settings”. In this vein, certain ambiguities in photographs would only ever come alive in historical settings different from the ones in which they have been captured. It is because photos revealed themselves in their full form and missed details over time. Eventually, artistic and academic circles can discuss how colonialists used cameras to perpetuate their agendas in the Indian subcontinent. It then becomes ironic how an instrument of control and discipline invariably fails at restraint, allowing not only room for hidden details to emerge, but for transmutations to occur across its embedded forms. Even when photography creates scope for redefined narratives that replace older, more dominant modes of expression, what emerges and remains is a striking aesthetic; a remnant of colonial regimens, yet sprinkled with subtle subjectivities unique to the land histories and people reproduced on print.     

Experience Further: At the outset, this song calls attention to the deceptive nature of representation. The title itself echoes the meta-themes of Renè Magritte’s ‘The Treachery of Images’, a popular surrealist painting alluding to the common disjuncture between language, image and reality. The swaying power of illusion when aided by colonialism worked to naturalise a pattern of arbitrary ideas as fixed in reality; across all bounds of time and space. With its aggressive guitar riffs, and the repetitive titular plea, the song is an imploration to look at things as they are, devoid of the several perceptive falsehoods that often come to define our societal representation of things.

About Us

Anant Shah

Anant Shah- Founder

Anant Shah (just as his Instagram bio says) has always been interested in connecting people though their different cultures. He is drawn to this goal, given his background of a family of artists, as well as his work at several different organisations such as the People Tree with Orijit Sen, The Conflictorium in Ahmedabad and The UN (AIDS) Communications and Global Advocacy Team in Geneva. As a graduate of History and International relations at Ashoka University, he co-founded and set up the Ashoka Literature festival in 2019. Longing to increase this critical discourse on contemporary and traditional Indian Cultures he finally decided to start InCulture.

Kartik Sundar- Founder

Kartik Sundar loves nothing more than opining on cultural content. An avid writer for many publications, the decision to start one of his own came from recognizing a substantive lack of critical discourse around Indian culture today. He graduated Ashoka University with a degree in History & International Relations and wishes to complete further education with a focus on media and cultural studies.

Who We Are

We at inCulture are looking to shed light on what we see as an emerging new Indian culture as well as paying dues to the traditions that have been integral in shaping the current space. We want to try and create a space where critical reflection on cultural events, individuals, works of art, or practices can be fostered. Rather than exist as a cultural news outlet that merely serves as a bulletin board for the latest releases, inCulture will look to curate multi-medium pieces that seek to inform readers about aspects of our culture that make you think beyond an immediate reaction. In particular, we strive to look critically at Indian culture by investigating it under four distinct categories – film & theatre, music, spaces, and society.


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