Colonial Photography in British India


Violence and the Archive: Colonial Photography in Nineteenth-Century British India

My research deals with some of the more extreme elements of nineteenth-century imperial visual culture: photography’s documentation of, and its implication in, acts of colonial and (more rarely) anti-colonial violence in South Asia. The camera’s engagement with the executions, imprisonments and punishments of Indian people living under the British Raj pushed against the limits of acceptability and legality. In doing so, it created a body of imagery that was the source of both intense excitement and deep anxiety for Victorian-era colonials, and which remains an ethically and politically sensitive subject matter for post-colonial scholars, publics and archives. Evidence of British brutality was not exactly welcomed into the archives of the colonial government in the first place, and it is far from being put under the spotlight in those public institutions–the British Library, the National Army Museum, the Imperial War Museum, and the V&A–that now hold such material.

Photographs of graphic violence, far from being pervasive, were outliers within an imperial visual culture that was dominated by picturesque landscapes, portraiture and ethnographic studies of Indian peoples and places. In the British Library’s Asia, Pacific & Africa Collections–a vast collection of visual material from British India that has its origins in the archive of the English East India Company and was formerly called the Oriental & India Office Collections–images of “topography and social customs” are duly emphasised.

The rare photographs of violence that are available to us probably represent only a small portion of those that were actually taken. For instance, during a public scandal in 1886 about the macabre activities of a British officer who had been taking photographs of Burmese rebels at the moment of their execution by colonial firing squad (only one such scene survives, although numerous scenes were reportedly produced by the officer), the Viceroy of India admitted in a minute to the Secretary of State for India that he had indeed heard tell of similar sorts of grisly photographs being taken by colonials. Yet none of these have so far found their way into the archives of empire, other than as textual references registering official anxiety.

This is not the only instance in which we find an allusion to a lost photograph of violence. Such items had to negotiate conflicting imperial impulses for thrilling visual affect on the one hand, and a sense of political and ethical decorum on the other. The contexts of viewing extreme images were therefore different to other types of pictures: more furtive, more informal, and consequently less likely to gain admission to the imperial visual canon. On the front line of empire, colonials had been developing an increasingly aestheticised response to violence since at least the 1850s, when the Italian-British commercial photographer Felice Beato had set up his tripod and camera by a gallows and captured the hanging bodies of suspected Indian insurgents during the Indian “Mutiny” of 1857-58–thus creating what was probably the first ever photograph documenting casualties of war. Yet the albums, both personal and commercial, that were ultimately compiled to chronicle such colonial campaigns (and which now form the bedrock of many imperial photography collections) did not generally include images from the more violent end of the photographic spectrum.

Faced with the somewhat elusive nature of these photographs at the level of visual consumption, my research has sought to assess the significance attached to violent photography at the level of visual production. Indeed, it was frequently the psychological drama of the image-making event itself (rather than the morbid content of any resulting images) that loomed large in the minds of colonials. My attempt to theorise these transient acts of photographic intervention in episodes of imperial violence has necessarily utilised wide-ranging forms of source material: colonial eyewitness accounts of photographs being taken; the diaries, articles and travelogues of photographers; government paperwork associated with the commissioning or investigation of photographic practices; newspaper reports on episodes of photographic violence; artists’ sketches of photographers taking photographs; and, of course, the extant photographs themselves.

What has become apparent during my research is that, even though violent photographs were liable to court controversy and may therefore have been disavowed at an official level, the very act of producing those photographs still worked in concert with the intimidating tactics that were fundamental to colonial invasion, counterinsurgency and repression. When a British eyewitness to the colonial hanging of Indian “mutineers” that I mentioned above came to write about the camera’s documentation of the execution, he claimed (with some excitement) that “the Photographing must have impressed additional horrors on the scene to the natives”. A feedback loop between visual media and violent spectacle is being asserted here, one that provides a lineage for the horrifying stagings of atrocities committed by ISIS today.

The holdings of modern archives on colonial photography from South Asia during the Victorian period are inevitably, in their very scope, structured to an extent by the erstwhile policies and prohibitions of imperial governance, rendering photographic evidence of colonial violence relatively rare. But such images actually disturbed the very boundaries between policy and prohibition: the camera furthered wartime strategies of population control, intensifying the impact of intimidating spectacles (bringing its “additional horrors”), but the resulting imagery was nevertheless deeply problematic for the British. A more apt modern comparison than ISIS for this visual material would therefore be the images of Iraqi prisoner abuse that emerged from Abu Ghraib in 2004. The activities of the US soldiers taking the photographs worked to amplify abuses that were tacitly and not so tacitly encouraged by the army, but such photography nevertheless occupied a somewhat clandestine status. The resulting images were not meant for widespread public consumption, but for a more select audience who would likely approve of the camera’s capacity to advance a mode of psychological warfare; seen outside of those select groups, such images became contentious. Archival traces–visual and textual, presences and absences–of photographic violence from British India generally speak to a similar sense of acute ambivalence.

Sean Willcock
Postdoctoral Fellow
Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art

Image: Felice Beato, Two Sepoys of the 31st Native Infantry Who Were Hanged at Lucknow, albumen print from collodion-on-glass negative, June 1858. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

The views, perspectives, and opinions expressed here and by those providing comments are those of the author(s) and commentator(s) alone, and do not reflect the opinions of Dissertation Reviews, its members, editors, or advisory board members.


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