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Power and Politics in Photography

By Amal Surmawala

Fig. 1. “Nagar Brahmin Women,” William Johnson Photographs of Western India, Vol. 1. Costumes and Characters DeGolyer Library, SMU

Two women stand at the centre of the photograph, their bodies draped in elaborate saris, tilted towards each other, though their eyes do not meet. Their eyes are fixated elsewhere, either at something in the distance or at the ground. They seem not to see the photographer. Behind them is a large tree that pulls the composition together, implicitly framing this capture of their posture, dress, and very being ‘natural’. The photograph’s framing seems to tell the viewer that this is an accurate, objective representation of what Nagar Brahmin women are like, as if the essential features of their being (i.e., their demure nature and expressions, their clothes, their environment) have all been captured. This is, in other words, the ‘reality’ of Nagar Brahmin women. This reality, however, is constructed by the unseen photographer behind the lens.

In September 2019, Ethiopian-American writer Maaza Mengiste released her Booker Prize-winning novel The Shadow King. The novel, a fascinating and complex exploration of gender, resistance, and belonging during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, draws on intensive research conducted by Mengiste on archives dealing with the colonial period in East Africa. In an interview with the New York Times, Mengiste explains the ‘detective work’ she had to engage in to dig up old photographs, diaries, and journals by Italian soldiers to curate her own archive. She highlights the gaps in history, Fascist censorship of materials, and the need to decolonise the archives. She also spotlights the power of the camera.

“[In] Italy’s wars to subjugate human beings” — says Mengiste in the article — “to enact violence upon them — the camera came first, and the photographs developed a narrative of those groups of people that would justify violence.”

The idea that photography is a powerful tool for developing narratives is well-documented, especially in the context of colonialism. Academic Hannah Mabry in her essay “Photography, Colonialism, and Racism,” explains how photographs were used to legitimise colonial claims to empire by portraying Africa as “savagery, death, and disease” (a depiction that persists today) in contrast to the more civilised world of Europe. This rhetoric allowed colonizers to justify their conquering of the continent as a ‘civilising mission’ that was necessary to bring ‘light’ (often represented through white people standing next to Africans in photographs) to ‘dark’ and savage Africa.

Photographs, particularly in sequences or collections, hold a special kind of power: they allow us to develop narratives. They allow us to explain, justify and categorize. Reading Mengiste’s interview made me think about which narratives the photographs of colonial India facilitate (given the fact that I’m Pakistani) and, with a little digging, I stumbled upon William Johnson’s Photographs of Western India (where I found Fig. 1).

The collection was addressed in an article by historians Neil Foley and Rachel M. Ball-Philips, as they discuss the virtues of using photographs from digital archives in history classrooms. William Johnson was in the Bombay Civil Service following a period of resistance amongst Indian soldiers in north India, where the rebellion had been brutally suppressed by the British. Foley and Ball-Philips explain that new photographic technologies were used in the aftermath of the rebellion, as British authorities commissioned officers to photograph the Indian people. These photographs “provided colonial rulers with a new technology to categorize people by religion and caste, which helped to contribute to long-lasting caste and religious tensions in India.”

Johnson’s collection, while not officially commissioned, seems to fall into the tradition of categorisation, one that looks like an attempt at anthropology. In the short description preceding the photograph, Johnson documents his observations of the Brahman people, noting their wealth, intelligence, religious practices, and the secluded lives of Brahmani women. He concludes this snippet with the observation of a specific ornament, saying “[w]e certainly never remember to have seen it on the person of any other [Hindu] female.” The comment is striking, evidence of a desire to distinguish and determine the nature of the colonized people in relation to one another, through the eyes of the colonizer.

This attitude becomes clear when viewing the collection as a whole. Foley and Ball-Philips note that, through a range of visual markers (including costuming), a concerted effort is made to indicate difference and categorize the subjects of the photographs.

While the colonial practice of the ‘objective observer’ (meaning the idea that an unbiased self, usually male and European, can objectively study the exotic ‘other’) has been widely discredited in the field of anthropology, there is still some value in these photographs. They provide the opportunity to reverse-engineer their purpose, to understand the project and damage of colonialism in the narratives of colonial superiority they have constructed. They can tell us, as Foley and Ball-Philips argue, about British perceptions of India and how structures of power were built and maintained.

Using the lens of a camera to stereotype, categorize, and marginalize entire groups of people is hardly a foreign concept. In fact, it remains strikingly relevant today. Conversations about the importance of representation in the media are growing more and more mainstream, and for good reason. Stories and narratives are salient cultural texts, shaping how we see the world, ourselves, and people from different cultural, religious, and class backgrounds.

My journey into the past only reinforced my convictions for the future. It reaffirmed that the stories we tell, the images we capture and arrange, matter because they had (and have) an impact on the way we engage with those around us. Mengiste’s novel is a fantastic example. She uses fiction to reclaim history, reframing and capturing the complexities of both the Italian and Ethiopian sides of the war by moving beyond a shallow viewing of archival materials.

As I sifted through the pages of Johnson’s photobook, I concluded that there’s something to be said about the way we engage with the media around us. In the future, when we view photobooks, films, or even read novels, we need to go beyond the looking, to the politics and power that lie beneath the surface.



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