The Colonial Gaze: An Inquiry into the Racist History Of Photography

Racist History Of Photography


Big brother is always watching. In contemporary society, cameras never seem to be more than an arms-length away. We photograph everything from our most intimate moments to random objects we encounter on pavements. These images, often shared over the internet to our friends and corporations alike, play a key role in upholding and advancing what can be described as the modern transnational Panopticon.

A metaphor used by French philosopher Michel Foucault to explore ideas surrounding power and surveillance, the Panopticon is a circular prison with a centralised watchtower from which a guard can see every prison cell. Today the camera takes the place of the guard's all-seeing eye playing a central role in the facilitation of corporate and governmental power. When we examine the history of the camera it becomes abundantly clear that this is not a new role it has inhabited, but rather a position it has filled for decades.

Photography has always been intrinsically linked to travel, acting as a portal to distant lands and allowing us to relive moments of an area’s landscape, culture, people and customs. Since the inception of the first publicly used camera in the 19th century, photographic images have been used to influence – and in some cases control – understandings of the world around us. Photographs operate as agents of knowledge and power; the images that infiltrate our everyday lives undeniably shape the way we understand the world around us. In this Deep Dive, we uncover the more harmful side to photography and examine the racial biases that have existed since its formation. Revisiting this complex history urges us to view these images as more than just artefacts of an unnerving past, and consider how they continue to shape the world we live in today, decades after they were taken.

Racist History Of Photography
"Unnamed boys", Somorika, Nigeria, 1910.
Racist History Of Photography
"Unnamed young men", Somorika, Nigeria, 1910.

The first publicly used camera was introduced in the late 19th century, in conjunction with white supremacist theories that proposed humanity was split into distinct species with differing origins; essentially dividing populations into 5 racial groups determined by visual indicators such as skin colour and bodily features. Each of these racial groups were said to differ physically, biologically and genetically. Not only were these differences seen as immutable and passed through blood, but they also came with a set of behavioural and social characteristics dictated by white men, and used to create hierarchies.

Since Western culture and the Caucasian racial type were positioned as the pinnacle of social evolution, photography in this period remained almost exclusively in the hands of Caucasian scientists and anthropologists who would use photography as a medium to validate their own beliefs and disseminate racist tropes.

Anthropometric ‘type photographs’ shot during this time are a poignant example of this, often emphasising corporal features such as cranium size to propose a correlation between physical type and intelligence, even going as far as suggesting a propensity towards criminal behaviour. The anthropometric ‘type photographs’ shown below were shot by Northcote Thomas (1868-1936) in 20th century West Africa; Thomas was the first British anthropologist appointed by The British Colonial Office in 1909. Professor Paul Basu, Curator of the exhibition Entanglements, explains that whilst the photographs were taken in the context of colonial inequalities, the project has since been shared with the descendants of those photographed, granting them a glimpse into their lineage. Whilst not all reception to the photographs were positive, Basu highlights many occasions of responses of joy and reincarnation. This demonstrates that the sentiment of a photograph can differ depending on the context and by whom it is viewed - what originated as a  tool for scientific racism, can transfigure into a profound visual memoir offering a unique insight into ancestral heritage depending on who it is viewed by. However, it is important to note, these photographs like most others of this form have not been permanently returned to the descendants of their sitters, a subject that is still an area of international debate.

Retired probation officer Tamara Lanier recently sued Harvard University for their alleged illegal ownership of photographs of her ancestors taken in 1850 by Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz. The images set out to provide evidence to support his theories around white supremacy. Though her ancestors could not provide consent as they were enslaved, a court ruled last year in favour of Harvard stating “the law, as it currently stands, does not confer a property interest to the subject of a photograph regardless of how objectionable the photographs origins may be,”.

Racist History Of Photography
Unnamed young woman, Akwa, Nigeria, 1911.

The New Imperialism of the late 19th and 20th century marked an era of aggressive overseas expansion motivated by economic needs, during which photographers were commissioned to document physical evidence of non-Western racial groups. Later, these often staged, racially charged photographs would be framed as a means of preserving cultures that would soon be eradicated in what was known as ‘the salvage paradigm’. Throughout the 20th century, photographs became popularised in the form of carte-de-visites and postcards, favoured by the public for their collectable nature. This commercialisation only served to fuel racial sentiments as it encouraged collectors to arrange their photographs into racial hierarchies, encouraging the belief that humanity was separated into distinct races. As an international passion for collecting grew, so did the negative ramifications of photography; the discipline allowed the West to metaphorically possess a contrived version of the world, moulded into whatever form it saw fit.

Black feminist theorist Tina Campt grapples with the legacy of colonial images in much of her work. In her 2017 book ‘Listening to Images’ she engages with colonial photographs from the Mariannhill collection taken in pre World War I South Africa. These images were created as evidence of the Christian conversation mission for financial benefactors or sold to ethnographic museums in the west. Rather than simply engaging with them through the lens of their original imperialist purpose Campt offers an alternative approach. She suggests we examine the images as depictions of stasis: the tension produced by holding a complex set of forces in suspension. She urges us to find traces of resistance in the poses and mannerisms of the sitters, subverting the colonial gaze through recontextualisation. Though a difficult task for many, we must acknowledge the existence of these images, their histories, their legacies and attempt to subvert the limitations of the white gaze by highlighting the strength, dignity and quiet introspection that rests behind the eyes of many of their sitters.

Understanding the history of photography allows us to be more considerate when engaging with travel photography today. Global power structures favour Western civilizations whilst marginalising Non-Western communities, cultivating inequality and division based on ‘difference’.

This ‘us vs them’ approach is known as ‘othering’, a process that establishes identity categories that differ from the perceived norm, and views anything that deviates from the principal ‘Self’ as the ‘Other’. Othering can show up in photography through exoticizing, fetishizing, and distorting an image to make it more appealing to the Eurocentric gaze. The context of viewing can therefore have a profound impact on the way in which an image is understood, and we must be cognizant of our intentions when both taking and viewing photographs of the world around us. We must ask ourselves what pleasures or information we seek in the images we take, are we contributing to a greater understanding of the subject; is our objective idle or purposeful, are we engaging with imagery that perpetuates the ‘us vs them’ rhetoric? The impact of taking a photograph stretches far beyond one's own visual pleasure, and whilst not all photographs need to be deliberately edifying, they should always be captured with utmost consideration and thought for the complexities out of shot.

If you want to be more active in your approach, be sure to visit [Re:] Entanglements: Colonial Collections in Decolonial times at The University of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology which showcases photographs from Britain’s first colonial anthropological experiment, as well as reading our other features on how to be respectful when photographing abroad, and 5 photographers on what ethical photography means to them.

the Racist History Of Photography
Chief Esika, Agulu, Nigeria, in 1911
the Racist History Of Photography
Unnamed chief, Ubulu-uku, Nigeria, in 1912

Written by Emily Lucas & Elisha Tawe

All photographs provided by Northcote Thomas, courtesy of Royal Anthropological Institute