Through the Looking Glass: Photography and Imperialism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

This article will cover photography and imperialism throughout North Africa, the Middle East, India, and the Asia-Pacific region, from the turn of the nineteenth century through to the mid-twentieth century. Consideration is given to the development of “scopic regimes”: the assertion of the gaze, as enacted upon another culture. Imperial projects deployed the nascent technology of photograph as a projection of colonial power over exotic ‘other’ cultures. Focus is also given to broadening the horizon of enquiry, both spatially and temporally, to include indigenous photographic agency. Imperial subjects developed and modified existing photographic practices to express resistance. This includes subaltern self-representations, displays of modernisation, and the exploration of gender representations and feminine subjectivities.

The photographer occupied the dual position of agent of and witness to empire. Capturing images of imperial territories and peoples facilitated representations, especially of the ‘East’, as subjugated and static spaces for insemination, possession, and control. These “scopic regimes” developed a politics of vision, adopting photography as a means of justifying and legitimising their propitious ‘civilising missions’.  Developing such a visual empire drew upon what the post-colonial scholar Edward Said termed “imaginative geography”. This created the distinction and distance between Europe as the familiar sphere of order and the ‘Orient’ as the embodiment of exoticism and otherness. The French occupation of Egypt between 1798 and 1801, was a pivotal moment in the formation of a distinctively modern ‘Orientalism’. The Description de I’Egypte, published between 1810 and 1828, provided a valorised and visual appropriation of the Orient, with subsequent ‘Western’ photographers coming to control the photographic gaze. British and French photographers engaged in a process of objective monumentalisation and ethnography. Between 1849 and 1850, Maxime Du Camp and Gustave Flaubert, followed by Felix Teynard, from 1851 to 1852, documented the culture and history of Egypt. The photographers separated the region from the processes of European-focused modernisation, thereby necessitating colonial, forceful ordering. Additionally, the British process of colonisation in Egypt was predicated on the perceived lack of order within the countries social and political landscape: disorderliness perpetrated through photography. The combination of monumentalisation and ethnography coalesced in the unveiling of the territories beyond the metropole as a colonially constructed space.

Photography was important to the documentation, characterisation, and presentation of ‘peripheral’ cultures and ethnicities during this period. Pioneered by the work of Thomas Henry Huxley and John Lamprey in the late nineteenth century, photography facilitated the taxonomising of cultures for imperial citizens at home in the metropole. The practice of photography fertilised a colonial vision. This vision was critically influenced by social Darwinism and hierarchically racialised differentiation. In 1869, the Calcutta Exhibition of the British Raj brought together a range of indigenous peoples from across Asia and Oceania for the express purpose of scientific and anthropological photographic examination and representation. Consequently, with photography contemporaneously upheld as a source of undeniable, objectified scientific ‘truth’, the images consumed within Europe gratified the perspective of colonised territories as intransient, requiring colonial intervention.

At the same time, the extension of the British colonial tentacles of photographic representative practices saw the emergence of indigenous photographic societies in India, including Bombay from 1854, along with Calcutta and Madras in 1856. Consequently, residual photographic representations of colonial dominance became internalised and adapted into symbols of resistant Indian nationalism, upholding the virtue of India’s ‘non-modern’ and vernacular culture.

However, the focus on resistance through internalisation was by no means a universal experience for colonial subjects. This was true in the case of Nasir al-Di, the Shah of Iran, and his representations as the ‘Oriental despot’ in the mid-nineteenth century which elucidated the inescapability of the European-mediated referential power of the ‘other’.

In the Ottoman Empire under Sultan Abdülhamid II (1876-1909), a politico-cultural space of negotiation, self-representation and adaptation emerged. In this context, European imperial photographic depictions of the ‘East’ as under-developed were rebutted. Following the introduction of modernising reforms, influenced by the 1838 Anglo-Ottoman Convention, photography focused on displays of Ottoman industrialisation as well as architectural modernity. Exemplifying this was the depiction of Dolmabahçe Palace constructed in 1856, influenced by ‘Western’ institutions and styles. The filtering of European paradigms through a corrective process, rather than just forms of resistance or acceptance allowed for the self-projection of aspirational visions and progressivism. Furthermore, between 1870 and 1900, the Istanbul-based Sebah family commercial studio constructed ‘community portraits’ of local Ottoman society, conveying order and the cultivation of modernity from endogenous culture and history. Representations of modernisation and statecraft by indigenous producers beyond Europe reinforces the argument that photography was not a monolithic, hegemon of ‘Western’ imperialism but rather a contested and fluid technology.

During this same period, harem portraits from Constantinople offer a lens through which to investigate the negotiation of gender and spatial politics between Ottoman and British women. An active engagement with indigenous self-representations of femininity emerged in the late-nineteenth century, which took frameworks of local cultural considerations into account and so usurped the ‘Western’ referential photographic dominance. Through the transformation of the colonial harem into a social, rather than sexual space, photography provided a means to express female socio-political agency in the Ottoman Empire. Likewise, in India from around 1885, socio-culturally legitimate photography of women in purdah (seclusion) was conducted across the colony within indigenous and female-run studios. These developments highlight how not all photographs were produced for the fantasies of European consumers during this period.

Attention now turns to the utilisation of photography in imperial projects in the twentieth century. Under Japanese colonial rule, photography provided a means to project both territorial and racial supremacy in representations of the Chinese in Manchuria from the late 1920s until the end of the Second World War. In a similar vein, during the Algerian War of Independence between 1954 and 1962, photography destabilised French colonial authority in the country. Photographs therefore acquired a visualisation of power. Through photographic practices, French authorities documented and monitored resistance activities in a complex system of surveillance. In doing so, the technology provided an expression of power, control, and subjugation over colonial citizens. Used by imperial authorities in a process of combining aestheticisation and politicisation in the projection of imperial power, photography provided a means throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to convey subjugation, enforce hierarchies, and represent imaginative geographies.

Photography though is much more than a dispensed vision from the hegemonic power. Capturing images provided a means to express self-representations of cultural identity, inform patterns of political resistance, and examine cross-cultural exchanges. From individuals to communities and states, the use of photographs combines two important and influential spheres of aesthetics and politics.

Written By Jack Bennett


Behdad, Ali. “The Powerful Art of Qajar Photography: Orientalism and (Self)-Orientalizing in Nineteenth-Century Iran.” Iranian Studies 34, no. 4, (2001): 141-151.

Gregory, Dereck. “Emperors of the Gaze: Photographic Practices and the Productions of Space in Egypt, 1839-1914.” In Picturing Place: Photography and the Geographical Imagination, edited by Joan M. Schwartz and James R. Ryan, 195-255. London: I.B. Tauris, 2003.

Maxwell, Anne. ”Framing the Non-West: New Approaches to the History of Photography.” Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, 16 (2015).

Orientalism’s Interlocutors: Painting, Architecture, Photography, edited by Jill Beaulieu; Mary Roberts. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002.

Photography’s Orientalism: New Essays on Colonial Representation, edited by Ali Behdad. Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2013.

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