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Postcards from Zambia

The evolution of photography and the history of Zambia show some intriguing parallels, not only in their timelines but also in the way they reflect moments in world history, their paths crossing in often extraordinary ways. This book provides documentary photographs of the country and in the process reflects the culmination of those two histories, of photography and Zambia. By extrapolation it charts a course for the next phase of the country’s journey from colonialism through independence to a liberal future, and coincidently points the way to a much needed new genre in its photographic voyage.

In 1855 David Livingstone became the first European to set eyes on Mosi-oa-Tunya, the waterfalls he christened Victoria Falls, a decade after European expeditionary photography took hold. From there, the fortunes of photography and of the area to become Zambia take on the twists and turns of the mighty Zambezi itself, where their paths first crossed.

Subsequent occupation, colonisation, independence, black oppression, world wars, and the whimsical fortunes of copper all interweave in the narration of the country, subjects that have also become the philosophical drivers of social documentary photography and made some of the world’s great photographers, including a few from Southern Africa.

This book is called Postcards from Zambia because postcards play a symbolic role in the history of photography and the colonial projects of European countries.


There was a relatively reliable photographic process by 1839 called the daguerreotype, which created an image rather like a picture on a mirror; Talbot’s paper-negative calotype closely followed in 1840. By 1846, a camera was considered essential for colonial expeditions, but it was not until the ‘wet-plate’ collodian process, developed by mid-1851, that expeditionary photography became practicable (Ryan, 28). gma

Today, we are rarely conscious of photographs, but in those early times, the issue was: can the image be trusted to be an accurate copy of the subject and, if so, how can it be art? A question that was explored using notions of ‘precision or composition, clarity or idealism and Naturalism or Pictorialism’, culminating in what has been called ‘Victorian aesthetics’ (Bate, 28), an approach that still describes many photographs taken today.

Although photographs were taken in Zambia early in the history of photography, they were not the first in the region, and there may be others undocumented. The earliest surviving photograph taken in southern Africa is of a Native Woman of Sofala, Mozambique, claimed to be Queen Xai Xai, taken by E. Thiésson in 1845 (Haney, 35). Photographic equipment and chemicals were reportedly available in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth from 1847 (36).

The camera arrived in the geographic area now called Zambia with David Livingstone’s brother Charles, the photographer on the Royal Geographic Society’s (RGS) 1858-64 official British expedition to the Zambezi led by David Livingstone. There is one surviving photograph of 40 by Charles, a stereoscopic picture of a baobab, which is in the Livingstone Museum (Ryan, 32). Dr Kirk, also a member of the expedition, was a keen amateur photographer, but he used Talbot’s calotype, and ironically many of his pictures still survive. The expedition did not include Mosi-oa-Tunya.
Although Charles Livingstone was required to photograph ‘characteristic specimens of different tribes’, this was difficult due to lengthy exposure times and the lack of familiarity local people had with being photographed. This may also explain why, in early expeditions, the expeditionary team was not photographed; every picture had to be posed for several minutes.

The first attempt to photograph Mosi-oa-Tunya was by hunter, trader and photographer James Chapman, on an 1859-63 expedition with Thomas Baines after he had been dismissed from Livingstone’s expedition (Ryan, 42). This attempt failed.

By 1879, there were eight coal-fired furnaces producing iron in Maamba (Roberts, 101), and high quality hoes, arrowheads and other equipment were found in the Lozi Kingdom, Western Province, by an English trader in 1853 (103). Elsewhere, early examples of documentary photography surface: John Thomson’s Street Life in London (1877) and Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives (1890) were the start of social documentary photography, focussing on ‘issues of poverty, child labour, abject social housing conditions and the plight of the poor, and other social and political injustices’ (Bate, 49).


With increasing colonial power, the Victorians developed an interest in life and culture in areas of British involvement (Hight & Sampson, [H&S], 107). The market for representations of life in the colonies was to some extent furnished by itinerant British photographers, but also by indigenous photographers who learned the profession at the peripheries of Europe, notably the comparatively exotic Istanbul. There was more to this than Orientalism: Turkey was not a colony and Britain was the leading exporter of modernism and closely involved with the Ottoman Empire. This picturesque alterity was well-covered in the Illustrated London News, and others, magazines of the times that stimulated even more interest in foreign life and culture.women

The expansion of European empires came at a time when there were considerable developments in photography in the 1880s and 90s: flexible roll-film was invented; Mr George Eastman developed the Kodak camera; and focal plane shutter speeds reduced to 1/1200th of a second (Jeffrey, 241). These endured and were still in use as digital photography was being introduced a century later.

Victoria Falls was finally photographed as ‘Moose-oa-tunya (Victoria Falls) Zambezi taken from point D’ by William Ellerton Fry in 1892 as a part of a Colonial Office survey, (Ryan, 215), 37 years after David Livingstone’s first visit, and more than 29 years since Chapman’s unsuccessful attempt to capture it, one year after the geographical area of Zambia was defined (Roberts162).

That photographic milestone was also a harbinger of the area’s rapid colonial development. The Old Drift settlement, on the banks of the Zambezi near Livingstone, existed from 1898 to 1904. Livingstone town was laid out in time for the first steam engine to cross Victoria Falls Railway Bridge, which was finished in 1905. Until then, photography had been mostly used to document natural features of the colonies; but, now, photography became recreation for colonials. The photographs ‘change to [pictures of] roads, churches, government buildings, coffee plantations and British outdoor recreation, from picnics to croquet’ (Ryan, 44), in short, snapshots of British colonial life.

The pace of change was no less dramatic in Europe, where tourism, photography and mass communication collided with cultural curiosity, heightening an awareness of ethnic differences and feeding political propaganda in a climate of upheaval that ultimately spiralled out of control.
‘Between the turn of the century and the First World War, postcards became a mass media of communication and collectible objects for the first time in French history’ (H&S, 159). Postcards showed Algerian tourist sites and ethnic types. These were paid for by the French government, ‘for travel guides and historic records because tourism expanded the colonial infrastructure and postcard publicity stimulated private investment’ (159). The postcards show ‘separation and difference between Europeans and Algerians’ in space and racial categories, thus apparently justifying French control and presence in Algeria, since 1840s, which had been driven by capitalism and tourism. Postcards of ‘ethnic’ types are asserted to be driven by eroticism, using Orientalist metaphors of penetration and possession (Alloula, 1986), although this is inconsistent with reports that the recipients were often women.

During the First World War, the Germans and Austrians used prisoner-of-war camps to see if anthropological features could be characterised using photographs (H&S, 226). This became political and Germany’s enemy became racialised, particularly because the British and French had colonial soldiers, ‘types’ not found in Germany.

But it was not only the Germans and Austrians who used photography for anthropological studies; so did the British, with the backing of the RGS and other organisations. The photographic misadventure did not start with David Livingstone’s own interest in the characterisation of tribal types on the Zambezi Expedition: The People of India was an earlier study of ethnic types photographed between 1856-8; then Harry Hamilton Johnston’s 1,000 photographs from the Uganda Protectorate were taken between 1899 and 1901; and commercial photographers also provided material, like John Thomson with his Illustrations of China and its People, 1873-4. Returning to London from China, Thomson continued his work in ‘classifying groups of urban poor in terms of social characteristics and moral attributes’ (Ryan, 174).

The revered German photographic portraitist August Sander (1876-1964) extended the fascination for anthropological difference into classes of trade, between The Farmer, The Skilled Tradesman, Woman, Classes and Professions, The Artists, The City, and The Last People (homeless persons, veterans, etc.). His photography was neutral, with standardised conditions and techniques, using the same visual treatment (Bate, 51). The Face of our Time was published in 1929.

Mass tools

In the 1920s and 30s, democracy and media reproduction emerged together, and photography and cinema were key mass media tools. In 1925, Ernest Leitz Optische Werke in Germany released Oscar Barnak’s lightweight 35mm still camera, called the Leica I, which used standard cinematic film but with a frame size of 36 x 24mm. With Dr Max Berek’s lens on the Leica, quick and quality photography became easier for newspapers and amateurs, and created opportunities for photojournalists like Henri Cartier-Bresson (Jeffrey, 243).

bicyclesA year earlier, in 1924, Northern Rhodesia came under the control of the Colonial Office as a Protectorate and became a ‘black dependency’ (Roberts, 195). In the last years of the British South African Company’s occupation, vast copper deposits were being found in the Copperbelt and, by the 1930s, four large copper mines had been established (185-6).

Back in Europe, with mass democratic movements and the introduction of Leica’s 35mm still camera, documentary photography arrived for the masses with Life magazine and Picture Post in the 1930s, and so did auteur photography, with Brassai’s Paris by Night (1933) and Bill Brandt’s A Night in London (1938) (Bate, 47).

This new mode of taking pictures - documentary photography - encompassed two approaches: the neutral objectives of John Thomson and August Sander, and the subjective capturing of a fleeting moment (53) of Henri Cartier-Bresson, both floating between art and journalism (56). Documentary photography has a point of view (60), constructs a representation of reality (61) and tries to make the spectator an eyewitness (59).

The technique was taken up with gusto. Germany was at the forefront in the early 1930s where there were photography and art magazines. Many talented exponents emigrated to Britain and France, or to USA, in time, but others remained and were murdered by Hitler’s regime.
Some exiles became famous in their adopted countries. Robert Friedmann fled to Berlin from Hungary to become a journalist and eventually became world famous as war photographer Robert Capa, fleeing to Paris when Hitler moved to eradicate Germany’s distinguished journalists after 1933.

Theory and practice

German writer and critic Walter Benjamin wrote The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936), perhaps the most important treatise on photography and its place in the world. Much debate had hitherto been about whether photography is art; the question should have been about the ‘real significance of photography in its impact on art and culture’ (Bate, 27).
The answer is huge, and increasingly so. Before photography, the painting had to be owned or visited; even in Benjamin’s time, a picture of a painting could be in a book, newspaper or magazine, but it was still largely invisible to the masses. Now, art is visible to the masses and can be seen on the television, the web or on a mobile phone. ‘Its authority is lost’ [and in] ‘its place there is a language of images’ (Berger, 33).

At the interface of this philosophical discussion were the enormous strides achieved in the mechanics and techniques of the craft at the time, and it is at this time that photography’s greatest milestone coincided with Zambia’s economic ascendancy.

Although colour film had been developed in 1935, it was not widely available until after the war (Jeffrey, 245), by which time, as the result of demand for copper during the Second World War, the Copperbelt had become the largest copper producer in the world (Roberts, 186). Black and white film however remained the medium of documentary photography until the late 1970s (Bate, 63). These were truly decisive moments in the history of both worlds.

For the next two decades, the country’s development continued apace, and so did that of photography in Europe.

In 1947, Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and David ‘Chim’ Seymour formed the Magnum cooperative, in Paris, which continues to be a leading photographic agency today. Many of the world’s leading photographers work or have worked there, including the social documentarian Sebastião Salgado and the war photographers James Nachtwey and Gilles Peress.

The iconic photographic book The Americans was published in 1958. It is a compendium of documentary photographs taken by Robert Frank across America, capturing the USA as it was in 1956-7.
But this was a dark time for Zambia: the faltering Northern Rhodesia African National Congress revived under economic stress and falling employment; Kenneth Kaunda, Simon Kapwepwe and Sikota Wina had rebelled against a new constitution based on a minority vote for Northern Rhodesia and formed the Zambia African National Congress, which was banned in 1959 and Kaunda and others were jailed. They were later released in 1960.

Globalism, technology and social change

Despite the Polaroid camera being sufficiently developed to take positive colour photographs in 1964, the world’s press recorded Kenneth Kaunda taking Zambia to independence in October that year in black and white. Although this is where the Zambian colonial project ended for Britian, it is where the globalisation project started, a positive feature of a changing world for some, the domination of the Third World by the First World for others (Ashcroft, 101).

In the same year, the Photographer’s Eye was an influential photographic exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a collection of admired photographs curated by John Szarkowski, the museum’s director emeritus of the Department of Photography. A year earlier, in 1963, former Drum photographer Peter Magubane became the first black photographer in apartheid South Africa to exhibit his work, in Johannesburg, before being arrested and imprisoned for two years in 1969, and then banned from taking photographs for a further five years (Haney, 109). Drum is an important South African magazine that started in the 1950s, gathering professional African photographers and a readership of erudite Africans, often ANC members. Another ex-Drum photographer, Ernest Cole, eventually managed to publish House of Bondage (1967) in New York, which was the first published photographic account of apartheid in South Africa by a black South African. He died unhappily in exile in New York on the day of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison (111).hippo

The world was in turmoil in the late 1960s; it was the apartheid era in South Africa, the time of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and of America’s war in Vietnam where war photographers Don McCullin and Larry Barrows made their names. There were civil rights movements about race and equality for women in the USA and, in France, students rioted. This was Structuralism, when society focused on structures and rules. For photography, it meant incorporating the concepts of semiotics, which became the foundation of ‘reading’ photographs.

Extended from linguist Ferdinand de Saussure’s (1857-1913) earlier work on semiotics, the image of a dog signifies ‘a dog’; it is the signifier that is ‘read’ as a dog. The actual dog was ‘signified’ but it does not exist anymore. Together they represent a sign. De Saussure importantly recognised that a sign is not necessarily the same in all languages. It is easy to see that this can be extended to creed, race or political disposition, or indeed, the ‘West’, ‘colonialist’, or ‘neo-imperialist’.

Structuralism evolved into post-structuralism through the incorporation of psychoanalysis and deconstruction. There was much political disruption at this time and there were profound effects on a range of disciplines, including photography. Yet, despite this period of unrest, of all countries, Zambia was an example of a non-warring state and, despite the ‘grave handicaps of its colonial heritage’ (Roberts, 250), remained a free country.

Influential books started to be published a little later: John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1972) and On Photography (1977) by Susan Sontag were and still are important. It was around this time that the West’s neo-imperialist project of aid and development spread its wings across Africa, often facilitating despots who disrupted much development, willingly destroyed their own economies and oppressed and murdered their people. Photographers focused on this social misery; people like Sebastião Salgado in the 1980s, who was born in Brazil, in the global south, and has become one of the world’s great documentary photographers.

The 1980s saw another batch of books, with Roland Barthes’ often erroneously cited Camera Lucida (1981Fr/84En) - actually about phenomenology and not semiotics - and Victor Burgin’s (Ed.) Thinking Photography (1982), in which Umberto Eco defines photographic codes of perspective and focus as means of relevance and relative importance. Facial expressions are the most complex body language and lighting also codes an image, and both are culturally significant. These photographic codes can be organised into rhetorical arguments and often define a ‘good photograph’ (Bate, 36).

So from the 1960s to 1980s, photography theory wrestled with traditional realism: the latter insisting that there is no difference between signifier and signified, and the former highlighting the distinctions and subjectivity inherent in semiotics. There are advocates of both theories but ‘by the end of the 1980s, photography finally began to be absorbed into art institutions […] as a dominant modern art form’ (Bate, 29) and some governments ‘acknowledge how powerful photographic images can be’ (30) by controlling advertising images and muzzling the press.

Such control was no more acute than during the states of emergency in South Africa between 1985 and 1990; yet, despite oppressive behaviour towards photographers by the South African government, there were opportunities for many photographers. One of those was Gideon Mendel, a South African photojournalist who now works from London documenting social issues, particularly in Africa, and who won the Eugene Smith Award for Humanistic Photography in 1996; Eugene Smith himself was a noted documentary photographer. In comparison with South Africa, Zambia has never had the stark subject matter that deep oppression incurs, but it has a need to record social change for posterity, which is a continuum that remains largely undocumented in the country’s museums.

A New Photographic Response

Although oppressive times may be becoming scarcer, albeit remaining in living memory, it is time for a change in outlook; there have been developments in the mechanics of photography: a transition from film to digital photography enabling the simple and instantaneous production of images for newspapers, magazines, poster-prints, slideshows and websites, mobile phones, social media or the photograph album; photography is more a media for the masses than ever before.

A common criticism of documentary photography is that it ‘constructs a victim for its always privileged audience in terms of class, ethnicity, gender or other social category, […] and the dignity of the subject […] is not guaranteed by any particular viewer (Bate, 62). Just such a negative approach has misplaced aid and development for many years and now there is a need for a new photographic response.

In this book, the motivation is to disrupt this cliché and show the subject not as a victim but as a dignified participant in his or her own increasingly successful economy and environment.
These themed representations were taken without influence from donors or dignitaries, so I hope they fairly characterise the people I have met and the country I have seen.

Peter Langmead
Lusaka, 2013