Postcards from Zambia (2)
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.
Charcoal sellers, Chisamba.
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.
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