Of Cheroots and Current Coins: Reconsidering the Photography of Colonial India

Originally published in exposure, Journal of the Society of Photographic Education, Volume 36:1, 10-22, 2003

For Chris Chekuri

A decade after photography's 1844 introduction into the Indian subcontinent (which occurred within five years of its announcement in Europe), the East India Company and (after 1857) the Imperial Government began to embrace photography as a state-of-the-art technology for topographical, military and archeological surveys, government projects, and general documentary purposes. (1) The plans hatched for photographic projects are striking in their recognition of the medium's usefulness as a technology of imperial power. In 1855, for example, the Company began instructing cadets in photography at its Military Seminary at Addiscombe, and also civil engineers in the keeping of photographic records of public works projects. Other official uses of photographs included a project to photograph Indian pensioners for identification purposes—in order to circumvent the problem of impersonation (a plan ultimately resisted by the Accountant-General on the grounds of its high cost). In the same year, the Company recommended that the Bombay Government discontinue the use of draughtsmen for natural-historical, archeological, and architectural renderings, from which directive stemmed the well-known photographic surveys of the antiquities of southern and eastern India by Captain John Gill and later Captain Linnaeus Tripe. In 1856, Dr. Norman Cheevers, Secretary to the Medical Board at Fort William in Calcutta, proposed the application of photography to criminological investigation, specifically the use of photographs of murder scenes which were to be shown to suspects on the theory that if guilty, they would show an aversion to seeing the site of their crime.(2) In 1857, the commercial photographers Johnson and Henderson launched the monthly Indian Amateurs' Photographic Album, which further stimulated both commercial and governmental photographic activity.  If it is true that the overwhelming majority of photographs from nineteenth century colonial India were made by and for the colonial government and commercial firms in what may be called, somewhat euphemistically, governed cultural encounters, then we can ask: does the history of photography in colonial India trace the trajectory seemingly promised by these early proposals, a trajectory of acquisition, identification, control, and punishment? With what success is the photography of colonial India an enactment of the authority of the institutions and individuals commissioning the images? With what success does it visually deploy the tropes of colonial supremacism? My concern here is not to rehearse the already familiar argument that the colonial archive cannot be called visual evidence in some denuded state, that we are not at liberty to position ourselves as passive "viewers" of photographs, secure in an essentially confirmative or information-gleaning approach to discrete pictures of the colonial world. Indeed, we are, after a generation of post-structuralist criticism, now fundamentally readers of photographs, not viewers—readers who cannot help but see the archive of colonial images as a visual aspect of colonial discourse, and also of a discourse that invests camera-made images with unique powers of evidence.

If, however, what pictures show has become largely a matter of what pictures say, we may legitimately ask how and how well photographs name the vagaries of discipline and desire that formed the colonial gaze, how and how well they articulate the codes by which the archive as a whole positions the viewer to receive an ideology legitimating colonial power. My concern, then, is to examine in some detail how pictures from the colonial archive actually perform the conceits that so deeply inform them. I wish to show how certain crucial photographs embedded in the discourse of colonial power perform their conceits badly, indeed so badly that they tear at the very discourse they are charged to proclaim. Looking closely at admittedly disparate and sometimes forgotten photographs—government sanctioned ethnographic photographs and diaristic snapshot photographs—I wish to point to a slippage between the fantasies and the realities of political control through photographs. Although these photographs, in the original contexts of their presentation and reception, were understood as evidence of social reality in British India, in hindsight we can see rather more clearly the ways that they serve neither colonial will nor colonial desire. They fail in this regard in at least three senses. First, the "literal" content of the photographs very often qualifies and sometimes subverts the evidence as construed in the terms of colonial knowledge. Instead of recording human subjects as ethnographic or social data, or fusing human subjects with ritual and artifactual indices of social knowledge, the photographs actually betray a range of disciplinary efforts involved in their production, and hence a range of perspectives on the power differential between photographer and subject, colonizer and colonized. Second, British colonial photography, like much photography meant to be evidentiary, does not set forth a singular or unambiguous conceptualization of how to read photographs as evidence. The variety of photographic gestures, tropes and practices that we find in the colonial photographs demands extensive interpretation in order to know the images in the mode of evidence. The particularly "photographic" character of these images—realistic yet fragmentary, specific yet polysemous, immediate yet remote—does not rescue them as evidence, rather it haunts their status as evidence. Third, the inconsistent and, indeed, inconstant use of photographs in colonial texts suggests that British photographers and writers—and by extension the colonial discourse itself—sensed these difficulties, and so did not turn to photography to articulate colonial truth and colonial prerogative in a thorough or rigorous manner. My hope, broadly, is to read these photographs for what we can learn from their ellipses, their indeterminacies, their deferrals and omissions. I wish to treat them as images that generate beliefs about content, beliefs particular to ourselves as an audience, and beliefs that we can interrogate for the ways they interpret and seemingly inscribe their material.

Structures and strictures: colonial ethnographic photography

As a social science, nineteenth-century ethnography inculcated a positivistic approach to the study of culture. It relied upon a notion of systematic, rigorous, and progressive accumulation of knowledge, as well as an ideal of social quantifiability through the compilation of statistics and structural analysis of kinship, myth, and ritual practice. It insisted on the verifiable existence of discreet social entities (such as "caste"—discussed below) which predictively govern behavior and values. In particular, nineteenth-century ethnography developed techniques for comparative social analysis and assertions of scientifically determined social stratification based on physiology.(3) Social and political stratification based on race and physiology had been part of European social discourse at least since the fourteenth century, when "limpieza de sangre" (purity of blood) became the operative criterion to distinguish varieties of Christians in Spanish and Portuguese societies recently purged of Jews, and between varieties of culturally and biologically miscenginated subjects in the new Spanish and Portuguese empires. By the late eighteenth century, a Europe-wide scientific practice of physiognomy had developed amidst philosophical writings that speculated on the moral, spiritual and intellectual hierarchies purportedly indicated by physical characteristics. The Dutch anatomist Pieter Camper (1722-89) measured "facial angles" to determine "corporal stature and beauty." Following him, the German physician Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828) invented phrenology, the study of cranial measurements as indicative of intelligence and moral character. The work of Camper and Gall, as well as other manifestations of physiognomy became central to nineteenth-century ethnography, and in turn, to nineteenth-century ethnographic photography.

The earliest ethnographic photography of India, dating from the 1860s and 1870s, emerged in the heydey of physiognomic interest in Indian body types and in the early phases of the British conception of caste and Indian social structure.(4) For British ethnographers of India, social classification according to "caste"—a word intended to represent approximately half a dozen distinct forms of community and kinship—became an obsession, providing the hard cultural knowledge that would justify the colonial presence on the grounds of cultural and congenital European supremacy. In many respects caste theory formed the bedrock of a distinctively colonial social knowledge of India. British ethnographers conceived of caste as a quantifiable ethnographic entity with measurable characteristics such as endogamy, commensality rules, fixed occupation, and standardized ritual practices.(5) In so doing, they simplified and homogenized what were actually a number of complex and varied forms of social organization. One of the definitive British ethnological works on caste is Castes and Tribes of Southern India (1909) by Edgar Thurston, Superintendent of Ethnography for the Madras Presidency from 1901-1915 and Superintendent of the Madras Government Museum. The photographs included with Thurston's text, credited to Thurston's assistant and interpreter, K. Rangachari, cover a range of subjects considered ethnographically telling: the activities of labor and occupation (staged for the camera); special events such as animal races and funerals; portraits of minstrels, acrobats, jugglers, wedding couples, holy men, and "devil-dancers" (of several different castes); portraits of persons with body modifications, such as filed teeth, earlobe elongation, and so forth.; portraits of persons making fire; portraits of children; group portraits; pictures of huts, houses, temples, statues, and folk arts.(6) Thurston doubtless chose these subjects to represent distinctive elements of the castes they depict, but these distinctive elements are relatively few and of typically exotic interest to British observers. Furthermore, only a handful of the castes and subcastes listed in the work are accompanied by photographs, presumably only those castes that were either especially important or unusual to the British. Brahmans are represented by the largest number of photographs—nine—of which six are portraits. Lingayats are portrayed in eight photographs, all of which are portraits. No other caste is depicted in more than four photographs. Overall, despite the importance of caste to British conceptualization of Indian society, and despite the centrality of physiognomy and other visual characteristics to the definition of caste, the photographic documentation with which Thurston supports his discussion is remarkably thin. More importantly, we are forced to confront the problem of a non-commensurate relationship between image and intention, and a non-alignment between the expository character of photographic depiction and the confirmative attitude that the pictures might seem to anticipate.

Thurston, "Madiga Bridal Pair"

A photograph captioned, "Madiga Bridal Pair," (Figure 1) explicitly shows something of the conditions that attended the production of the photographs in Thurston's volumes.(7) Four figures appear from head to toe. The "groom" stands erect, hands at his sides, gazing directly into the camera's lens, waiting for the photographer to finish with his task. His "bride's" head is turned down, her attention absorbed in the hand of the child she holds—indeed she seems thoroughly inattentive to the demands placed on her. The presence of the young child in the photograph raises a question about the authenticity of the scene depicted. If this is the couple's own child, and if they did not have the child illegitimately, then they most likely did not recently marry, but were given marriage clothing for the photograph. A man to the left of the couple, barefoot and dressed in a loincloth, his left hand stretched above his head, beyond the top of image (probably attending to one side of the backdrop against which the couple stands) provides further evidence that the photograph was staged for the photographer's purposes.

The portrait of the wedding party, like many of the photographs in Thurston's book, is strikingly charged with energy that arises when a self-conscious subject stands to be photographed. As carefully posed photographs, one might expect that the pictures' realism would go beyond good rendering to become a kind of fusing of image and idea, not just a perfect manifestation of the photographer's intention (produced through conformity to the photographer's direction) but a clear instantiation of ethnographic truth. Instead, the photographs in Thurston's book are characterized by two internal currents that pull against each other. One current, initiated by the photographer, strives to iron out peculiarities of posture and gesture that might appear in candid imagery, while the other communicates the sense of the subject's self-awareness as it remains in the images—such self-awareness working against the photographer's intentions. Indeed, many of the pictures in Thurston's book convey the dual sense of the subject as specimen, object of a colonial gaze, and also as a self-conscious person escaping the authorial control of the photographer, an individual who defies the effort to restrict meaning to the symbolic trappings evident in the pictures. This intended restriction is what is precisely apparent in Thurston's photograph of the wedding couple. Thurston attempts to reduce them entirely to ethnographic data; however, the woman's detachment asserts her subjectivity and her autonomy, and undermines Thurston's agenda. And yet, her subjectivity, while detectable in the photograph, is also not exactly scrutable. It remains, in important ways, empty of certain content for us, a phenomenon onto which we are left to project interpretation—not unlike the situation Thurston himself faced. We might read the subjectivity evident in these photographs as a failure of the British, even in the hierarchical colonial context, to so dominate their Indian subjects as to erase their subjectivity entirely. Alternately, we might read the subjectivity of the ethnographic subject as evidence of a reaction to the situation that the subject actually was in, namely the act of being photographed, the forced interaction with government representatives, the submission to self-presentation before the camera, the indurate intentions and the strange procedures of colonial ethnographic examination. These reconstructions are admittedly speculative, and cannot be said to "capture" the subjectivity of their referent. The silence of the colonial subject's interiority remains an irreducible element of the picture's communication.

Rangachari's position as the creator of the pictures introduces further complications. Though Rangachari made the pictures, it is clear that he is not, strictly speaking, their author: Thurston was the authorizing presence behind Rangachari's work in the field, and Thurston is the authorizing presence behind the images as they are encountered in the text. Although Rangachari was a colonized subject trusted with the responsibility of creating the photographs, his own subjectivity as a colonized subject is thus repressed in the text. This repression not only characterizes Thurston's authorship of the photographs, it also offers possible insight into the complexities of the photographs' meanings. One might speculate that Rangachari, in discharging his duties, was sensitive to something outside the repressive discipline required of him, thereby allowing, perhaps even deliberately introducing a more nuanced form of portraiture. On the other hand, one might surmise that Rangachari was viewed by the subjects of the photographs as a collaborator with the colonial regime, a junior partner but a partner no less, and that the resistances we can discern in the photographs represent something of the tension between himself and his sitters.(8)

Despite the fact that Thurston illustrated his volumes with photographs, there is ample reason to believe that he held a generally low regard for photography's value as a precise ethnographic research tool and found photography ancillary to his classificatory imperative. It is even possible that that he understood his photographs' inability to reduce his subjects entirely to the status of objectified data. His low regard is evident, first, in his failure to include any commentary on the photographs he includes. The photographs are not even once explicitly referred to for their ethnographic testimony but are left as silent illustrations, perhaps self-evident in their true-to-life meaning (that is, by an assumption that the photograph is typical or exemplary), perhaps seductive enough to hold the reader's interest, perhaps distracting enough to complement the text in an attractive way. Second, none of the photographs in Thurston's book include rulers or measuring grids. For all of Thurston's anthropometric zeal, he does not include a single anthropometric image in the seven volumes of Tribes and Castes. Why?

The social and political context within which Rangachari's photographing took place—and which his photographs reflect provides some answers. The following is a partial account of Thurston's professional practice, partial but still worth quoting at some length:

In carrying out the anthropometric portion of the survey, it was unfortunately impossible to disguise the fact that I am a Government official, and very considerable difficulties were encountered owing to the wickedness of the people, and their timidity and fear of increased taxation, plague innoculation, and transportation. The Paniyan women of the Wynaad believed that I was going to have the finest specimens among them stuffed for the Madras museum. An Irula man, on the Nilgiri hills, who was wanted by the police for some mild crime of ancient date, came to be measured, but absolutely refused to submit to the operation on the plea that the heightmeasuring standard was the gallows… . During a long tour through the Mysore province, the Natives mistook me for a recruiting sergeant bent on seizing them for employment in South Africa, and fled before my approach from town to town. The little spot, which I am in the habit of making with Aspinall's white paint to indicate the position of the fronto-nasal suture and biorbital breadth, was supposed to possess vesicant properties, and to blister into a number on the forehead, which would serve as a means of kidnapping. The record of head, chest, and foot measurements, was viewed with marked suspicion, on the ground that I was an army tailor, measuring for sepoy's clothing… One man, who had volunteered to be tested with Lovibond's tintometer, was suddenly seized with fear in the midst of the experiment, and, throwing his bodycloth at my feet, ran for all he was worth, and disappeared. An elderly Municipal servant wept bitterly when undergoing the process of measurement, and a woman bade farewell to her husband, as she thought for ever, as he entered the threshold of my impromptu laboratory. The goniometer for estimating the facial angle is specially hated, as it goes into the mouth of castes both high and low, and has to be taken to a tank [pond] after each application. The members of a certain caste insisted on being measured before 4 P.M., so that they might have time to remove, by ceremonial ablution, the pollution from my touch before sunset. Such are a few of the unhappy results, which attend the progress of a Government anthropologist. I may, when in camp, so far as measuring operations are concerned, draw a perfect and absolute blank for several days in succession, or a gang of fifty or even more representativesof different castes may turn up at a specific time, all in a hurry to depart as soon as they have been sufficiently amused by the phonograph, American series of pseudoptics, and hand dynamometer, which always accompany me on my travels as an attractive bait. When this occurs, it is manifestly impossible to record all the major, or any of the minor measurements, which are prescribed in 'Anthropological Notes and Queries,' and elsewhere. And I have to rest unwillingly content with a bare record of those measurements, which experience has taught me are the most important from a comparative point of view within my area, viz., stature, height and breadth of nose, and length and breadth of head, from which the nasal and cephalic indices can be calculated. I refer to the practical difficulties, in explanation of a record which is admittedly meagre, but wholly unavoidable, in spite of the possession of a good deal of patience and a liberal supply of cheroots, and current coins, which are often regarded with suspicion as sealing a contract, like the King's shilling.(9)

Thurston's antropological activities fell within the range of commonplace hostilities that occurred between the colonial government and its local allies, on one hand, and the population at large on the other, hostilities over taxation, military conscription, labor migration and indentured servitude, as well as the general difficulties brought by changing infrastructure and commercialization. Thus Thurston's subjects' unwillingness to "submit" to his "operations" was not due to superstition, but to correct and rational suspicion of the colonial government. That Thurston enticed participants into his operations with "bait" and "amusements" does not conceal the fact that participation was also forced by the "gangs" that turned up, probably sent by the police.(10) One might conclude, then, that the absence of anthropometric photographs and even of mention of such photographs, is evidence that none were ever made. If so, such absence might also testify to a particular failure in the exercise of colonial power. The cranial and nasal measurements Thurston prized must have been virtually impossible to photograph if his potential subjects perceived him as so terrifying that he had great difficulty mustering the necessary discipline and intimidation merely to place a ruler across their faces. In sum, the Thurston/Rangachari collaboration did not yield a body of precise records but images that record the ambiguous interactions of two types of colonized subject, one acting in a position of colonial authority and the other acted upon by that authority. Moreover, the actual practice of photographing colonial subjects was apparently so fraught a process that the most rigorous forms of social scientific research as understood at the time—for example, anthropometry—were not even attempted using photography.

A similarly inconstant and feckless form of typologic illustration is found also in the ethnographic pictures of Sergeant Wallace. Wallace's pictures appear in the books of the prolific administrator-ethnographer William Crooke, who spent his career as Magistrate and Collector in the United Provinces of Agra and Awadh, and also in the books of J.D. Anderson.(11) Wallace's images of caste, in which individuals from various groups pose with artifacts symbolizing traditional caste occupations, are far less tightly controlled than Thurson/Rangachari's. Often the subjects pose in ad hoc arrangements in fields, at the edge of streams, or in front of trees. They also pose before a decontextualizing white sheet, which is fully exposed in many of the images as a prop. Writing on Wallace's photographs, Christopher Pinney observes:

The generally rigid full poses suggest that the chief interest in these subjects is as physical specimens of their "type" and the objects they hold appear as subsidiary motifs. However, the objects refer to a dual identity which does not necessarily overlap and as such set up a tension within the images. In the case of the two Chamars [Figure 2] ...the erect posture seems to say, "we have the bodies of Chamars"…but the quietly held pair of shoes in the hands of the elder figure seems to argue against this, saying "but if we didn't hold these, could you really distinguish us from any other caste?"(12)

Pinney is rather off the mark in attributing caste racism to Wallace. Presumably Wallace would not have photographed his figures clothed had he been primarily concerned with them as physiological specimens. Further, Wallace went to the trouble of recording the personal names of his subjects on his prints (although neither Crooke nor Anderson—nor Pinney—reproduce them in print), indicating that Wallace saw his subjects as more than mere types. Pinney's suggestion that the Chamar pair knew that they were being stereotyped on the basis of objects traditionally affiliated with caste-occupation, and that they held the objects as if to question the association is strained. The gesture with the shoes seems to relate not to the correctness of the caste identification, but to compliance with the directive given by the photographer, as if to say, "is this the way you want us?" Nonetheless Pinney correctly picks up the sense of personal interaction between the subjects and the photographer, which dominates the image more than any stereotypical intention of Wallace's. Once again, we find a colonial photographer giving image to the imperfect process of domination more than the desired effect of that domination.

If the Thurston/Rangachari collaboration, for all its imprecision, shows a comparatively rigorous attempt to make semantically controlled ethnographic photographs, and Wallace's photographs represent a significantly looser set of desires for ethnographic photography, other important ethnographic volumes are notably confused in their use of photographic "evidence." The People of India (1915), by H.H. Risley, founder and head of the Calcutta-based Ethnographic Survey (1901) represents a case in point.(13) Noteworthy for propounding caste as a racial distinction (differences of caste being tantamount to differences of human breed), Risley's text includes photographs and drawings from photographs culled from disparate sources, pictures made over many years by various photographers. Presented with short descriptive statements, the photographs appear as raw visual confirmation for any number of unrelated economic and ethnographic observations, while comments about race and physiology—central concerns of the text's argument—are noticeably infrequent. As such, the photographs effectively form silent corroboration for virtually any claim, their authority implicit and categorical. Alternately, the manner of their presentation can be understood in terms of an ambivalent attitude toward ethnographic photography, an uncertainty as to what the photographs actually articulate about caste as he understood it.

To the extent that the latter explanation was the case, Risley's fitful, desultory consideration of ethnographic photographs, like Thurston's low regard for them, speak to a nascent awareness among ethnographers of the difficulties in holding ethnographic photographs to their intentions. This uncertainty is apparent in the patently (and admittedly) undiscriminating use of photographs by other important anthropologists of the period, notably J.W. Kaye and Forbes Watson. It even led some to avoid the use of photographs altogether.(14) The difficulty of manifesting ethnographic intention through photographs may be seen as corroborating a turn of the century shift in anthropology's self-definition as a discipline. As Elizabeth Edwards has explained, a conflict arose in the 1890s concerning the value of quantitative ethnographic practices such as anthropometry and phrenology. By 1910, she observes, ethnography had been redefined as detailed analysis of abstract social organization through interpretive fieldwork, rather than direct, analogical recording. As such, she argues, photography and other forms of seemingly unmediated, noninterpretive description/depiction were marginalized—marginalized but not abandoned because of the traditional view (which she validates) that photographs "transport...a fragment of the past...to the present" as a analogue of what existed in front of the camera.(15)

If ethnographic science did come to view photographs as recording surfaces rather than depths—or perhaps as recording depths not easily regulated by academic exegesis—a tension emerges which we could call characteristic of ethnographic photography: on the one hand is a generalized sense of photography's transparency, and on the other, a sense that the truths ethnography can tell are not visible. Consequently, while ethnologists sought to portray what they considered essential human attributes, such as race (physiologized social hierarchy), they did not consider photographs uniformly to harness their observations about these attributes. Hence the photographs do not present simple catalogues, appropriations, or voyeuristic peerings. In fact the diversity and ambiguity of ethnographic photography may well reflect the historical situation of colonialism, if, as Bernard Cohn writes, colonialism created a relationship in which both white rulers and indigenous peoples were constantly involved in representing to each other what they were doing. Whites everywhere came into other peoples' worlds with models and logics, means of representation, forms of knowledge and action, with which they adapted to the construction of new environments, peopled by new 'others.' By the same token, these 'others' had to restructure their worlds to encompass the fact of white domination and their own powerlessness.(16)

This equivocal status of ethnological photography stands in contrast to Edward Said's Foucaultian assertion that colonial knowledge presented a kind of panopticon, an all-seeing eye.(17) By the evidence of colonial ethnographic photography in India, if there was such an eye, it offered a distracted and scattered vision of the world it saw. The catalogical rigor that British ethnography sought to impose upon Indian society was imposed, at best, sloppily in the making of the photographs and as a component of the texts in which they are included. Indeed, ethnographic omnirepresentation reads from the distance of a century as an unrealized aspiration, if it was an aspiration. It traded on a naïve presumption that photographic "evidence" would be understood according to an intended reference to social typology. From the distance of a century such a presumption appears wishful and exceedingly ignorant of the indulgence it begs—namely, that we overlook and indeed, pardon the conditions of the photographs' production, which are neither excised nor concealed in the images. If the ethnographic effort was to photograph superannuated ethnographic categories, eidolons apart from social reality—evidence of the symbolic, ritual and racial determinations that constituted colonial knowledge—then ethnographic photographers failed in that they did not successfully exclude from their images the sense of the meeting of individual human beings, namely photographers (with assistants and police) and subjects. But even these visual "facts" do not probe very far: without annotations such as Thurston's, these images mostly point to the sheer social distance between ordinary Indians and British and Indian elites, the uncommonness of the extended interaction required by photography and attendant research practices. Had the ethnographic photographers approached their task differently, they might have intentionally sought to represent the self-knowledge of ordinary Indians, and their success might have revealed the regime's deep knowledge of its subjects. Indeed, perhaps nothing would better have demonstrated the scope of colonial knowledge than the representation of its subjects' self-knowledge as colonized persons. However, such a deep representation—or even a successful superficial reduction of individuals to analytic types—does not appear in the ethnographic photographs. More than anything, the awkwardness of colonial Indian ethnographic photography speaks directly of the distances between ethnographic reality and lived reality.

The politics of candor: the colonial snapshot

It is only at the end of the nineteenth-century, with the beginnings of small camera photography practiced by untutored though sometimes not unskilled British amateurs for their own interest—in short, personally authorized photography—that we begin to find work that matches the changing nature of British understanding and the changing nature of colonial governmental policy.(18) In their spontaneity, immediacy, and often abrupt disregard of aestheticizing gestures, these new pictures made with hand-held cameras scramble and reaggregate conventions of easy legibility. Their style is anecdotal and notational: they represent without claiming essence or eternality. As such these images, which are to my knowledge altogether ignored by current scholarship, offer a variety of photographic information distinct from both government and commercial photography of the colonial period.

The presentational context for the new, comparatively undomesticated photographs was predominantly the personal diaries and the memoirs of retired civil servants. These texts are replete with stereotypes candidly offered to a presumably sympathetic audience—not unlike, for example, the text of Jacob Riis' How the Other Half Lives. To some extent we might chalk up the tendentious qualities of the texts to prejudice common at the time, but combining rigidly prejudicial texts with photographs that suggest comparatively unregulated interactions with ordinary Indians also served a specific political function. If we examine the political discourse embedded in both the texts and the photographs, we find that small camera photography symbolizes key elements of the British effort to reform an increasingly ineffectual and weak colonial administration. Lieutenant-Colonel S. J. Thomson, author of two volumes of memoirs, The Silent India, Tales and Sketches of the Masses, and The Real Indian People, More Tales and Sketches of the Masses, published in 1913 and 1914 respectively, openly dedicates his work to the perpetuation of the colonial regime in the face of the rising nationalist challenge:

The watchword for rulers in India to-day, it is submitted, is to keep touch with the masses—not the noisy minority in towns, but the simple voiceless millions who live in the Silent India,—who constitute at least two-thirds of the total population, and who furnish...the recruits for the Indian Army and Police. They represent a great latent power, at present inert; but they are impressionable and credulous to an extraordinary degree. Despite untoward incidents here and there, there can be no doubt ...[since] the King-Emperor's recent visit ...[that] we do not mean to quit the country, [and] every one feels he is not forgotten by the powers that be. But we must, it is feared, make up our minds to regard the existence of sedition as one of the permanent and serious difficulties which the rulers of India have to face. It was always more or less there, though it feared to raise its head... The disturbing element, however, is still comparatively small, and, given the requisite firmness, it should not be difficult to prevent its tainting the masses to any grave extent. The men on the spot should be able to do it; but, if the writer's views are correct, it is absolutely necessary to this end, it is repeated, that they should mix more freely with the people by constantly moving among them in the villages. ...[W]ith the Silent India contented, and its sons loyally serving under the British flag, we need have little fear for the safety of the Indian Empire.(19)

Here Thomson reflects a common strain in British policy debates of the late colonial period: that the Indian elites, through whom the British had maintained their empire, were uppity for independence and could no longer be trusted, and that British rule could only be certified through a direct alliance with the Indian masses. Thomson, of course, was not correct. The argument was terminally weak, since the British had, from the beginning, assiduously and painstakingly misrepresented the Indian "masses" in terms of a racist, supremacist discourse, aided in no small part by the distortions given by their (elite) Indian informers and collaborators. A direct collaboration with the Indian masses against the Indian ruling elite was impossible. But what is important here is the use of snapshot photography, a noninstitutionalized representational practice, to facilitate this "free mixing" of the British and the Indian masses. It was no accident that snapshot photography was enlisted in personal memoirs as a form of representation that would, so to speak, personalize the British regime to the masses.

In the snapshot photographs we do see evidence of comparatively free British contact with the everyday lives of Indians more than in any other group of colonial photographs. We begin to see photographs not just of occupational groups, but of laborers laboring. We see photographs not of the caste rituals of the poor, but of the poor inhabiting their living spaces. We see photographs not just of British pomp but of the crowds of ordinary Indians who gather to watch it. We see a very different kind of British self-portrait, not of might and conquest but of tentative exploration (Figure 3), which depicts the shadow of the sahib or memsahib on a horse jutting into the bottom of the frame.

The snapshots depart pictorially from the government sanctioned photographs in dramatic ways. They are replete with indistinct forms, unruly shadows, and lack of compositional "balance." Most of the snapshots were made with wide angle lenses and from a distance, so that subjects appear small. In addition, figures are sometimes cropped and blurred. It may be precisely in their departures from the conventions of clarity and ease of recognition that these pictures appear to bear documentary "authenticity" in the eyes of late twentieth-century viewers. I would suggest, however, that in the eyes of late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century viewers, for whom there was no such coarse "documentary" style, these photographs communicated the sense of British persons being in remote Indian locations "among the masses," rather than hard information on the lives of Indians. Perhaps they also reinforced stereotypes about Indian poverty and material underdevelopment. To my eye these images do not form a kind of informal surveillance or sustained investigation of everyday life, but a keepsake evocation of everyday life. Had the British wanted to use snapshot photography for surveillance purposes, we would see more trained photographic use, closer proximity to the subjects and more sustained concentration on particular aspects of life or on particular subjects. These photographs communicate the first, uncertain steps of individual British persons toward the individual Indians they had indirectly ruled but had never really known.

Thoughts and interventions: the archive and its silences

On the face of it, it is clear that much of the archive of colonial photography from British India forms a poor baedeker to the colonial world, failing to picture the social and economic realities of colonial experience. In the case of Thurston, for example, the ethnographic content of his pictures—his intention to render his subjects as ethnographic specimens whose most important signifier was ritual garb—evades significant information about his subjects. His wedding couple were members of the untouchable Madiga caste, and were most likely landless laborers, among the Indians hardest hit by colonial rule. Millions of Indians precisely like this wedding couple sustained what we now understand to be the consequences of colonial rule: nearly continuous famine, the destruction of indigenous manufacturing, the perennial conflict over rural surplus appropriation, the migration of labor, the prevalence of indentured servitude, sporadic agrarian revolt. Yet, we see very little of these realities in colonial photographs. We see exceedingly little of the country's forced dependence on deficient supplies of foreign food and goods, the endemic crisis of debt and usury, the proliferation of a hungry, landless population, and the aggravation of communal social tensions. We learn little about the political economy of vulnerability, waste, war, and depletion that feudalized India as a crucial part of the development of capitalism as a global phenomenon. Paradoxically, it is the denial of material reality in the colonial archive, the representational ellipsis, that perhaps best signifies colonial domination and colonial will. As Gary Tartakov observes, the absence of colonial social realities in the extant photographs has made it easy for historians and curators to enlist photographs in renewing nostalgia and romance for the colonial period.(20)

Such nostalgia is surely mistaken and even cruel. Within an explicit understanding that multiple hierarchies—according to race, social evolution, technological progress, political cohesion—characterized the colonial discourse in which photographs participated, and that the colonial regime brought about profound destabilization, this essay has been concerned to examine the nature of communication in two particular and important types of colonial photographic production: ethnography and snapshots. Mindful of what the archive as a whole does not reveal about colonial India, I have been interested to demonstrate how these photographs do not straightforwardly transmit the messages of domination they intended to show. Rather, they transmit complex messages about the prejudices of their makers, and the conditions of their production.

If, however, the pictures do not blithely communicate articles of imperialist truth, they likewise do not blithely confirm our own corrective truth. Inasmuch as the photographs fail to enact colonial conceits simply or singularly, they also challenge certain aspects of the critique of Orientalism, and of poststructualist photographic criticism more generally. The interpretive slippages I have elaborated—evident even in the most deliberately preconceived, staged, and disciplined of the photographs—suggest that the subjecthood of those Indians pictured resists capture, resists being held-captive in the pictures. This resistance, in my view, marks the beginning of the photographs' journey toward testimony. To put the point differently, we become, in effect, unwitting collaborators in the colonized subject's thralldom if we declare these photographs made in the colonial context to be mere sign-constructions of a mythical place called the Orient, mere indices of colonial fantasy concerning people who are culturally exotic, intellectually primitive, racially inferior, materially poor compared to Europeans.(21) We further deny the subjects' already-denied subjecthood if we to use the pictures to proclaim the (categorically) fraudulent association between photographs and their referents. That the colonized Indian subject incompletely emerges in the colonial photographs—or we might say, abides in a state of non-completed emergence—suggests that the colonized subject appears, as it were, in the spaces left by readings we conscientiously reject. Such unwanted readings are basically of two types. On the one hand are those that treat the photographs as solemnizing the past "as it was," as "rescuing" subjects from the flow of time, as "capturing" the past in an image. On the other hand are readings that flatten the photographs variously into duplicitous fictions, shabby ventriloquisms, enduring if indurate illusions, threats to the just imagination of the past. Better interpretive tasks, as I understand them, illuminate the relay between complementary inscriptions of the colonized subject. They look to the contingent, elusive aspects of photographs made in the colonial context for the stirrings of the deferred subjecthood of the colonized other. They unyoke photographs' testimony from procrustean approaches (old and new) concerning the complex, often ambiguous cultural formations that the photographs register.(22) In short, if historical photographs commonly confound interpretation—in their being, for example, physical vestiges of a present no longer present, or mnemonic promptings of experience never experienced—it is the inconstant visibility of Indian life, the particular tension between looking and knowing specific to pictures made during the colonial period that disrupts the imperialists' prerogatives, and chastens our own reconstructive efforts.

Thus, the same photographs that overlook and censor so much of colonial reality do bear witness to discrete aspects of colonial reality: the unresolved, disarticulated cultural encounters between Indians and Europeans that occurred under the aegis of the colonial institutions that used photography. The same photographs that communicate the complexities of the human meetings required to make them likewise communicate a shared historical experience between colonized and colonizer in which knowledge of the other was fragile and fitfully acquired. Beyond this, the photographs leave us to grapple with evidentiary nonconclusiveness, with the halting traces of searching meetings between persons of drastically unequal power. We are left to abide in the midst of unanswered fear and curiosity and the immense loss visited by the colonial experience—loss unrequited by the regimes of colonial and post-colonial knowledge.


1. Ray Desmond, Victorian India in Focus (London: Her Majesty's Stationary Office, 1982), 2.

2. Ibid, 3.

3. The following discussion is indebted to Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wippermann,The Racial State: Germany 1933-45 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 23-24.

4. Correlation of the earliest ethnographic photography with the governing ideas of British social research is unfortunately impossible to attempt because the materials are extremely rare and not available for study. These materials include, for example, William Johnson's 1863 Oriental Races and Tribes: Residents and Visitors of Bombay (1863), the first known book containing photographs of Indian society, and William Marshall's A Phrenologist amongst the Todas (1873). The unavailability of the latter is especially regrettable since it appears to be the only book containing phrenological photographs made in the subcontinent. The single photograph from Marshall's book reproduced in secondary literature is itself not a phrenological photograph, but a photograph of Todas standing outside their huts.

5. By way of critique of the classical position, Bernard Cohn, among others, has sedulously questioned the sheer existence of positively known, ethnologized beings who dwell for eternity in the "ethnographic present"—an existence that omits (and must omit, because ethnological knowledge must be reproducible, patternable and teachable) the contradictory and qualitative aspects of human culture. See Bernard Cohn, "History and Anthropology: The State of Play," in An Anthropologist among the Historians and Other Essays (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1987), 19.

6. Rangachari receives credit for making both photographs and phonograph recordings, excepting the images of the Badagas, Kurumbas and Todas, which are credited to an A.T.W. Penn. Thurston is careful to note what ethnographic tasks he did himself: "the anthropometric data are all the result of measurements taken by myself, in order to eliminate the varying error resulting from the employment of a plurality of observers" (Edgar Thurston, Castes and Tribes of Southern India (Madras: Government Press, 1909), vol. I, xii). The operative question is whether Thurston deemed any "error" that would arise in ethnographic photographing not worth correcting, or deemed the photograph sufficiently free of "error" that his own direct involvement in the photographs' making was unnecessary.

7. Edgar Thurston, Castes and Tribes of Southern India (Madras: Government Press, 1909), vol. IV, opposite 320.

8. Similar questions arise with regard to the work of other Indian ethnographer photographers. See, for example, Anantha Krishna Iyer, Cochin Tribes and Castes (Madras: Government of Madras, 1909).

9. Thurston, Castes and Tribes of Southern India, vol. I, xvi ff.

10. Claude Campbell provides the following testimony of photographing in the princely state of Hyderabad, noteworthy for its corroboration of the use of coercion, twice referring to the necessity of police action: "Great difficulty was experienced in photographing specimens of these unsophisticated races, owing to their apparent inability to understand whether they were about to be hypnotized, electrocuted, or photographed, but their natural shyness of an apparatus that was completely new to their untutored minds was at length overcome, and their portraits were obtained... [T]hanks...are gratefully tendered to the Government of His Highness the Nizam for the valuable aid rendered by them in every possible direction, and more especially for letters of introduction and police escorts, which were never asked for in vain, and without which little could have been accomplished—particularly in the matter of photographing." See A. Claude Campbell, Glimpses of the Nizam's Dominions (Bombay: C. B. Burrows, 1898), 3-4.

11. William Crooke, The Tribes and Castes of the North-West Provinces and Oudh, 4 volumes (Calcutta: Superintendent of Government Printing, 1896); also The North-Western Provinces of India (London: Methuen and Co., 1897); also Native Races of Northern India (London: Archibald Constable and Company, Ltd., 1907); also J.D. Anderson, The Peoples of India (Cambridge: University Press, 1913).

12. Christoper Pinney, "Underneath the Banyan Tree: William Crooke and Photographic Depictions of Caste," in Elizabeth Edwards, ed., Anthropology and Photography 1860-1920 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 168.

13. For Risley, caste as race—social hierarchy derived from and grounded in biology—would serve to dampen the growing challenge of the Indian nationalist movement to British rule. Given "a regime of caste," Risley writes, "…it is difficult to see how the sentiment of unity and solidarity can penetrate and inspire all classes of the community." H.H. Risley, The People of India (Second edition, London: W. Thacker, 1915), 293. Elsewhere he remarks that with no "national types" there is "no nation in the ordinary sense of the word." H.H. Risley, Imperial Gazeteer of India (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1909), 288.

14. The largest book of photography published in the colonial period, J.W. Kaye and Forbes Watson's eight volume The People of India: A Series of Photographic Illustrations, with Descriptive Letterpress, of the Races and Tribes of Hindustan (1868-75), contained 468 albumen prints tipped in by hand, collected from some fifteen officers of the Indian Civil Service who, the authors write, produced them "without any definite plan, according to local and personal circumstances" (volume 1, preface). Correspondingly, the photographs vary considerably with regard to identifying information, content, and one must presume, intent. One important ethnographic work containing no photographs is R.V. Russell's Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India, four volumes, 1916 (Oosterhout, Netherlands: Anthropological Publications, 1969), which is similar in its intent and scope to Thurston's work. Likewise the District Gazetteers, published annually in every District of British India and reporting on important social, economic and infrastructural developments, contained numerous photographs but no ethnographic photographs. Their informational content was apparently deemed irrelevant to the regime of applied colonial knowledge and to the real business of governing.

15. Edwards, "Introduction," in Edwards, 4. Edwards' contentions are echoed by Christopher Pinney's assertion of anthropology's "re-Platonization" in the first decade of the century, and by Clifford Geertz's observations on the development of Malinowskian subjectivity. Together these scholars raise the important question of what among late nineteenth and early twentieth century ethnographic objectives was actually photographable. See Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New

York: Basic Books, 1973).

16. Bernard Cohn, "History and Anthropology: The State of Play," in Cohn, 44.

17. See Christopher Pinney, "The Parallel Histories of Anthropology and Photography," in Edwards, 75.

18. A related concern is the issue in nineteenth-century India of what we would call today social documentary photography. Direct photographic description by British photographers of social and economic reality in colonial India is exceedingly rare. There is, for example, only a single nineteenth-century work by a British writer-photographer dedicated outwardly to socio-economic reportage, F.H.S. Merewether's A Tour Through the Famine Districts of India, published in London in 1896. The book is not a reportage, but the usual memoir of a royal tour—confined to Rajputana and other Indian princely states, skillfully avoiding British dominion—showing nobles' tombs, dancing girls, gurus, the photographer's entourage, and the like. Of the thirty-one photographs in Merewether's book, only four depict famine victims. Besides Merewether, Henry W. Nevinson's 1908 memoir, The New Spirit in India, contains a single uncredited image of an emaciated person in an unidentified location entitled, "Hunger;" also we have Willoughby Wallace Hooper's staged image of the Madras Presidency famine of 1876-78, reprinted in Naomi Rosenblum's A World History of Photography (New York: Abbeville, 1981), 346. The paucity of coverage of one of the major consequences of British rule—some nine million Indians are estimated to have died of famine between 1857-1947, the period of direct rule by the British crown—suggests that even minimally substantial public photographic coverage of the famines would have exposed the sclerotic propaganda concerning the beneficence of British rule. At the same time, other types of photographs we would call documentary were made in the colonial period—see, for example, Judith Mara Gutman's 1982 book, Through Indian Eyes (New York, Oxford University Press with International Center of Photography, 1982), which presents evidence of an unusual and potentially highly important body of photographs, undertaken by the Maharaja of the princely state of Jodhpur in 1891 as part of the Census of Occupations.

19. Thomson: The Silent India, Being Tales and Sketches of the Masses (London, William Blackwood and Sons, 1913), 354-6.

20. Gary Tartakov, "Who Calls the Snake Charmer's Tune?" Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 11:2 (1979), 26-39.

21. For a detailed version of this critique, see Edward Said, Orientalism (New York, Vintage Books, 1979).

22. The central claims of this essay—that analytic frameworks change and sometimes denude photographs of signification, and that what is ambiguous and unresolved forms a legitimate part of photographs' evidentiary communication—suggest that we not presume a commensurate relationship between the evidentiary photograph and the world depicted. There is also a further suggestion that an anti-essentialist view of culture—against the typically colonial view of culture as a reified entity, a form of causative, ritually manifest power—dovetails with a certain anti-realist view of photographic evidence. The theoretical underpinnings of these claims are worth mentioning. In philosophical terms, this essay does not assert a "correspondence" theory of photographic reference, namely that photographs have a special, if mediated purchase on the real, that they present us with a "trace" of the actual, revealing what the world would look like were there no photograph to picture it (to paraphrase the photographer, Garry Winogrand). Rather, this essay's point of departure is that there is no normative, Archimedean photographic mark upon which knowledge of the world through photographs can be grounded. Rather, photographic likenesses represent transformations of the visual world, inexorably introducing interpretations that beget further interpretations as they are pondered, discussed, read-into. The evidence of the world that we find in photographs does not "inhere" in them, as if photographs could be said to instantiate their referents. Instead, photographs form "evidence" because of the questions asked of them and the interpretive tasks to which they are put.