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HSM 425

Select Issues in the Cultural History of India
Colonialism and Photography
­Dias Mario Antony, St. Stephen's College

Colonialists never shied away from using advances in technology for the articulation of
sovereignity. Photography too inevitably became one such technology which would be
used   for   controlling   the  people  and  geography   of  the   colonies.  The   production   of  a
photograph   as   a   mechanical   and   automated   process   may   initially   gives   us   the
impression   of   a   process   devoid   of   any   colonial   intentions.   However   as   Christopher
Pinny   convincingly   points   out,   there   are   always   aesthetic   and   ethical   values
constantly   being   engaged   with   in   the   process   of   photographing.   Even   if   there   are
theoretically an infinite number of objects which are photographable, there is always a
choice made as to what is to be photographed. Keeping this in mind, I will in this
essay   attempt   to   look   at   how   Colonialism   used   photographs   to   create   a   colonial
discourse of power, with special reference to the Indian context.

Photography was first used in India  merely months after it  was  first  developed  in

Europe   in   1840.   The   scope   of   photography   was   immediately   recognised.   It   was
immediately taken up by amateurs, aspirant professionals and people with a scientific
bend   of   mind.   By   around   1856   photography   was   already   being   used   in   the
identification   of   criminals   and   establishing   the   identity   of   victims.   Photographic
records   of   pensioners   became   a   method   to   prevent   impersonations.   It   was   also   a
forensic   tool   which   recorded   the   scene   of   the   crime.   The   denial   of   guilt   became   a
difficult act, when the actual scene of the atrocity returned to haunt the criminal in
the form of photographs. It became a tool which impressed upon the colonised people's
minds a fear that it was difficult to ellude the vigilance of the colonial state.

These attempts at capturing reality with the 'colonial eye' really picked pace after the
great convulsions of 1857, which instilled in the colonial mind an increased, almost
urgent need to understand the people who were actors in this event. India was still an
unknown   land.   Its   geography   and   people   both   alien   to   the   Europeans.   Many   had
already   written   about   the   land   and   its   people.   There   was   however   a   sense   that
photographs compared to writing was  a more truthful representation of reality, as the
pen always had the tendency to deviate from the truth based on the whims and fancies
of the author and his informer. What was written depended on the credibility of the
author, whereas photographs carried a feeling of exactitude.

The  larger   project   was   one   of  categorization   and  production  of   colonial   knowledge,
identification, and conveying a message of superiority. People were categorized on the
basis   of   their   occupation,   caste   and   religion.   They   were   photographed   with   the
material artefacts related to their occupation and documented for reference. People of
different religions were categorized by the dress they wore.  The People of India  was
one such large project which aimed at classifying the Indian population. The project
was   not   concerned   with   individuals   but   with   categories.   The   work   was   aimed   at
classifying groups by their political allegiance. There was no scope for individuality.
The emphasis was on collective behaviour and how they may be signifiers of collective
behaviour. When the people were photographed with what was perceived to be their
'original'   material   artefacts   and   draped   in   their   'traditional'   dresses,   it   created   a
distinct   stereotype   for   that   group.   What   was   also   lost   in   the   process   was   sense   of
history and created the sense of time forzen in perpetuity.

It is at this point that Christopher Pinny notes that we can detect the emergence of
two different photographic idioms in India. One was the 'salvage' paradigm which was
used  in  case  of  the  fragile tribal  communities  and  the  second  one  was   that   of  the
'detective'  paradigm   which  commonly  manifested  when  engaging  with a  more  vital
caste  society.   In  case  of   the  former  it   was   an   attempt   to  capture   the  essense   of  a
culture before its extinction. In case of the latter it was to serve as a identificatory
guide and help in understanding the behavioural nature of a group.

The classification also got intertwined with other disciplines such a phrenology and
anthropometry.   Photographs   often   got   combined   with   a   grid   which   measured   the
native body. The size of the anatomical measurements especially the cranium came to
be a measure of an individuals intelligence, personality and character.

The anthropologists of the 18th and 19th century functioned within a binary­ constantly
producing the 'other' as an inferior subject. Photography aided this colonial project
which   aimed   at   establishing   a   spiritual,   economic,   technological   and   political
hierarchy. Acccording to Shilpa Vijaylakshmi it functioned within the framework of
racial and cultural superiority.

Along with classification another urgent need for the colonial state was the need for
identification. Radhika Singha observes that when the colonisers came to India, they
were perplexed by the constant movement of various communities across geographical,
political   and community  boundaries.  Native   pragmatism   would  often  lead to  many
people   indentifying   themselves   as   from   a   different   community   to   get   into   various
services.   The   distinction   which   the   colonial   state   was   trying   to   create   through
categorization would not be possible unless there was a method to ensure that these
distinctions could not be blurred or erased. One thing which was a pre requisite for
this   was   a   settled   demography.   In   addition   these   groups   on   being   settled   had   the
potential of becoming productive revenue generating subjects. A sense of urgency in
settling,   identifying   and  controlling   these  population   also  came  from   the  increased
mobility which came as a result of colonial technology such as that of the railways.

Identification   also   played   an   important   role   in   fighting   crime.   Repeated   offenders

could   be   identified   and   escapees   traced.   Photographic   likeness   could   be   easily
circulated by post, so they were useful for verifying identity between one police station
and   another.   They   were   also   circulated   in   the   press   and   tiltillated   the   public
imagination in books about crime. All these told stories of the efficiency of the colonial
law and order system. Although at times this did backfire when the photographs of
political criminals took adulatory roles in the vernacular press.

However this came with a limitation. People aged and changed over time with which
the indexicality of the photograph diminished. Thus photographs were often used for
verification   rather   than   detection.   Indentured   labourers   and   transported   prisoners
were all photographed and registered with descriptions of their habits and convictions
to make verification easier.

Finally   photographs   also   became   a   testament   to   the   control   which   the   colonies
managed to achieve over the native population. James Ryan points to this parallel
between   hunting   and   the   photographing   of   the   colonial   population.   Susan   Sontag
describes   the   camera   as   a   'sublimation   of   the   gun'   and   Ryan   reminds   us   that   the
vocabulary of picure taking – 'loading', 'aiming', 'shooting' – has been largely derived
from hunting. Photographs became trophies of this control over the beasts as well as
the natives of the colonies.

James Ryan also explores the place of photography in big game hunting as a part of
larger study of what Edward Said called the 'imaginative geography' of the British
empire. Photography helped in surveying the land, enumerating and classifying the
nature,   waging   military   campaigns   and   helped   in   opening   the   colonies   to   British
explorers,   travellers   and   traders   who   had   no   prior   knowledge.   Cartography   and
photography combined together to provide a knowledge of the landscape, which would
aid the numerous military ventures of the colonial state. Millitarily it also served the
purpose of sending out a message of triumph. For instance after 1857, the triumph of
British was made known immediately through photographs. Photographs of attack on
Delhi or the punishment inflicted on rebels were designed to impress upon the native
the might of the British forces and their apetite for revenge.

Parallel   to   the   story   of   subjugation   of   the   colonial   population   which   the   colonial
photographs told, was another narrative in which the camera became an instrument
which   illuminated   the   dark   places   of   Asia   and   Africa.   It   domesticated   unknown
landscapes and traslated unknown spaces into familiar scenes. The camera captured
the spread of European civlization and in words of James Ryan acted 'as beacons of
light in an otherwise dark moral landscape'. This discourse become more clear when
we look at the ways in which these photographs were transmitted and disseminated.

Photographic journals and albums along newspapers and textbooks became carriers of
these photographs. It told the story of colonial success in subjugating a geography and
population which was wild, backward and much more inferior. These photographs at
the same time also transmitted a series of stereotypes about the colonised population.
Colonial exhibitions became places where these ideas of the colonial state would be
further reinforced. 

Postcards another medium of transmission of these photographs told a similar story
but   in   a   sligtly   different   manner.   The   postcards   generally   depicted   the   traditional
occupational groups within a contemporary setting. The Dhobhi for instance became a
part of the Sahib's bungalow. Similarly all the other traditional roles also came to be
represented in the service of the Raj. It was a narrative which clearly depicted an
arrogant superiority in which the native population was transformed into a state of


What emerges from our analysis of the relation between Colonialism and photography
is   that   it   became   a   tool   in   the   hands   of   the   Colonial   state   in   its   process   of
categorization,   identification   and   articulation   of   imperial   sovereignity.   Through   it's
process of categorization, the external faces of Indian bodies were objectified and made

to  bear  the  weight   of  the  group's   identity.   It also denied them the right to self

representation, which took the form of exoticised fantacies or imagination of the
natives as 'barbarians' in the colonial photographs. 

Secondly the process of identification gave the impression that everyone was
under   the   colonial   gaze.   It   became   a   means   of   controlling   the   colonial
population, their  movements and their  actions.  The colonial gaze  denied  the
right to any privacy of the colonized. It impressed on the minds of the colonised
a sense of constant vigilance on part of the colonial state. Along with controlling
the population it was also a control of the geography of the colonies which the
photographs enabled as we have seen.

Finally   and   thirdly   it   articulated   a   discourse   of   colonial   sovereignity   wherein   the

colonial state was depicted as the harbinger of light into the 'dark worlds' of Asia and
Africa. The colonial intervention came to be portrayed as the advent of progress and
civilization   in   an   otherwise   backward   society.   The   ability   of   the   photograph   to   be
infinitely   reproduced   allowed   its   wide   disemmenation.   Photographs   thus   became   a
vehicle of the colonial idealogy and in the act of constituting reality came to constitute
and idea of India which was articulated by the colonial state. 


1. Lal, Vinay, The Burden and Freedom of Photography: A Review Essay.

2.   Pinny,   Christopher,  Camera   Indica:   The   Social   Life   of   Indian   Photographs,

(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).

3.   Pinny,   Christopher,  Photography   and   Anthropology,  (London:   Reaktion   Books,


4. Ryan, James,  Picturing Empire: Photography and the Visualization of the British
Empire (Chicago: University of Chicago press, 1997).

5. Singha, Radhika, Settle, Mobilize, Verify: Identification Practices in Colonial India,
Studies in History 16 (2000).

6. Vijaykrishnan, Shilpa,  Looking Back: A Colonial Ethnographic Portriat of South
India, Tasveer Journal, 2014.