Digging up the past of colonial photos

ABU DHABI: “The right to seize this image comes from the right of native peoples to expropriate the resources and capital stolen from them by colonialism - to include the visual,” academic Stephen Sheehi wrote in a recent essay. “Expropriating the image is not an act of regressive nationalism but a nationalising of the image as a Lebanese one in the process of decolonisation, just as the Suez [canal] was nationalised. This is the only form of ‘national photography’ that should take place. ... [An] act of decolonising photography ... must be at the centre of any search for ‘a history of Lebanese photography.’”

Published in the 2018 tome “On Photography in Lebanon,” Sheehi proposed that the only reason to write a national history of photography was to liberate “the photograph and ourselves as viewer-participants.” Equal parts militant manifesto and thought experiment, Sheehi’s piece is premised on a scathing critique of photographic consumption as self-consoling nostalgia.

Deploying two historic pictures (one shot in Damascus, the other in Beirut) to muse upon how to write the history of Lebanese photography, he argues that, rather than restricting ourselves to the production of local photographers, we must appropriate any image that captures the defining conditions of the “nation” in question.

Just as he draws on past critical work on the culture of mechanical image-making and reception - Jacques Ranciere, Georges Didi-Huberman, among others - his argument addresses the wider postcolonial world.

His argument complements a discussion, raging for some years now, about historic objects from the “global south” acquired in the colonial era that now stock prestigious museums in Europe and the Americas.

Since the spring, these discussions have reverberated quietly through the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the host of “Photographs 1842-1896: An Early Album of the World.”

“Photographs” sketches how mechanical image-making circulated from Europe to the colonized and once-colonized (or recolonized) world in the 19th century, focusing on its role as “a form of presentation and documentation, and an instrument of discovering and understanding the world and its people.”

Drawing on some of the oldest extant photos captured by travelers and sailors in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and the Americas, as well as some early local practitioners, the 250-odd objects assembled for this show are truly precious.

Organized by the LAD with Paris’ Musee du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac and Agence France-Museums (which arranges foreign loans of France’s museum holdings), the exhibition also includes pieces from the Bibliotheque nationale de France, Musee national des arts asiatiques - Guimet, Etablissement public du Musee d’Orsay, Societe de Geographie and Cite de la Ceramique - Sevres & Limoges.

Christine Barthe, head of the photographic collections heritage unit at Musee du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, curated “Photographs,” so The Daily Star sat with her to chat about whether the ethics of retaining and exhibiting mechanical images of the once-colonized world differs from that of objects.

“Photography is an object of relations,” Barthe began.

“You have the photographer and the people being photographed, at least two people, collaborating. Sometimes people wanted to have their pictures taken, other times they didn’t.”

Imperialism, she admitted, provided “the general context, but it doesn’t explain all the cases. It would be perfect if we had a record of what happened [between the photographer and the subject] at that time. ... Sometimes we have the information but it’s very rare.”

Take Jacques-Philippe Potteau (1807-76), several of whose albumen print portraits (taken between 1860 and ’69 “for scientific purposes”), adorn “Photographs.” Their subjects are more or less notable, from the Amir Abd al-Qader al-Jazairi, the Sufi sheikh whose CV included leading the resistance to the French occupation of Algeria, to a Bohemian gent named Jean Lagrene.

“These beautiful portraits include very simple men and important ones,” Barthe said, but the circumstances behind all Potteau’s photos aren’t known.

One of the photographers who did leave information is Charles Guillain (1808-75), principally in his three-volume, 1856 work “Documents sur l’histoire, la geographie et le commerce de l’Afrique orientale.”

“He [describes] the conditions, the negotiations he had to make for taking a picture, and how much he paid or what ... he gave to people to be able to photograph them,” Barthe said, “and who refused to be photographed. ... It is a very a long text, quite boring at times, but the details about the process of taking a picture are interesting.”

Exchanges were usually in kind, she noted, especially textiles and such. Barthe recalled a nowadays distasteful practice of shipping colonized people to Paris for exhibition.

“Sometimes these people didn’t have any choice [in being photographed]. Sometimes they were like actors. I found evidence that some of these people were given their pictures back. The scientists took pictures and made several prints, one for the model.”

After working with historic collections for many years, what redeemed photography for Barthe, she said, was that a photo’s meaning was not restricted to its original function. She recalled having recovered five daguerreotype portraits of a man and a woman from one of Brazil’s First Nations peoples, the Botocudos, who had been shipped to Europe in 1844 for study and exhibition.

Paris’ natural history museum commissioned Eugene Thiesson (1822-77) to take their portraits. When Barthe found five of these photos in the 1990s, they were in a very a poor state, in a carton destined for the garbage.

“For 10 years the people in the museum of natural history were happy to have these pictures and exhibited them. In the 1960s, they decided, ‘This is very bad. Let’s throw these away.’”

With a bit of research, Bathes discovered the portraits were the first sample of a photographic image of a South American Amerindian, and that, thanks to these photos, the subjects were able to pay for surgery the woman needed, and for clothes.

“I never found the real names of the people photographed,” she said, “or what happened to them.”

Two of Thiesson’s five daguerreotypes had been packaged for shipment to Abu Dhabi, she said, when, two weeks before the LAD show opened, she received an email from an arts center. “It said, ‘We’re in contact with a Brazilian artist who is looking for pictures of his ancestors, made in Paris on daguerreotype. Do you have?’”

She arranged a special meeting with the artist’s mother and sister, who came to Paris to see the photos, the curator said, “but by the time they arrived in Paris, two of the pictures had been packed for shipment to Abu Dhabi. ... So I showed them the three originals and reproductions of the other two. It was a very emotional moment for them and they asked that their photos be taken with the pictures.”

Now, she said, Thiesson’s daguerreotypes have a new life. “They have stories about the two people [in the portraits] because they have an oral tradition, telling about how these two people were sent to Paris and returned. I have some information about this on my side, but not all. So I think now we will have new research, a new way to think about these pictures.

“We can’t ignore the original photo’s context,” Barthe said, “but it also means the pictures are not captured in [restricted to] a single meaning, a single identity.”

For more on “Photographs: An Early Album of the World” see A generous catalogue of Barthe’ exhibition has been published by Kaph Books.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 13, 2019, on page 12.




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