THE COLONIZING CAMERA: PHOTOGRAPHS
IN THE MAKING OF NAMIBIAN HISTORY. Wolfram Hartmann, Jeremey Silvester
and Patricia Hayes. Cape Town: University of Cape Town Press. 1998.
Pp. 220. $29.95, paper.©
In the late 19th century, the camera
emerged as a particular technology which collapsed time and space in
the circulation of images, thus playing a critical role in the colonial
enterprise. The Colonizing Camera examines colonial photographs
in Namibia from the period of colonial occupation to the era of independence
and decolonization. During this period, a vast photographic collection
of "native" subjects were exhibited. How are we to interpret
this storehouse of colonial archival photographs? How do we read the
body of knowledge and discursive practices of colonial photographs stored
in these archival photographs?
In the study of colonialism in Africa social historians have generally
ignored the active role of photographs in the construction of colonialism.
Most colonial photographs are used simply as "illustration"
to an accompanying text. The authors suggest these colonial photographs
are often treated like a quotation which "of itself is often seen
as self-evident and not conceived as a 'language' which seeks to persuade,
or which constitutes a discourse with is own structures of meaning"
(p. 2). In more recent times, scholars working in art, history, and
visual anthropology have discovered new and exciting ways of understanding
colonial photography and its forms of representations.
Part One of this book explores the discursive practice of colonial photography
in the making of the "other" in Namibia and the broader Southern
African region. Part Two is devoted to examining archival photographs
drawn primarily from the Hans Collections, which constituted a substantial
part of The Colonizing Camera traveling exhibition. Part Three
provides critical commentaries from scholars in history, anthropology,
and art history. They argue that photography is more than a system of
representation and passive expression of the colonial situation. Rather,
they assert that photography was indeed an active agent in the construction
of colonialism in Namibia.
Most of the early photographs of Namibia come from photographers working
for the colonial government since the "camera traveled the same
route as mercantile and colonial interests" (p.10). During the
early period of German colonial rule, photographers attempted to depict
racial stereotypes. The works of Karl Dove are a particularly good example
of this. Such photographs appeared in lavishly illustrated colonial
publications produced to support German colonial rule. Some of the photographs,
especially those of the Deutsche Kolonialgesellschaft [German Colonial
Society] were used as "visual instructions" to advance the
"civilizing mission" of colonial rule.
Certainly, these were not the only domains of colonial photography.
As the authors clearly indicate, colonial photographs "encompassed
early ethnography, consumer capitalism, political advocacy, evangelical
fund-raising as well as popular memorabilia" (p.13). Despite the
demise of German colonial rule and South African occupation, the production
and circulation of such images in calendars, coffee-table and post card
photography continues in present-day Namibia (p.14). Colonial nostalgia
and the instability of white settler identity appear to be behind this
contemporary phenomenon in Namibia. These colonial photographs therefore
remain contested sites in constructing a national identity for Namibia.
The second part of the book examines archival colonial photographs taken
between 1915 and 1950. The British-South African occupation of Namibia
in 1915 ushered in another phase of colonial photography. The publication
of the Blue Book in 1918 was designed by imperial strategists
in London to "demonstrate German cruelty and unfitness to retain
colonial possessions and, in turn, legitimate the South African claim
to award of the League of Nations mandate to govern Namibia" (p.14).
Once the League of Nations awarded Namibia to South Africa in 1915,
the new colonial authorities deployed a range of photographs to provide
powerful images of Namibia as an uninhabited and boundless land upon
which colonial desire could produce its own fantasies. Consequently,
colonial photography became an instrument to encourage white settlement
The new images of Namibia in the aftermath of the South African occupation
still sought to legitimize colonial occupation. In this regard the authors
analyze two very important ethnographic works: The Native Tribes
of South West Africa (1928) and South West Africa in Early
Times (1934). The text and the accompanying photographs in
both publications sought to demonstrate the "timelessness of native
life" and contrast this with "the loss of culture, authority
and health which accompanies urbanization" (p.17). The technique
of freezing Namibian life through texts and photography established
a field of knowledge which rendered "native life" visible
to both the settler population and audiences overseas. These selected
photographs are arranged in various categories ranging from images of
"native locations", migrants and domestic work, schools as
well as rituals, and colonial hunting expeditions.
The third part of the book is made up of twelve short commentaries addressing
a range of issues related to the colonizing camera. These lively and
informed commentaries explore the relationship between colonialism and
photography. By unearthing these cultural components of colonialism
and using them to study the construction of Namibian history, the commentaries
provide a nuanced reflection on the colonizing camera. Drawing from
a broad base of archival and literary sources, these commentaries make
an important contribution to our understanding of German colonialism
and South African occupation of Namibia.
As a whole, The Colonizing Camera provides a thorough interrogation
of the relationship between colonialism and photography and thus constitutes
an important contribution to our understanding of the role of colonial
photography in the production and circulation of images in the making
of colonial subjectivities regarding Namibia. The accompanying textual
materials contextualize the photographic images and provide a useful
guide for reading the archival photographs, which convey the coercive
techniques of colonial photography, and wider visual and social order
the photographers sought to create about Africans. The value of the
book lies in the way the authors clearly demonstrate how colonial photography
was central both in the making of Namibian history and in the colonial
construction of "otherness."
Public Policy Studies