Sophie Berrebi | 2018 Rita Boland Fellow

Sailor Shirts and Photographs: A Research Diary - Part 3

5 (The purpose of photography, first visit to the restoration studio - Bruna Triana)

But when did photography become the dominant medium to represent places and people? And how did it construct its legitimacy? The development of photography is contemporary to the acceleration of the colonization of Africa and the greed to appropriate territories and resources shares similarities with the yearning to see and to know that drove the popularity of photography.  After zooming in on the Kru people I need, so I realize, to zoom out to question the photographic image itself, hoping it will help me to understand the why and the how of these men in sailor shirts. I ask to see the photographs in the flesh. In the restoration studio, where Cathelijne greets me warmly, the two photographs have been laid out on a table alongside the box that one of them was extracted from. Using surgical gloves I scrutinize the images, noting the thinness of the paper characteristic of albumen prints, pasted on gray cardboard. There are no marks on either image, although others in the box bear a watermark from Cunha Moraes’ studio and show the same painted backdrop as in my first image. Perhaps I am daunted by the plastic folders and anti-acid cardboard, the surgical gloves and matching light. At any rate I cannot see anything that the database, with its high quality digital acumen hasn’t yet showed me. I feel hopeless, ignorant and dumb, faced with this display of scientific equipment. But I do find something, perhaps. My first photograph of the two “krooboys” is inscribed 92 in the margin. Sifting through the acid-free box in front of me I discover a photograph numbered, in the same handwriting, 93. Same background as the 92, and this time, three women dressed in contrasting fabrics holding each other’s arms look straight into the camera as a unified front, and with a defiant gaze.

Bruna Triana, to whom I have reached out, has written an article partly about Cunha Moraes (1855-1933), upon her return from Leiden and she kindly sends it to me from Brazil. [1]  In it she investigates how what she calls an “ethnographic gaze” permeates different genres and styles of photography made in nineteenth-century Angola and twentieth-century Mozambique.  She points to how Moraes’ photographs, made in the commercial studio business he inherited as from his father in Luanda, served different purposes. She argues for the necessity to read against the grain of conventions of posing and the neutral backdrops favored by anthropologists, and identifies here and there in certain images gestures of resistance through which, she writes, subjects regain some agency and resist the ethnographic gaze. She sees such a resistance in the posture of the women in the photograph labeled 93. Following her reasoning, I note once again the discrepancy with photograph 92, the sullen expression of the young men and their body language refusing the gaze of a camera that captures them nevertheless.

6. (Photography history in Africa)

And yet I have problems with this ethnographic perspective, with the dichotomy of the analysis of objectification and resistance. Even though Triana does write about the many usages of photography, and drawing from such authors as Elizabeth Edwards reminds readers that images could be easily re-purposed and re-labeled, I am not sure I understand, or agree with this idea of an overall ethnographic gaze as a primary characteristic of all photographs taken by European photographers in Africa, a gaze that dominates and classifies and objectifies non-western ‘others’. [2]

Although Cunha Moraes was Portuguese and seemed to have worked often for geographical societies in Europe, wasn’t he also part of Angolan society, a studio photographer catering for a local population as a whole? (His brother had inherited a clock-repair shop, would that not place them firmly within the Luanda bourgeoisie or lower bourgeoisie?) Here I miss a sociological account of Angolan society at the time, perhaps even some biographies of individuals living in those times and place, to complement Bruna Triana’s anthropological reading, and provide a wider picture.

In the past few years a number of publications, mostly by art historians, have begun to give another idea of the history of photography in Africa.[3] The several essays that I immediately lay my hands on focus on nineteenth-century African photographers such as the American-born Liberia-based Augustus Washington (1820/21-1875), and the Sierra Leonnese Francis W. Joaque (c. 1845 – 1895). These studies exclude European photographers but they paint a fascinating picture of the usages of photography in Africa in the late nineteenth century where people, like in Europe, collected in particular small carte-de-visite photographs of themselves to send to family and friends in different locations as propaganda to attract other settlers: these studies show the diversity of ways through which a society resorts to photography to represent itself. Those texts leave me wondering if any project similar to the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut exists in any African country today. In Beirut, the artist-driven Foundation has made regular calls to individuals to donate family images produced and collected by locals in the Middle East and in Arab Diasporas across the world to counter dominant representations of these areas made by Europeans since the mid-nineteenth century. As a result they have built an archive accessible online and which forms the basis from which counter histories of photography and of the Arab world can be written. But perhaps such projects exist, and I hope to come across them. And I also would like to read a book in which European and African photographers working in Africa in the nineteenth century would be presented side by side, and in a social, economic and political context. I am not aware of any such publication at this time of writing.

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[1] Bruna  Nunes Da Costa Triana, ‘(Post)colonial Archives and Images Analytical Contributions on Two Photography Collections’ Sao Paulo, v. 2 n. 1, 37-60 (May 2017).

[2] Elizabeth Edwards (editor) Anthropology and Photography. New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1992.

[3] I consulted for this section: John Pfeffer and Elisabeth L. Cameron (editors), Portraiture and Photography in Africa, Bloomington and Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 2013, Jürg Schneider, ‘The Topography of the Early History of Photography”, History of Photography v. 34 n. 2, May 2010, 134-146. Jill R. Dias, ‘Photographic Sources for the History of Portuguese-Speaking Africa, 1870-1914, History in Africa v.18, 1991, 67-82. Giulia Paoletti and Yaëlle Biro, ‘Photographic Portraiture in West Africa: Notes from “In and Out of the Studio”, Metropolitan Museum Journal 51 (2016): 182-199, and Jürg Schneider, ‘Demand and Supply: Francis W. Joaque, and Early African Photographer in an Emerging Market, Visual Anthropology, vol. 27, 316-338, 2014, 316-338.




Sophie Berrebi
Rita Bolland Fellow