Cameras and Colonial Encounters

Prof. BN Goswamy


Seeing two different things within two days of each other reminded me of the ongoing debate about the role that the camera played in British India. With an American couple, here in Los Angeles, I saw, just the other day, what must be among the most rare of books, a complete set, with all eight volumes intact, of The People of India, put together between the years 1868 and 1875, as a photographic record of a vast ethnographic project covering the land. And, second, I chanced upon a keenly argued, recent article on Portrait Photography in Colonial India, by Wendy Doolan, who is a curator at the Royal Historical Society in Australia. 

The eight-volume photographic survey partook, in some ways, of the character of all those ‘Company’ style paintings, which took as their subject the trades, castes and professions of India. But it was a far more rigorously carried out project, and still serves as a valid reference work for scholars working in different fields. Portraits of individuals, all of them frontally taken, and many of them establishing the context in which they worked, filled these volumes, each portrait being accompanied by a brief written account. 

They do appear very different, however, from the portraits of people as we see them in paintings, for they are remarkably still; the people in them appear ill-at-ease; and, somehow, shorn of the dignity — regardless of the class from which they came — that belonged to them in painted studies. Doolan argues that all these photographic projects, including another large one that dealt only with the Oriental Races, Tribes, Roldents and Visitors from Bombay in 1863, were more than a kind of “cultural voyeurism”: they were conceived by the British as a visual sign of control in the land that they had come to occupy and rule. The Indians who figure in these photographs, in “blunt, anonymous, frontal poses,” looked inferior types on a calibrated racial scale, the point made being that “the

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