King's College London
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Representing the unfamiliar: Photography in the British Empire 1866-1938

The presentation of indigenous peoples

Photograph showing a scene from the village of the Samburu Masai, with a camel in the background and goats in the foregroundPhotograph showing a scene from the village of the Samburu MasaiIn popular Edwardian works such as A Radclyffe Dugmore’s Camera adventures in the African wilds (1910) or EHG Powell-Cotton’s In unknown Africa (1904), indigenous peoples are presented with the same curiosity and pictorial style as the local wildlife.

Two photographs of people from the Samburu Masai and Kikuyu tribes in their native lands, involved in gathering fuel and sustenancePhotograph of people from the Samburu Masai and Kikuyu tribes in their native lands, with descriptive captionsIn both cases, each are treated as ‘specimens’ and objects of curiosity instead of the humanity of the indigenous peoples on show being differentiated from the other photographic subjects. In fact, in some cases the indigenous peoples are treated in an animalistic fashion.

The title given to Camera adventures in the African wilds suggests a homogenous wilderness, wherein the author mingled with entirely ‘wild’ beings. Radclyffe Dugmore’s expressed intention in his venture is to engage in ‘photographic hunting’ of animals. When claiming ownership of the photos, he discusses their varied subject matter in singular terms:

the ‘animal’ pictures throughout this book are direct photographic reproductions of the original photographs … it is scarcely necessary to add that unless specified, all the animals were photographed in their natural state, at large, and entirely free from fences or other restrictions

Given his book contains several photos of indigenous Africans, who go unmentioned in this disclaimer, it is evident that Radclyffe Dugmore either does not consider these peoples relevant or understands them to be animalistic in certain ways.

Such a comparison was by no means solely implicit. As Captain Barttelot reports one Australian station manager as saying: ‘The blacks love their country and their hunting and fishing; their animal life and their camps and it is fierce grief to them to be taken away from it.’

Photograph of Tungu ng’wana Mahona, in traditional dressPhotograph of Tungu ng’wana MahonaMoreover, Barttelot included a blurred photograph with the caption ‘wild blacks,’ which is not reproduced here, that emphasises the supposed animalistic qualities of the indigenous Australians.

Radclyffe Dugmore, and to a lesser extent, Barttelot, are ‘representing the unfamiliar,’ to their audiences, yet in doing so they place indigenous peoples and animals on the same spectrum, implicitly elevating the ‘civilised’ white traveller or settler.

In photographs closer to the beginning of the Second World War, however, the representation of Africans by colonial administrators developed. Instead of being dehumanised these figures were given a greater degree of photographic agency and were portrayed in less static, more human positions.

This is demonstrated by DW Malcolm’s 1938 photograph, reproduced to the left, of Tungu ng’wana Mahona, the elected representative of young men in the village of Niashimba in Tanzania.

Link to King's College London catalogue record:

A Radclyffe Dugmore. Camera adventures in the African wilds. London: William Heinemann, 1910

DW Malcolm. A report on land utilisation in Sukuma. 1938

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