A Decolonial Approach to Historic Archives

In the last of the commissioned pieces for the Many Voices’ decolonisation project, researcher and ECA graduate Aayushi Gupta considers the ways in which archives continue to embed colonial narratives, and the importance of looking beyond the images presented to us.

A Decolonial Approach to Historic Archives

Images are not neutral. Images are highly political, contested, debated, and dynamic sites of social interaction and definition in terms of class, gender, sexual, and racialised identities. In the case of archives, the collation and curation of such highly political entities depict (and construct) social difference, naturalise social hierarchies, conceal authorship, and construct audiences. Because of this, interpreting an archival image demands a rigorous investigation of the conditions and circumstances under which an image is selectively introduced into an archive, the ways in which it is catalogued, preserved, used and repurposed, as well as an investigation of the power relations underpinning these decision-making processes. A decolonial approach to interpreting archival images entails this rigorous investigation. We need to not only look through images but also look behind, beyond, and around them. 

Elgin, L., Beato, F. and Miller, M., 2021. Photograph Album “China”. [Photograph] University of Edinburgh, ECA Rare Books. Edinburgh.

In the online catalogue of Edinburgh College of Arts’ Rare Book Collections (housed at the Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh) is an image of two women. The names and narratives of these women have been erased by the anonymising caption of the image – ‘Chinese Ladies’. According to the catalogue, this image is part of an ‘elaborate’, ‘embossed’, and leather-bound album with ‘China’ tooled in gilt, and in addition to the image of ‘Chinese Ladies’ and similar studio portraits, the album includes images depicting British diplomat Lord Elgin’s military campaign (August – October 1860) in China, and views of Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Macao. The catalogue also notes that most of the studio portraits in the album are attributed to Milton M. Miller (an American photographer who ran a photo-studio in Hong Kong between 1861 and 1864) and that the images from Elgin’s military campaign are attributed to Felice Beato (a renowned war photographer at the time who travelled with Elgin’s army). 

From what the catalogue presents us, it appears that the ‘Chinese Ladies’ in the image are nothing more than props used by the photographer to contribute to a highly political project that sought to invite imperial expansion over the people and lands of China. The catalogue does not provide any information on the sitters’ identities and instead focuses on the producers of the photographic project. By privileging the producers in this way, the catalogue perpetuates what anthropologist Christopher Pinney argues is the dichotomy between ‘on the one hand, a complex Europe bearing the marks of an intricate history’, and ‘on the other, a non-Western sphere of uniformity, resulting from a lack of history’ (Pinney, 1997). It is, moreover, a deliberate choice; while the image was produced at a time when non-Western subjects were commonly represented and identified by a more generalised reference to their nationality or racial background, this maintained anonymisation of the ‘Chinese Ladies’ – and indeed other photographed subjects in the album – in a 21st-century archive is striking and uncomfortable. It is a glaring lacuna that not only indicates a lack of thorough historical contextualisation, but also a myopic approach towards what we deem worth researching and inscribing in the historical record. Our cataloguing strategies need a fundamental paradigm shift, as do our interpretive strategies. 

In cataloguing images, we need to move beyond simply providing information that was collated at the time of acquisition and invest in regularly updating this information in line with continual research being produced around those images. In interpreting catalogued images, we need to beware that archives are not objective transparent windows into historical realities and that the images we consult have been made available to us through selective decision-making processes that are imbued with power dynamics. As such, we need to look behind, beyond, and around what is provided and listen to the narratives that are silenced. 

A decolonial strategy would allow us to note that the leather-bound album with ‘China’ tooled in gilt – commissioned by Elgin – does not simply depict (as the catalogue informs us) but signifies Elgin’s diplomatic mission to China that went hand in hand with British raids and control of Chinese forts and towns. It would reveal the institutional framework within which photography was deployed as a political tool to advance the British-colonialist ideology, and how the image of the ‘Chinese Ladies’ does not simply depict the Chinese elite of the time (as the catalogue informs us) but, when read alongside other images in the album, acts as an important documentation of a people and society before the destruction that Elgin’s military campaign brought about. It might be impossible to entirely resurrect the identities of these women from the annals of history that did not intend to preserve them in the first place. Yet in reframing our understanding of the responsibility that archival records hold in producing and maintaining the narrative of power, we can at the very least interpret them in the light of the colonial legacy in which they were forged.




Comments (12)

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  1. Pub Bore says:

    It goes deeper than that. Photographing those women at all was itself an act of colonisation, appropriating them through Western technology as objects of the Western gaze.

    Rather than trying to find alternative, more ‘correct’ ways of presenting such appropriations to the Western gaze (there can be none), I’d burn the lot of them.

  2. SleepingDog says:

    The corruptive and reductive aspects of Western photography on East Asian subjects have been treated, often ironically, by (for example) Chinese/Hong Kong-made martial arts movie series Once Upon a Time in China (English title) and Japanese exploitation-revenge manga Lady Snowblood (English title). The stilted medium of early photography is wholly unequal to capture the dynamism and skill of the kung fu master, and is used for pornography and blackmail amongst the wealthy classes. Yet the technologies of these media are based on neutral and universal physics and chemistry, and the creators are generally arguing for mastery and development of these artforms in order to tell their own stories.

    While I would generally agree with a lot of things being at least somewhat political, not all images are even human-created (fossils, for example). And some images (from automated traffic cameras and for passports) are fairly indiscriminate in human political terms. And we cannot rule out the agency of subjects, some of whom may have requested their photographs taken, albeit knowingly under unequal power terms. One can imagine very early applications of photography being seized on by people in general, perhaps to identify a future missing loved one (pretty useful at times in oppressive, including colonial, regimes). One thinks of all those portrait walls or placards held high in crowds demanding justice. People will generally find ways to tell their own stories, with whatever means at hand.

    Yet, it is perhaps the unphotographed, or the missing/destroyed photographs, that are of particular concern. The recent attempt by French authorities to outlaw photography of police actions springs to mind.

    1. Pub Bore says:

      Ah, yes; these media are indeed based on the ‘neutral’ and ‘universal’ physics and chemistry of European science, which colonised most non-European cultures around the globe as part of the great imperial mission of civilisation – of bringing Enlightenment to benighted races.

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Pub Bore, once again, you deny objective reality (and the investigative object of science) when it suits you, yet manage to put a ring around ‘European science’ as if it were ‘author of itself and knew no other kin’. A slimy, disingenuous position that allows you deny anthropogenic climate change. A fatuous and obviously false claim that ‘all is ideology’ and thus cannot be objectively true: yet that is itself an ideological claim, not an objective one. If you are intent on continuing with your boring charlatan sophistry, at least get some new lines.

        Racists (that I knew personally) have argued to my face that the Japanese (perhaps Asians in general) ‘did not understand science’ and ‘merely copied the West’. This is foul slander. Any idea that ‘science’ (at heart, the systematic investigation of nature) is based on specific European attributes is similarly racist in character, however it is dolled-up in anti-colonial blather (and the Chinese and Japanese had their empires too).

        Where Europeans eventually got their edge from is most probably in the idea communism of their printed-book culture, for which the Latinate alphabets were particularly (and fortunately) suitable. Yet Europeans no more invented printing or their original alphabet than the Indo-Arabic numeral system that later underpinned their mathematics and science. This idea communism (which effectively spread scientific ideas and technological patterns) existed alongside the various (often imperial) forms of capitalism. As a European, I have discovered no science, and developed at best a tiny amount of technology. That I can easily take photographs on my smartphone today is due to enormous collective worldwide efforts, and the idea communism of global science, and the universal and neutral chemistry and physics (not the human endeavours Chemistry and Physics) that underpins its working.

        1. Pub Bore says:

          But, SD, the whole ideology that posits an ‘objective reality’ that’s the investigative ‘object’ of an investigating ‘subject’ is a product of a European history that has colonised the world.

          1. SleepingDog says:

            @Pub Bore, says who? You are just promulgating a dogmatic opinion dressed up as an objective ‘fact’, whilst denying the existence of such objective facts. Your position is itself ideological, and self-contradictory. Poundshop patriarchs like yourself have skin in the game, of course. It suits them to pretend that European science is such a big and special thing because it reinforces their narrative of Science being conducted by Great (white, of social standing) Men (only occasionally Women) of History. So when non-Europeans systematically investigating nature come up with vaccination, you don’t call it Science. When a lady amateur imports vaccination into the UK and carries out experiments, you don’t call it Science. You only call it Science when a white man of social standing copies and develops the idea and becomes ‘the Father of Immunology’.

            Incidentally, followers of your comments will appreciate how unsystematic (indeed, dogmatic and fanboyish) your own investigations have been, by your own accounts.

          2. Pub Bore says:

            **CLEVER B*LL*CKS ALERT**

            Say writers from the broad spectrum of the constructivist tradition in European philosophy within which I’m historically located.

            Constructivism is the epistemological assumption that worlds are constructed by human beings from the raw data of sensory experience. We do so by imposing order on that data by means of socially given concepts.

            Contructivism is usually contrasted with that other broad tradition in European philosophy, objectivism. Objectivism (in this context – it means other things in other philosophical contexts) is the epistemological assumption that ‘the’ [real] world comes to us ‘ready-made’; that it’s simply and directly revealed to us in experience, without the mediation of concepts. I suspect you’re historically located in the objectivist tradition.

            Constructivism was born out of Hume’s reduction of objectivism to absurdity and Kant’s subsequent development of Hume’s theory of concepts in his own critiques of reason. If you were at all interested in ‘Says who?’, I’d refer you to the inheritors of the radical humanism of Hume and Kant. Back in the 1980s I used to recommend Robert C. Solomon’s ‘Continental Philosophy Since 1750: The Rise and Fall of the Self’ as an idiot’s guide. No doubt there are more recent primers available.

            As an epistemological assumption, neither constructivism nor objectivism can be ‘true’ or ‘false’ in accordance with the meaning ascribed to these terms in correspondence theories of truth. Their value lies rather in their success in making coherent sense of how we can ideate as a world the raw sensory data we immediately experience.

          3. Pub Bore says:

            Incidentally, in his book Solomon identifies what he calls ‘the transcendental pretence’ (that the European construction of reality isn’t a historical artefact but is universally and timelessly ‘true’) as the well-spring of colonisation and the extirpation of all ‘otherness’, both at home and abroad, that challenges that pretence. If we assume his interpretation, then the deconstruction of ‘the transcendental pretence’ of objectivism is key to the process of decolonisation.

  3. Richard Easson says:

    It appears quite common to find photographs that do not name the subjects, probably because they were lost at some time or not attached to the image. The collection of the National Gallery in Edinburgh has loads of images described as unknown artist and so on including one unknown artist I knew as Robin Philipson. Obviously in some cases younger indexers have no direct experience of recent history.
    When Beato took his pictures of beheaded or crucified chinese criminals was this colonial work or just recording chinese justice and behaviour which does not seem to have changed much.

    1. Pub Bore says:

      He was representing as abhorrent practices that were contrary to Western values, thereby contributing to the colonial apologetic as to why we were there: to bring civilisation to ‘the savage’; to domesticate the ‘brute’; to tame the wilderness; to conquer evil; to enlighten the heart of darkness; to liberate ‘others’ from their ignorance and error through the gift of our science and religion.

      1. Richard Easson says:

        I could have sworn the present home secretary wanted to bring back killing people. Is this post-colonialism or pre-colonialism , return to the brute , revenge-colonialism or just a pain in the colon (ialism)?

        1. Pub Bore says:

          It’s another expression of the same will to power, operating through a system of discipline and punishment to compel obedience to a particular set of historically given values. Be ‘British’ or we’ll (literally or metaphorically) kill you!

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