Light on Darkness? African missionary photography in the nineteenth and early twentieth century

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of Divinity


The early 1840s saw the export to Africa both of the newly developed art of photography, and of perhaps the most famous missionary of the nineteenth century, David Livingstone. Throughout the next century missionary photography played a large part in creating for Western public images of Africa, and of the Christian missionary task there. To begin with photographic images were used indirectly - as the source for illustrative lithographs in both missionary periodicals and books, and, more widely in the popular press. With the development of the half-tone printing process in the 1880s photographs began to be used directly in all the above media. In addition, the widespread use of magic lantern slides as educational and propaganda tools spread images of Africa very widely throughout the British public.
By and large, though, this public accepted these images at their face value. There was a general assumption that 'the camera does not lie.' Together with the captions which accompanied such photographs a whole range of stereotypes of what Africa and Africans were like, and the transformations which Christian missions brought, was propagated and instilled into the British psyche. The idea that missionary photographs might represent a partial and perhaps very unbalanced view of the African reality was hardly considered - least of all in the churches and church halls up and down the country on which the missionary effort relied for financial and spiritual support. Thus the image (in this case quite literally) of Africa, the African and the missionary which emerged was one dictated almost entirely by the missionaries themselves, with very little acknowledged African input. In the general field of African history, and increasingly also in the more focussed field of the history of African Christianity, the Euro-centric nature of much missionary historiography of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has come to be accepted widely. Isolated African voices of protest have existed throughout most of this period. From the 1960s onwards they (and those of western historians) have become increasingly heard as they draw attention to the prejudices and limitations of nineteenth century mission historiography.
Yet in the more specific field of African missionary photography there has been extremely little study or critique. Among the general public attitudes to historical photographs are often not very different to those of a century ago; and in the field of African mission historiography very little detailed attention has been given to interpreting such photographs. This study is one attempt to redress this imbalance. It will examine a large cross-section of photographs taken by missionaries (mostly British) in Africa in the second half of the nineteenth and the early part of the twentieth centuries. Taken together with the captions and texts which often accompanied such photographs when they were published, the study will attempt to show how such photographs helped to establish particular stereotypes of Africa and Africans, which have largely persisted into the modern period.


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