What We Are Talking About: Population Through the Camera

At the recent workshop “Population Through the Camera”, organised by the Laureate Centre for History and Population at UNSW, scholars from diverse backgrounds discussed how photography sees and unsees populations within a landscape. The workshop concentrated on the Asia-Pacific region, where modern histories of population transfer, colonialism, and photography are set against complex backgrounds of settler expansion, environmental change, economic exploitation, and civilising missions. Particular themes that resonated across all papers were the use of photographs to erase or emphasis certain demographics in an environment, the photographs’ (at times ambiguous) archival context, and the broader role of photography in colonial and settler projects.

Anne Maxwell, the keynote speaker, started the day by introducing us to a series of six female settler photographers active in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, discussing how they chose to present the land they inhabited as well as its original inhabitants. Few women had access to this new technology and the likenesses they produced were shaped in part by social restrictions in who they could photograph and how they could approach their subject matter. Interestingly, Maxwell showed that even within this small cohort, photography was pursued for a range of reasons: artistic, financial, and political. A central argument through her presentation and indeed throughout the day was how the act of photography facilitated the narratives of settler and colonial communities. These ranged from a “genteel forgetting” of indigenous communities that inhabited supposedly “empty” landscapes, through the insertion of indigenous labour as an extension of colonial development projects, to the foregrounding and celebration of settler populations against transformed landscapes. How, for instance, Maxwell asked, does a collage of white children presented as “Gems of Victoria” erase the presence of a much larger indigenous population in this Australian state? And what do we make of the portrait photograph of a smiling Māori woman from the oeuvre of one female photographer from which indigenous populations are otherwise largely absent? Her presence in this set of photographs is significant both because of its singularity and because it reminds us to critically assess the archive as a whole.

In fact, all speakers grappled with questions about the archive. Where do photographs sit within archives often made up primarily of textual sources? Or how should we read series and individual snapshots? Jarrod Hore and Maurits Meerwijk considered photographic archives created to support a singular perspective: produced by individual photographers for commercial albums or different photographers to accompany government reports. Chi Chi Huang, Suzanne Claridge, and Emma Thomas’ photographs were produced more incidentally and over time. Some were destined for the archive, others were not. Many of these photographs had complex lives: removed from albums, decontextualised, and reproduced to suit new narratives. For example, Huang traced the reproduction of one photograph of a Chinese street originally taken by John Thompson over a period of three decades. It gained new meanings with each iteration, begging the question: to which archive does this photograph belong?

From here, a recurring question was how these photographs were organised and captioned. It became evident across all papers that captions subtly direct the gaze of the observer toward overarching narratives of colonial relations between people and the land. For instance, photographs of “payday” on a Fijian plantation in Claridge’s presentation obscured the indentured nature of the migrant workers photographed. Similarly, the parentheses around the word “labour” in the caption of a photograph by Alfred Burton in one of his commercial albums discussed by Hore, transformed a group of Fijians from the original inhabitants of the island into an economic resource – much like the landscape behind them.

In fact, the violent and exploitative nature of settler and colonial life as captured by the camera was a dominant theme throughout our discussions. Maxwell’s photographs of settler landscapes from which local populations had been forcibly removed offered an oblique perspective on such violence. More blatantly, such exploitation was immediately visible in Thomas’ discussion of indigenous female labour in photographs from German New Guinea. The composition and editing of the women’s bodies captured the gendered and racialised nature of colonial power and its inherent violence. Interestingly, it is precisely because of the rarity of these images that the erased presence of female labour in German New Guinea becomes all the more powerful and striking.   

Finally, in Meerwijk’s photographs of “healthy publics” in the Dutch East Indies receiving medical care from a “benign” colonial state contain subtle overtones of coercion and violence. Orderly queues of demographically organised subjects suggest discipline, surveillance, and local appreciation for Western-style medical intervention among a much larger population – while the subtle presence of uniformed law enforcers in the background of many photographs suggests the coercive nature of many such encounters.

Frequently histories of population focus on the implementation and impact of policies and programs, but what this workshop has shown is the power of the camera to guide those conversations. A special issue is currently being planned from this workshop. It will be led by Jarrod Hore and Chi Chi Huang.