July @ the Laureate Centre

In July 2023, the Laureate Centre was delighted to welcome distinguished visiting scholars Prof Duncan Kelly & Prof David Nally from Cambridge, who joined conversations on population & the anthropocene, and helped workshop papers with Laureate Centre & affiliated researchers.

Population and the Anthropocene Workshop, 20th July

This half-day discussion brought together scholars from UNSW Environment & Society with Alison Bashford, Prof Duncan Kelly and Prof David Nally to ask how scholars think about population and its history in the Anthropocene, especially given its primacy in the indicators of a great acceleration since 1950s.

‘Festival of Ideas,’ Quarantine Station (Sydney), 25-26th July

Laureate Centre & affiliated researchers gathered at the Quarantine Station, Sydney, to workshop papers on population policy, health & medical history, quarantine, immigration and more. The intensive, two days of discussion included a tour of the historic Quarantine Station grounds led by Centre Director Alison Bashford.

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.

Rethinking Population in an Age of Revolution, 23-24th June Conference Recap

Over Thursday 23rd and Friday 24th June, the Laureate Centre for History and Population hosted a conference on population theory in the age of revolutions – part of an ongoing project led by Laureate Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr Stephen Pascoe.

The project, “Rethinking Population in an Age of Revolution,” interrogates how we might make sense of the revival of interest in the population question during the late revolutionary age. It considers the emergence of key texts in the production of knowledge about population – penned by such thinkers as Malthus, Volney, and Adam Smith – and explores how the production of demography in diverse contexts around the world was shaped by the profound global upheaval of this period. The revolutionary moment of the 1770s and 1780s had remade conceptions of citizenship and subjecthood, and of populations and states, from North America to France to Haiti and beyond. By the late 1790s, revolutionary fervour continued in some parts of the world, while reactionary politics had emerged elsewhere.

As a first stage in the collaborative project, this two-day workshop brought together scholars of the Middle East, the Caribbean, India, and of the British and French empires. Participants examined how emergent ideas of statecraft, population and empire took expression in this revolutionary moment, reflecting on how the population question shaped the struggles over land and territory in this period, from Egypt, Ireland, the Antilles, India, to North America and contested territories beyond.

Through such case studies, participating scholars considered how conceptions of the domain of the social, and of “the people” were reconfigured in this period. This allowed reflection on the ways in which new imaginaries of population, against the backdrop of revolutionary, anti-revolutionary and postrevolutionary debates, shaped concern for the government of life, in both metropolitan and colonial spaces.

Plans are now underway to produce a special journal edition based on this productive exchange of ideas. This will be led by Stephen Pascoe (Laureate Centre for History & Population, UNSW) and Professor Ian Coller (University of California, Irvine), who will work together to further elaborate the key themes of the collection. Publication of the special issue is anticipated for mid-2023.

You can read more about this project, and view the full program by clicking here.