Clichés of colonial violence

Like machine guns, Kodak cameras allow us to celebrate Western “modernity”. But to what extent does photography show European violence in Africa and Asia?

Daniel Foliard searched for, located, found, collected and, finally, selected, among hundreds of thousands of photographs, a certain number of photos which, while documenting British and French colonial violence, also testify to the evolution of the sensibilities of two companies with regard to these. Gradually, but increasingly at the beginning of the XXe century, European societies were increasingly exposed to images of violence in colonies.

Without overestimating the impact of the press on the societies of the Belle Époque, it is this visual economy made up of circulations of images, uses and manufactured imaginations that the author questions throughout his work, in systematically combining British and French experiences.

When it comes to violence, what do we see that we allow ourselves to show, and what do we see that we don’t show? Has photography made European violence perceptible in Africa and Asia? Or has it been filtered, distorted, censored, acclimated? So many fascinating questions asked in this book.

The photo and its comment

From the 1890s, under the effect of technical progress, the miniaturization of equipment and falling prices, the individual possession of a camera as well as the practice of photography became rapidly democratized.

However, while thousands of travelers crisscross the planet – with soldiers providing the largest contingents – “the most extreme reflections of their experiences” are rarely photographed. For this book, Foliard consciously takes a step aside, choosing to isolate among his imposing corpus “the discordant clichés on the violence which envelopes the extra-European conflicts of the end of the XIXe century and the beginning of XXe century “.

From the outset, the author states that any view, no matter how horrible, must in no way be separated from his commentary. He therefore carefully situates and comments on each of the reproduced images. Very quickly, and before even considering what the images show, the photographic act is approached as an “element of the colonial arsenal”, participating in the enterprise of domination of territories and bodies.

Just like weapons, the camera is a marker of Western modernity and power. Both a tool of self-aggrandizement for the authors/spectators of executions of “rebel” leaders and propaganda aimed at populations to be subjugated, the practice of the photographic trophy is becoming commonplace. The views are accompanied by the desired humiliation and terror of the racialized vanquished, who must be conquered and subjugated, again and again.

However, uncertainty remains over the true effects of the punishments on the conquered populations: is it a return to the colonial order or a testimony of indomitable resistance?

Celebrating Western overpower

All colonial armies practiced photographic communication. The clichés circulate from one imperial metropolis to another; the main operators imitate each other. Very quickly the idea also appeared that we could not show everything to metropolitan audiences. A subtle game is played to make colonial expansion visible in the metropolis without causing any inappropriate visual and political scandal.

From 1895, the colonization of Madagascar allowed French officers to structure the production of images of the conquest in a more systematic and more reasoned – controlled – way. As early as 1896, Gallieni finished placing photography at the service of the colonization of the Big Island.

For their part, in Sudan, the British immortalized their very unequal battles against the “fanatical” Mahdist troops, carried out with the help of machine guns and Kodak cameras. Here again, celebration of white and Western overpower; also a celebration of modernity and technology, whether it be combat or the industrial mode of affirmation and immortalization of European superiority. With the war in the Transvaal, the British tightened their control over the production and circulation of images. The censors also make their debut there.

At the same time, the humanitarian uses of photography are becoming commonplace. Thus the Belgian atrocities in the Congo are the subject of international visual denunciation. We know that the denunciation of “cut off hands” was – unfairly – turned against the Germans during their brutal invasion of Belgium in August 1914.

We also note that not all enemies are treated in the same way. It is also easier to exhibit the violence of competitors. Finally, what is showable in southern Africa is not showable in London. Hence the possibility of sketching a geography of visualizations. But aren’t we dealing with a trompe-l’oeil geography? The author notes that “the harshest images of the manifestations of force do not appear everywhere.”

We therefore have no images of the violence committed in Australia against indigenous populations. The relative invisibility of the most shocking “blunders”, in official documentation, testifies to the full awareness of the authorities of the effects of the image on opinion and the effectiveness of the filtering carried out by the forces of conquest, government or from police.

Learning about violence?

From 1907, even if we find similar processes concerning German Namibia or the British Indies, the campaign launched by the French for the conquest of Morocco is particularly well documented – even to the most extreme horrors. From this point of view, it participates in a new turning point in the widening of the scope of publicizing war violence, a way of attesting to the world of the destructive capabilities of the French army. And this, especially since many photos are reproduced and widely distributed in the form of postcards.

Is horror photography a medium for learning about the violence of modern war? The answer is not obvious. The fact remains that its modalities and its devastation are perfectly documented and widely shown, during the various conflicts preceding the Great War. At the turn of the century, it seemed that modesty towards the European dead was fading. However, we must admit with Foliard that, if many saw, few watched:

The cliché of indifference in the face of atrocious photography is already circulating at the end of the XIXe century. The idea of ​​a Belle Époque hungry for atrociously illustrated news, voyeuristic and ready for war is thus weakened. (pg. 379)

A question then arises: how does violence on colonial land differ from “ordinary” political and military violence? Foliard assures that “in a colonial situation and in many of the extra-European conflicts of the time, violence was excessive. (…) The force imposed on bodies exceeds the limits of war.”

Indeed, violence boils over, but does this mean that in mainland France or in European conflicts, violence does not boil over? On a general level, can we not agree on the fact that the limits placed on war are systematically pushed back, as soon as an army – Western in this case -, richly armed, leads an irregular and asymmetrical war against a largely civilian population, disarmed or possessing more than rudimentary weapons, both outside Europe and within Europe itself? The military crushing of the Paris Commune, for example, belongs to this long, endless series. This could justify preferring the notion of violence in colonies rather than that of colonial violence. This would allow us to think about the continuum of empires-metropolises, and vice versa.

“Insane” images

What also about “ordinary” symbolic violence? It is only at the end of the work (p. 396) that the author evokes the “missing images”, those of “slow, ordinary violence, structural violence, the effect of famines”. This constitutes, in my opinion, the main blind spot of this book, which is otherwise remarkable for its precision, nuance and tact.

Specifically, let us finally question one of the author’s biases. He insists on the selective nature of his collection and, quite rightly, his first criterion is the link that must be established between the photograph and other archives making it possible to contextualize the image and the conditions of its production, then its conservation. This link is well established here.

But the second criterion retained is more debatable. Indeed, the author says he is fully aware that many of these images can shock, move, “impose feelings”. Without a doubt. To the point of sometimes “blinding” the reader, he maintains before still regretting that some of his images are impossible to neutralize. Even more, the fact that “the selection presented here (is) weighed against what is considered acceptable or too shocking” today raises questions.

Likewise, the statement that “some overly insane images are not included in the book” (p. 17) is quite confusing. Because what is an image that is “too senseless”? What is at stake here is nothing less than the question of the status of the archive. Every society resorts to processes of iconization, and, if there is a risk, in my opinion it is in the possible misuses of iconic images.

I find it hard to imagine such a euphemization so as not to reflect, through images, the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto or the liberation of the death camps. What sensitivities would need to be accommodated? Why should we “disarm” the shock image “rather than endure it”, as the back cover states?

As for the argument according to which “the one who reproduces the image (would be) part of the circuit of violence which he could endeavor to break”, it is difficult to subscribe to it. I maintain, on the contrary, that undergoing and “making one undergo” a shocking image is ultimately to trigger one of the essential triggers for thinking about the and the politics of our pasts. To act, here and now.