School of Humanities

Globalization, Photography, and Race

photo Tenbury, Chief of Murray Bend tribes 1847, South Australia

'Tenbury (aet c.60) Chief of the MURRAY BEND tribes. 1847. S. AUSTRALIA.' Albumen print. Courtesy of the Pitt Rivers Museum (PRM1998.249.33.1) Cultural permission from the Mannum Aboriginal Community Association Inc.

Globalization, Photography, and Race: the Circulation and Return of Aboriginal Photographs in Europe

Professor Jane Lydon, Chair of Australian History


This project addresses the momentous intersection of new digital technologies and Aboriginal traditions surrounding visual imagery. It explores the global circulation of photographs of Australian Aboriginal people that began in the 1840s, and their central role within the emergence of modern views regarding race and history. It investigates the significance of colonial photography to Indigenous communities, and through international collaboration returns photographs currently housed in five key European collections to descendants, providing an important Indigenous heritage resource, a major international conference and a travelling exhibition.

Aims and background

This project has two primary aims: 1. To explore the global circulation of photographs of Australian Aboriginal people that began in the 1840s, charting their central role within the major shift in Western visual culture from Enlightenment humanism to the emergence of modern views regarding race and history. Through international collaboration with key European museums, it will connect their local production to their concrete effects as objects circulated through commercial, governmental, scientific and private visual networks that spanned the world. 2. To return photographs currently housed in Europe to their subjects’ descendants, providing a major Indigenous heritage resource. In doing so it will explore the significance of colonial photography to Indigenous descendants and contribute to resolving the momentous and complex intersection of new digital technologies and Aboriginal cultural traditions regarding visual imagery.

1. Australian photographs in global circulation .From the medium’s introduction to Australia during the 1840s, Indigenous people were a popular photographic subject, contributing to a visual language of race given force by global comparisons and debates. As historians of race and science have shown very clearly (e.g. Douglas and Ballard 2008, Kuklick 2006, Turnbull 2008), throughout the nineteenth century Australian Aboriginal people were considered a crucial piece of the global jigsaw, playing a significant part in Western conceptions of progress and civilization by supplying evidence for ‘humanity’s childhood’. Less attention has been paid, however, to the powerful role of visual knowledge in developing such theories.

Photography arrived in Australia at a time when a profound shift in ideas concerning race was well underway, from Enlightenment assumptions of a common origin and humanity, to modernist concepts of race as biologically distinct species. Indigenous Australians were considered to represent a distinct place in human taxonomies, and in consequence, the camera was quickly applied to recording them for a metropolitan audience, producing a vast number of photographs that were subsumed into an already flourishing traffic in colonial natural history specimens.

Over the last decade, scholars in the arts, social sciences and humanities have increasingly acknowledged the methodological and theoretical insights afforded by image-based research. Preliminary research within such holdings conducted by CI Lydon in 2009 under the auspices of the Australia-centred photographic history DP0878567: Aboriginal Visual Histories (AVH - and see e.g. Cooper 1989,) has revealed the significant size and scope of museum collections of Australian photographs across Europe, reflecting the research of many important figures in British and continental science. These collections have been neglected by comparison with those from other regions (Jones 2001), but now with the aid of digital technologies are accessible to viewers in Australia, while historical research permits re-location within their original cultural context, providing detailed and diverse cross-cultural information and a crucial resource for personal, social and disciplinary histories. Despite the emergence of a now-substantial international literature addressing the centrality of racial theory to a broader reorganization of vision in European society and culture (e.g Poole 1997), and a handful of ground-breaking studies addressing aspects of the uses of Australian imagery (e.g. de Lorenzo and Van Der Plaat 2006, Peterson 2006), we have no systematic overview history of this process that is global in scope.

2. Return: photographs as cultural heritage. Understanding Indigenous values. The importance of historical photos to Aboriginal descendant communities is difficult to overstate: such images represent otherwise unknown ancestors and relatives, often lost as a result of official processes, as well as information about places, history and relationships unavailable from other sources, and a range of other meanings we know little about: a handful of studies of current Indigenous (re)valuations of photography has recently emerged (e.g. Macdonald 2003, Smith 2003, Deger 2006) that demonstrates the distinctive ways the medium is deployed within indigenous social relations and histories. For many Australian Aboriginal people photos are not merely representations, as in the Western tradition, but may assume the powers of the ancestors, embedded within social relationships with both the living and the dead.

A new visual history: The project will reveal the complex role of visual representations in the making and propagation of nineteenth-century scientific knowledge, contributing to international debate in this field. How did such images come to count as evidence about humanity and difference? What do contemporary contests over visual meaning tell us about the fragility or persistence of assumptions, stereotypes and visual strategies in the present? The most cursory review points to the important role of photographs within global debates about human difference, given their reliance upon notions of appearance, resemblance and other visual taxonomies. Yet the unstable meanings of this new medium have been overlooked by historians assuming that photographic authority was unchallenged during nineteenth century, unaware of the negotiation surrounding the mobilization and diverse local reception of visual meaning, and how photographs gained and lost authority as they travelled across different domains of manufacture and use (e.g. Tucker 2005). Douglas Kilburn’s landmark 1847 daguerreotypes, for example, constituted supposedly useful evidence for ‘the curious race of Aborigines,’ as he termed the Kulin people of central Victoria, yet these earliest images were subsequently framed for an international audience in contradictory ways, ranging from romanticization to degradation.

Balancing Indigenous and international intellectual property regimes: This project responds to a new but growing commitment to decolonisation and restitution by many European cultural institutions: the participating museums are committed to working closely with Indigenous communities to make their heritage accessible. In particular, the British PI institutions, PRM and MAA have pioneered the return of photographs to Indigenous source communities (e.g. Brown and Peers 2006, Herle 2003, 2009, Geismar et al 2007, Morton 2009) and all are eager to extend their programs to Australia – for example, in offering to waive the usual licensing fees, thus foregoing substantial revenue.