Symposium

Around the world, historical photography as a subject of historiography is becoming an increasingly important resource for each nation’s evaluation of itself, not only in Europe but particularly in Southern and Western Africa. Conclusions drawn about current developments and past events are in both cases founded on historical links between Africa and the former European colonial powers and can therefore only be understood, if a thorough reflection on colonialism in Europe and Africa is undertaken. Photography can play an important role in this process, as the medium has, from its inception, shown itself to be particularly well suited to conveying messages quickly and across many languages. Even today in schoolbooks and academic publications, accounts of colonial and missionary history are often accompanied by illustrations, which are frequently used, on the one hand to illustrate the “factual” nature of history or, on the other hand, in an attempt to refer “critically” to the unjust treatment of people during the colonial period. In such instances photos appear as evidence, not as ideologically biased contributions to a particular discourse. In fact, historical photographs are actually far more than mere illustrations of the past.  One of our workshop’s key concerns will therefore be to explore questions as to how far photographs represent “captured reality” and how the photographer’s camera was and is used to win over the public consciousness or even to manipulate it. We also plan to investigate the motivation that the subject, who is at the heart of the photo’s history, had himself, when the picture of him was taken. To be able to reconstruct the meaning of a picture, the motivation of both photographer and subject must be explored. Even though we will certainly have to work with gaps in this research, the handling of precisely these complex and difficult questions of not being able to know is of particular importance.  The methodological approach achieved here will help us to decipher and analyse one of the key assumptions in our approach to historical pictures: objective evidence. This new perspective will guide the academic discussion in the workshop.