Police photography and the constitution of colonial subjectivities in Southern Africa, 1880s to 1960s


Patrick Harries †; Josef Mooser; Lorena Rizzo


Lorena Rizzo




Beginn: 01. Oct 2010
Abschluss 30. Sep 2012


This project looks at police photography in Southern Africa (South Africa and Namibia) in the period between the late 19th century and the 1960s. It conceives of police photography less in terms of a narrow genre, epitomized by the image of the mug shot, nor as a coherent technological entity, but rather as a set of diverse material and discursive practices pursued in various administrative contexts. This enables the project to look at numerous institutions and bodies of the colonial state, among them prisons, police, native administration, immigration and population registration offices, and accordingly consider different archives and collections. In line with recent scholarship on visual history, theory and methodology police photographs are analysed both as images and objects, which became active in the negotiation and articulation of processes of colonial state constitution and political subject formation. Historiographically the introduction of the photographic technology to metropolitan as well as colonial state administrations has conventionally been explained as the result of late 19th century growing concerns with social deviance and disorder, and aimed at the control of urban underclasses, migrants, the criminal, the insane or the cultural and racial other. Echoing the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault police photography has accordingly been qualified as a means of surveillance, which increasingly exposed individuals to an ever growing apparatus of modern state power, and accordingly enabled specialised institutions such as the prison, the police or the asylum to identify and fix the subject as an object of rule and knowledge production. While this argument continues to be important for any analysis of administrative photographic production within contexts of policing and prosecution, the projects shifts attention towards ruptures, dissonances and ambiguities within the grand narrative of surveillance. The archival material analysed accounts for the ways in which colonial bureaucracies have conceived of the colonised subject in terms of political, cultural and racial inferiority and how notions of photographic realism and truth allegedly helped to produce unequivocal scientific evidence underscoring such ideological regimes.  Still, the project takes the argument further in important ways. First, it looks at alternative subjectivities lodged in the photographs themselves and explores the various forms and spaces of visual intervention, contradiction and subversion maintained by those placed in front of cameras. And second the projects investigates counter-readings and counter-practices linked to these photographs once they left their original, repressive space of production and moved into various, at times honorific spaces of circulation, consumption and representation.



Institutionelle Anbindung
Postdoctoral Fellow, Center for Humanities Research, University of the Western Cape, South Africa
Academic Associate, Department of History, University of Basel, Switzerland


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