The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Soon after being invented, photography acquired functional roles

Following the serial blasts at Varanasi on March 7, video footage of a marriage ceremony in progress at the Sankat Mochan temple proved to be invaluable ' and not to the shell-shocked family alone. Grabs from it showed a 'suspicious'-looking youth who silently appeared in one shot and in another, an airbag that was mysteriously slipped in near gifts for the couple. From these shots that have surely been magnified and viewed over and over again, the investigating team has been able to come up with sketches of likely suspects as well as search for shopkeepers stocking such bags.

Visual evidence that has become a part of the police and the criminal system's survival kit, so to speak, has a long history. From its invention in the 1830s, photography quickly came to be used by the police in the West to keep records of arrested criminals. Clearly, apart from the elegant studio creations of the elite and emergent middle classes, portraits had other, more functional, roles to play. Soon, in the colonies, photographic practice was found most useful for not only recording criminals but also as an aid to the British penchant for classification and stereotyping of the 'native' population.

It was not long before a discourse on the relevance of photography in administration and the control of criminality evolved. In 1856, Norman Chevers, the secretary of the medical board in Calcutta, elucidated in some gory detail the fact that in an environment where bodies decayed easily, a photograph of the victim and the scene of the crime when produced before the magistrate and the civil surgeon ' who could be situated several miles away ' provided 'every detail of a scene of bloodshed, as it appeared when first disclosed to the police'. The missionary, Joseph Mullens, could not help elaborating further on Chevers's belief that a photograph of the crime would chasten the offender. Nobody he felt, would remain unmoved 'by placing before him in the stereoscope, the actual scene of his atrocity, the familiar walls, the charpoy, the ghastly faces as they last appeared in his seeking vision'. In the case of hardened criminals, no doubt Mullens's belief in the salutary effect of being presented with visual evidence of their misdeeds could be somewhat misplaced. However, na've hopes of influencing convicts apart, clearly such evidence has only grown in its range, sophistication and indispensability to investigating establishments worldwide.

Collecting, classifying and documenting quickly became an integral part of colonial governance with photography as a useful addition to the processes of information-gathering. Nineteenth century colonial governance involved many processes, institutions and people of which crime and punishment were only a part of the complex interactive maze. Ruling a country of India's physical size and diversity and attempting to understand its different ethnicities presented bewildering options to the British and it was easy to understand how the emergence of new areas of study such as ethnography, anthropology, archaeology, epigraphy and so on, ran almost parallel to that of photography. Physical and cultural anthropology in particular were invaluable for the British rulers' attempts at bringing some order to their understanding of the land and its people. It was perhaps no coincidence then that not long after the traumatic events of 1857, the governor-general, Lord Canning, inaugurated the massive The People of India photographic project. Like his wife, Charlotte, he too had a great interest in photography and was fascinated by Indian exotica, the country's varied ethnic types and religions and felt that it would be a good idea to take home a pictorial record of these.

Canning extended and centralized a system that had been put into operation in 1861 with local governments being instructed to collect photographs of the tribes and castes under their jurisdiction. When the quantum of photographs far exceeded what he could use personally, Lord Canning gave the project official sanction. Between 1863 and 1865, over 100,000 prints were produced illustrating 'the various divisions of the Asian family'. The eight volumes consisting of 468 photographs taken by 17 photographers ' of whom seven were army officers and another two each were doctors and clergymen ' were put out between 1868 and 1872. The preface noted modestly that though the work did not make any 'claim to scientific research or philosophical investigations', it was hoped that from 'the ethnographic point of view, it will not be without interest and virtue'. A Mr Krishnaswamy was the only Indian acknowledged in the project.

By the 1880s, apart from the growing breed of professional photographers, there were many amateurs who became near-professionals in their expertise. British doctors, army men, engineers, administrators and a few women ' missionaries, wives, sisters and daughters of those in the service of the raj ' took to serious on-site photography, portraits, the picturesque and monuments being favourite subjects. There was, however, a subject-based class division in the photographic establishment. Studio portraiture was highly valued by clients for whom a photograph was a distinct statement on identity. It was quite the contrary for those who had value as 'types' and knew little about the black shroud and what lay beneath it. That some were terrified by the process to which they were often involuntarily subjected is evident in their expressions. Many were unwilling though helpless, their resistance marked by the occasional grimace or scowl. Often, they were the families of domestic servants or the servants themselves. Their identity lay in ubiquity and anonymity, not in their names: they were the 'washerman'. 'khitmatgar', 'ayah' or 'Burmese beauty', 'Madras Man' and worse still, 'African'. Labelling is vital to the classificatory process and it is here that lack of correct information or even ingrained prejudices slip in.

Often photographs were accompanied by explanatory texts and among the many tribes, the Todas of the Nilgiris aroused considerable interest. Lt. Col. William Marshall of the Bengal Staff Corps's A Phrenologist among the Todas (1873), among the earliest works on this tribe, uses photographs in a quasi-scientific manner to explain physiological characteristics of the original inhabitants of the Nilgiri hills. The subject of considerable academic and general curiosity, this largely pastoral group has attracted far greater attention both within the country and abroad than many other tribal groups. Today only about a thousand Todas survive and to protect them, considerable land has been designated as their patta land. Before Marshall, the woodcut-based romanticized frontispiece to Captain Henry Harkness's A Description of a Singular Aboriginal Race inhabiting the Summit of the Neilgherry Hills became the subject of some critical analysis. The social anthropologist, Christopher Pinney, who has done significant work on visuals as text, commented that early commentators felt this fanciful rendering of a Toda family had the distinct air of a Jewish patriarchal family, quite unlike reality.

This photograph by A.T.W. Penn taken in the 1880s repeats the theme, with the Jesus-like figure looking out into the middle distance. He obviously has his left hand on his hip with which he supports the elaborate drape of the shawl, and with his right hand, he holds a slim staff in an elegant pose. The clothing of all three has been carefully arranged ' though not unexpectedly, the man, his posture, expression and overall demeanour, dominates the photograph. The wife too looks outward, though her eyes are somewhat downcast while the girl's wooden expression focusses straight on the camera. Quite evidently, the photographer and his assistants had spent considerable time and thought on this Toda family before the final 'fixing' took place in albumen. Stylized representation of the Other was hardly a random event ' it required a commitment, time and a certain eye and viewpoint.

Today, with an expansion and diversification in the uses of the portrait/mug shot, being photographed has lost some of its mystery and excitement; yet, the operator-photographer's control over the context and situation still remains. And who can deny one's dismay or pleasure in what emerges in seconds out of the computer or camera' Mixed emotions, shared with willing and unwilling subjects of manipulation by the 19th-century camera, imbued with what Walter Benjamin called a 'magical quality'.

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