Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 21, 2013
T. Jack Thompson Light on Darkness? Missionary Photography of Africa in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries Studies in the History of Christian Missions.. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012. 304 pp. Cloth $45.00 (9780802865243)

For decades, much of the scholarship on the history of photography has been dominated by the categories and concerns of art history, with elucidations of photographic genre and expositions of master photographers. In more recent years, however, scholars from across the disciplines have begun to amass studies of vernacular photographic practices, from family albums to scientific photography. Missionary photography is one such set of photographic practices that has long deserved critical attention. From the mid-nineteenth century on, Western Christian missionaries took up the camera to assist their work in a rapidly expanding field of missionary endeavor. Many thousands of photographic images survive from decades of missionary work, but often languish in little-studied collections. While historians of religion and missions have tended to regard missionary photographs as decorative additions to text-based accounts, historians of photography have largely ignored such photographs altogether. There are however some important exceptions, as scholars such as Marianne Gullestad, Paul Jenkins, Paul Landau, and Christraud Geary have made important interventions in this field.

T. Jack Thompson’s study of missionary photography in Africa in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is therefore a welcome addition to a growing body of work on the history of missionary photography. Thompson is primarily a historian of Christianity and Christian missions in Africa, and the book is issued as part of a series on the history of Christian missions. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the book comes at its subject from the point of view of someone wishing to locate photography and photographs within the wider field of mission history. Rather than attempt a comprehensive history of Christian missionary photography in Africa, Thompson brings together a number of case studies related to his own expertise on the history of missions. The most satisfying of these are studies where Thompson is on familiar mission territory, discussing little-known photographic material. His study, for example, of Scottish missions in South Africa and Malawi (chapter 4) examines the Lovedale Institution in the Eastern Cape (a Christian missionary educational establishment set up in 1841) and the Livingstonia Mission of the Free Church of Scotland, which began work in 1875 at the southern end of Lake Malawi. Thompson charts how Scottish missionaries utilized photography, particularly in publications aimed at friends and supporters. He casts light on how missionaries used published photographs to project a complex idea of human transformation (notably from “savage” to “civilized”) and also how Xhosa individuals began to challenge such colonial narratives.

Other case studies in the book are mostly reworked distillations of existing scholarship topped up with supplementary primary research. The result is not always satisfactory. For example, in chapter 2, Thompson focuses on the role of photography and painting in David Livingstone’s Zambezi expedition of 1858–1863, a case study whose inclusion in the book is justified because Livingstone was a missionary-explorer. Although the chapter tells a good enough story for the reader to forgive its tangential place in the book’s argument, it adds little to existing scholarship of the Zambezi expedition, or to the understanding of missionary photography.

Thompson moves on (chapter 3) to examine Henry Morton Stanley’s expedition to find Livingstone, although Stanley carried no photographic equipment and had motives far removed from those of missionaries. Rather bizarrely, Stanley’s expedition, no doubt an interesting if familiar story, is deemed relevant by virtue of his “failure to capture a photographic image of Livingstone in Africa” (110), a fact examined along with engraved images of Stanley’s much celebrated meeting with Livingstone at Ujiji in 1871. To express surprise today at occasions in the past when photographs were not made may be worthwhile if part of a more general and well-evidenced examination of the conventions and practical limitations of photographic practices at particular historical moments. Here, however, it is used less to investigate the contemporary cultural criteria for journalistic exploration than as a speculative justification for a retelling of the Stanley-Livingstone story.

Thompson is more successful when he returns to the missionary field, as when he analyzes the missionary use of the magic lantern (chapter 6). Between 1850 and 1930 the magic lantern played a central part in missionary propaganda both at home and abroad. This technology (itself considerably older than photography) was used for projecting to large audiences images of Bible tracts, hand-drawn and colored pictures, and photographs. Bible stories and displays of the civilized character, technological strength, and Christian virtue of the British Empire were common features of sets of glass slides used widely in Africa by British missionaries as part of efforts to convert African subjects to Christianity. Meanwhile, in Britain, missionaries advertised their good works to their supporters through lantern slide lectures that displayed mission stations and their improving influence on Africans who, it was claimed, were being transformed from wild “savages” to good Christians. Lantern slides, with their associated narratives of Christian redemption and iconography of “before” and “after,” were not only used to raise funds from supporters back in Britain but were also employed by missionaries at home among poor and working-class communities; Bible stories and moral lessons were used to guard against a variety of social evils and prompt the saving of local Christian souls. In addressing such missionary work, Thompson begins to engage with what was specific to missionary photography and visual technologies such as the magic lantern, both at home and abroad.

The uses of photography, particularly via the performed lantern slide lecture, by British protestant missionaries in campaigns against King Leopold II’s Congo Free State in 1903–1911 are the particular focus of chapter 5 (an example that also recurs in chapters 6 and 7). Disappointingly, Thompson relies almost entirely on existing studies and adds little to accounts of the Congo Reform Association or to historical understanding of the significance of missionaries as photographers and popular lecturers.

While Thompson is keen to understand how European missionaries used photography to prioritize their own particular ways of viewing Africa and Africans, he often seems unable to escape from a belief in the accuracy of photography as a “window on the past.” He also assumes that nineteenth- and early twentieth-century makers and viewers of photographs shared an uncritical trust in the medium’s veracity and took such images “at face value,” accepting them as “accurate” and even “scientific.” Yet as historians of science and photography such as Jennifer Tucker and Kelly Wilder have highlighted, there was considerable contemporary debate concerning the reliability of photographic evidence across a range of fields, from meteorology to spiritualism. I would also question Thompson’s claim that photography on Victorian expeditions in Africa (missionary-related or otherwise) was “scientific” rather than “ideological” (177), as if such categories were somehow mutually exclusive.

It is only, somewhat perplexingly, in his final chapter that Thompson calls for a much more critical approach to missionary photography and “new ways of seeing,” drawing on selected twentieth-century theories of photography. In a series of short vignettes on Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, and Henri Cartier-Bresson, he extracts various concepts to prompt further speculation on the complex meanings of missionary photographs. Thompson also considers briefly here the photographs of a few radical missionaries, such as Joseph Booth, who worked in Africa and held views of the political and racial equality of Africans and Europeans that were considered unorthodox during their own lifetimes. In selective readings, Thompson traces these “egalitarian” views within these photographs, detecting (or projecting) such individuals’ more “positive” views of the African women and men with whom they worked.

In concluding, Thompson argues that the meaning of photographs depends on how these works are presented to viewers as well as on the cultural expectations of audiences. He rightly points to the value of considering occasions when missionary photographers moved beyond the cultural and visual conventions within which they usually operated. While this discussion about the complexity of meaning within mission photographs is welcome, this brief foray into assorted—and not always compatible—theories of photography at the end of the book tends to highlight the conceptual deficiencies of what has gone before. For while Thompson is acquainted with some writing on the history of photography, he overlooks the work of a number of scholars, particularly from the fields of anthropology and visual culture, such as Elizabeth Edwards, Christopher Pinney, and Nicholas Thomas, an absence that is symptomatic of a broader oversight in the book concerning the materiality of photographs and the contingency of photographic meaning. Unfortunately, Thompson’s engagement with scholarship on the history of photography in Africa is also relatively rudimentary. Several important studies, particularly related to missionary photography in Africa (such as those by Landau, Geary, and Gullestad) are absent from his bibliography.

Indeed, while the book’s conversational style and detailed case studies may satisfy some readers, particularly those with an interest in the history of missionary work in Africa, those with broader interests in the history of photography and visual culture will be mostly disappointed, particularly by the absence of analysis of many of the photographs themselves. Some of the book’s seventy-one black-and-white illustrations are discussed in detail, but many are left simply to speak for themselves and receive no comment. The very first illustration in the book, for example, which also features on the cover, is a photograph made in the late nineteenth century that shows two European missionaries in Malawi seated with an unidentified elderly African chief. One missionary grins at the camera while his colleague holds something (a looking glass or a picture) up in front of the Ngoni chief who, in turn, stares at it with a look of astonishment on his face. It is a captivating photograph, conveying a range of different glances and evidencing the fascination European missionaries had with using optical technologies such as mirrors, photographs, and lantern slides to display new senses of selfhood to non-European “others.” Yet the image is reproduced without an analysis of its visual content. This is all the more disappointing given the rich seam of scholarship that has explored the complex interplay and iconography of light and dark, good and evil, “civilized” and “savage” that runs through a European discourse on Africa, particularly in Christian missionary endeavor.

Thompson’s aim, as he makes clear, is not to provide a comprehensive history of missionary photography in Africa but to provide a series of case studies that might throw light on missionary photography in general. Despite its limitations, the book is a welcome addition to the shelves of anyone interested in missionary history and photography. If it succeeds in prompting further studies of how missionaries used photography to construct particular images of Africa and Africans, as well as of how African viewers and makers of photographs subsequently took on and reworked such images, then it will at least have fulfilled this ambition.

James R. Ryan
Professor of Historical and Cultural Geography, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter