April 21: Do photographs provoke conscience?
Recently the media have conveyed the evidence of new atrocities in Syria. As veteran Iconic Photos blogger Alec Selwyn-Holmes reports, the chemical weapon attack on Khan Sheikhoun, a rebel-held town in Syria was vividly represented on the front page of Libération on April 6 this year with a screenshot from video shot by a group of citizen journalists, Edlib Media Centre (EMC).
The direct representation of human suffering is always fraught with ethical issues, and as in the case of Libération’s exposure of these children to the world, a careful consideration of how well the images serve the common good, against the individual rights of the subjects, must be made. The editor of the French left-wing newspaper has decided, quite rightly, that a war crime must be reported, mustering evidence which is as damning, and unforgettable, as possible; a photograph.
On the other hand images that merely sensationalise are often driven by base considerations of commercialism or a desire to attract attention to the messenger themselves rather than the issue being represented.
The historical case of one photographer who died on this date in 1921, Willoughby Wallace Hooper, a British Army lieutenant (later colonel) in India, is relevant to a consideration of this difference; he is slippery in terms of his ethics and motivations.
Hooper joined the 7th Madras Cavalry in 1858 and went on to serve 40 years in India. His enthusiasm as an amateur photographer made him useful to Lord Canning, the Governor-General (1856–58) and later Viceroy of India, who initiated an official project of the India Office, a eight-volume catalogue of ethnic, racial, and caste types The People of India: A Series of Photographic Illustrations, with Descriptive Letterpress, of the Races and Tribes of Hindustan (London, 1868–1875). Canning solicited photographs from amateurs in the colonial and military service, as well some commercial photographers, including Lt. Hooper who in 1862 was released from military duties to make portraits of the peoples of the Central Provinces of India.
Such official support for his photography encouraged him to enter a venture with photographer George Western to make and market photographs of Anglo-Indian life including a commercially successful series of twelve, staged photographs of “Tiger Shooting” (c. 1872) in which the tiger, already dead or stuffed, is propped up for dramatic effect. He used taxidermy to orchestrate other “natural” tableaux.
Despite success in selling such photographs, Hooper decided to continue military service and advanced up the ranks as Captain (1870), Major (1878), Lieutenant Colonel (1884) and Colonel in 1888.
In recording the victims of a great monsoon-driven famine in 1876-78 in which 10.3 million people starved to death, it was reported that Hooper had the skeletal sufferers brought to him in groups, neatly sorted by age and gender and that after photographing them, he sent them back, with no attempt to help them.
He was pilloried for this in Punch, who caricatured him, and in other publications. His images did arouse some to collect money for the relief of Indian famine victims, though at the time many subscribed to the convenient Malthusian idea that it was a natural population control and best left to run its course.
As for there being a natural “cause” of the famine, the rains did fail in the Madras region in 1876. Prices for grains began to escalate despite surplus production of wheat and other grain in the previous three months, so much of which was being shipped immediately to London. The colonial railways transported supplies away from drought-stricken areas, and their telegraph aided speculation in grain through a simultaneous rise in its price across the country.
Hooper collected the silver albumen prints in a surviving album (above) Secunderabad: Scenes of the Madras famine. The two pictures above carry notes that they were made “at a relief centre” and are captioned by hand with titles that might indicate some sympathy for the victims of the famine. He certainly did sell his photographs, most successfully through the London Stereoscopic Company.
And yet he does make a document of a major contributor to the famine; the export of grain out of India to Britain…
Photographs of atrocities focusing on sufferings imposed on bodies, like the Libération cover, is echoed in the case of famines which are particularly conducive to staging the anatomical consequences of the lack of food on bodies reduced to the state of skeletons.
Whether the distribution of such images promotes outrage and action, or idle curiosity one may judge from the fact that hand coloured postcards by other photographers were still available through the early twentieth century which clearly have no purpose than to serve a ghoulish appetite, just as for some reason even now Amazon offers cushions ‘decorated’ with Hooper’s Deserving objects of gratuitous relief!The several dozen photographs of the Indian famine in Madras (1876-8) taken by Major Willoughby William Hooper were widely translated into engravings in the illustrated press, such as the London Illustrated News and its rival The Graphic. In his black and white photographs stage groups of children or entire families as the ‘undead’, such as this haunting picture of a tiny boy and his baby sister abandoned under a dead tree.
A threatening raven watches them hungrily (is it too a taxidermy like the bird in Birds Eating Carrion….in fact is it the very same prop?)
While his motivations and ethics in producing and distributing the famine photographs remain moot, other Hooper images are more problematic still. In 1885 he took part in the Third Burmese war as Provost Marshall of the Burma Expeditionary Force, recording the expedition in photographs. This was later published as Burmah, A series of one hundred photographs illustrating incidents connected with the British Expeditionary Force to that country from the embarkation at Madras, 1st November 1885, to the capture of King Theebaw, with many views of the surrounding country, native life and industries, and most interesting descriptive notes by Lieut-Col W W Hooper (1887). In the course of this campaign, Hooper recorded (and perhaps ordered) executions of Dacoit prisoners. In one case he had his camera ready to record the moment the bullets struck their bodies.
An image of a second execution also exists, one which appears as likely to have been taken at that exact moment.
Hooper was roundly condemned, court marshalled and fined for making and circulating these pictures on the grounds that he caused the prisoners unnecessary suffering, though of course at the same time such pictures would be seen by the colonial powers as negative and undermining. One of Hooper’s own contemporaries, historian Grattan Geary, commented at length on his execution photograph, saying:
It is open to doubt whether there is not something very [sanctimonious] in the spirit which revolts at the operation of photographing a batch of men at the moment of their execution, when their execution in batches is accepted as an ordinary incident in the subjugation of a conquered people.
What was Hooper’s motivation and intention; commercial gain, or fame; concerned conscience or morbid curiosity?