April 21: Concern

#21April 21: Do photographs provoke conscience? 

Recently the media have conveyed the evidence of new atrocities in Syria as diplomatic efforts have failed in ending the war now in its eighth year. With hundreds of thousands of people killed half the pre-war Syrian population of 23 million has been forced out.

Even though Syria is a signatory to the international treaty banning chemical weapons after what was believed to be a nerve gas attack near Damascus that killed more than 1000 people, in recent weeks, rescue workers, aid groups and the United States have accused Syria of repeatedly using chlorine gas as a chemical weapon against civilians in Ghouta and Idlib. 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 last year with a screenshot from video shot by a group of citizen journalists, Edlib Media Centre (EMC).


Recent imagery (below) is also vivid and we may feasibly count it as the prompt that has the current White House and its allies moving into action, however inappropriate that may be in inflicting more violence on the Syrian population.

Hasan Mohamed (January 2018) A Syrian girl holds an oxygen mask over the face of an infant at a make-shift hospital following a reported gas attack on the rebel-held besieged town of Douma, January 2018. AFP.

The direct representation of human suffering is always fraught with ethical issues, and as in the case of 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 Liberation, the French left-wing newspaper 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. This is the faced by AFP in receiving and distributing pictures from its stringers in Syria like that of ‘Hasan Mohamed’ above (many use pseudonyms to protect themselves), who are often the only source of imagery, while verifying them for authenticity and objectivity.

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.

Willoughby Wallace Hooper (c.1872) Tiger Hunting for sport in British India.
Willoughby Wallace Hooper (1870s or 1880s) staged tiger hunt with dead tiger in foreground.
Willoughby Wallace Hooper (1870s or 1880s) staged tiger hunt with dead tiger in foreground.

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.

Willoughby Wallace Hooper, Birds Eating Carrion (staged scene with stuffed birds and carrion resulting from the Madras famine), 1878
Willoughby Wallace Hooper (1878) Birds Eating Carrion (staged scene with stuffed birds and carrion resulting from the Madras famine)

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.

Willoughby Wallace Hooper (1877) Child born of famine-stricken mother. Age 3 months, weight 3lbs.
Willoughby Wallace Hooper (1877) Deserving objects of gratuitous relief.

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.

Screen Shot 2017-04-22 at 10.34.06 pmHooper 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…

Willoughby Wallace Hooper, Madras Beach during the Famine, Showing Grain Piled for Export, February 1877
Willoughby Wallace Hooper (February 1877) Madras Beach during the Famine, Showing Grain Piled for Export.
Lithograph based on W. W. Hooper_s photograph, from William Digby, The Famine Campaign in Southern India, 1878
Lithograph based on W. W. Hooper’s photograph, from William Digby, The Famine Campaign in Southern India, 1878

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!Postcard from the Allahabad famine (1900–1902)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.

Willoughby Wallace Hooper Forsaken Two forsaken children in the Bellary district of the Madras Presidency. 1877 Albumen silver print 10.2 × 15.7 cm (4 × 6.2 in)
Willoughby Wallace Hooper (1877) Forsaken: Two forsaken children in the Bellary district of the Madras Presidency. Albumen silver print 10.2 × 15.7 cm
The Graphic, British weekly illustrated newspaper, October 6 1877, engraving from Willoughby Wallace Hooper’s Forsaken.

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?)

Willoughby Wallace Hooper Forsaken detail.jpg

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.

Willoughby Wallace Hooper, Execution at Mandalay, January 15, 1886
Willoughby Wallace Hooper, Execution at Mandalay, January 15, 1886

An image of a second execution also exists, one which appears as likely to have been taken at that exact moment.

Willoughby Wallace Hooper Burmese Dacoits Readied for Execution.

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?

3 thoughts on “April 21: Concern

  1. Dear James,
    It worries me, and it is particularly ironic considering your intended question ‘Do photographs provoke conscience?’ that you have been sucked into accepting an extremely dubious narrative about highly likely false flag propaganda produced by the White Helmet-so-called moderate rebels in Syria. You don’t appear to have been following the news on Syria, and seeing the purported chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian government debunked by independent journalists such as Robert Fisk, Vanessa Beeley, and Australia’s Caitlin Johnstone. Rather, you are following the US-UK-French propaganda line coming from their long-term joint desire to topple the Syrian government.
    This surprised and saddens me because it is so much at odds with your insightful readings of so many fascinating aspects of photographic history. It is not easy to detect deliberate fake news and prove that widely accepted accusations can simply be wrong because they are fake news deliberately made to deceive us.
    Please get yourself up to speed about the false narratives we are being fed.
    Kind Regards,
    John B Turner


    1. Hi John, I hadn’t intended this post to be an analysis of information and imagery coming out of Syria, but rather about Hooper and his photography of the Indian famine (there are parallels) as an example of how reading the intentions and culture of the photographer can reveal them to be at odds with the received message.

      In my introduction, I do use the phrase “what was believed to be a nerve gas attack” advisedly, given my own understanding of the lack of verifiable information coming out of Syria and I note that the actions of the United States and its allies are “inappropriate…in inflicting more violence on the Syrian population”.

      I’ve given your comment the thought and investigation you recommend, but photographs are my area of expertise, not politics. I cannot see visual evidence in the 2016 Libération picture (or the video from which it came) to conclude it is fake…the children are clearly in distress, but whether the distressed children we see in the videos have been gassed, or are suffering hypoxia as Fisk reports that a doctor suggests, is really neither here nor there, even if it has been the ‘trigger’ for the allies pointless missile attacks. Assad is waging war on his people in the same way as the US-backed Somoza regime did in Nicaragua as documented by Susan Meiselas.

      Ultimately what matters is concern that the war, the deaths and the consequent stream of refugees continues, sanctioned by ideologies and greedy self-interest. I think we can agree on the need for pictures which will inform that concern and to educate ourselves in reading them, but there are no Susan Meiselases reporting on this war…it’s opaque.

      Clearly you are concerned and angry because of your reading about Syria, but you write here from a facebook address and facebook has shown itself not to be a reliable source with a format set up to tweak emotions for nefarious purposes. I admit I am in the dark about what is happening in Syria. The priority that emerges from that is to be humane and welcome its refugees to our countries to return if and when it is safe.


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