Looking back through a lens on Commonwealth Day

West Indies. 'An old character. Typical of the splendid type of woman one meets with, one among many who have stood out against the moral temptations womanhood is surrounded with'. Official West Indies photograph compiled by Central Office of Information. Copyright of Mr E. Booth, Methodist Missionary Society, London. Catalogue reference: INF 10/378/8

West Indies. 'An old character. Typical of the splendid type of woman one meets with, one among many who have stood out against the moral temptations womanhood is surrounded with'. Official West Indies photograph compiled by Central Office of Information. Copyright of Mr E. Booth, Methodist Missionary Society, London. Catalogue reference: INF 10/378/8

Welcome to the first in a series of blogs for the Caribbean though a lens project, which focuses on Colonial Office images that are now online. We’ve had a great year exploring the Caribbean collections and we hope that you have too. Community groups across the country came up with their own ideas for projects, and  with the valued support of our regional community partners, we cast our nets wide to reach as many people as possible.

We have captured all of the insightful and fascinating comments online through Flickr. These comments are important to us; we use them to add more social context to our collections and to encourage further academic research where there is none. Through our Outreach projects, this helps us to bring archives to life and out of boxes.

The photographic images in the collection were taken by government colonial officials whose duty was to report back on the development of British Caribbean colonies. Often these officials had little, if any, previous knowledge or experience of the regional, cultural and social dynamics of the country. What we see in the collection can be perceived as an ‘outsider’ coming in, capturing a moment;  a photographic record seen through a very different lens. 

Trinidad and Tobago. 'A Hindu woman, native of Trinidad'. Official Trinidad and Tobago photograph compiled by Central Office of Information. Catalogue reference: INF 10/362/2

Trinidad and Tobago. 'A Hindu woman, native of Trinidad'. Official Trinidad and Tobago photograph compiled by Central Office of Information. Catalogue reference: INF 10/362/2

To expand on this a little further, the image above  is a typical example of a recording on people (in many cases nameless) observed and studied through a foreign colonial gaze. I wonder what her response would be to us all?

Over the next few months, we will showcase a range of projects inspired by the collections. We will also highlight academic research, creative re-interpretations and articles from a host of exceptionally talented individuals who really delved deeper into the records.

To mark Commonwealth Day and to get the ball rolling, we are starting with our most viewed file to date, Trinidad & Tobago. There are many striking portraiture images held in the collection. This one in particular features a woman of Indian origin. Do you know who she is? What can we learn from her clothing and jewellery? What do we know of her life in Trinidad?

Do you have ideas for developing your own projects using this collection? We would love to have your comments on this blog. Stay tuned for the next blog post, we’ll share live recordings with you from our marvellous March mash up event, which we blogged about last year.  Keep exploring Caribbean through a lens!

2 comments

  1. David Matthew says:

    With regard to the photograph of a Hindu woman in Trinidad and Tobago her response might depend on whether she was told that her photograph would be included is a series of photographs entitled as ” 6 photographs compiled by the Central Office of Information depicting racial types” (see the Discovery catalogue). I think that the description of this being viewed from a ‘foreign colonial gaze’ as being a\t best generous. In my view these photographs should be viewed from the point of promoting and/or conforming ‘colonial’ attitudes or religious views of the missionaries and the dates they were taken (in this case from 1948) as being important. Taking photographs out of context can in my view lead to the wrong impression.

    1. Sandra Shakespeare says:

      Hello David,

      Thanks for your comment. Are you able to say more on what you describe as ‘colonial’ attitudes and the relevance of missionaries of taking this particular type photograph? What do you think is the right context here?

      Best wishes,

      Sandra

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