Posted by: acheever19 | October 8, 2018

Famine “Relief”: Photographic Fundraising Across Britain’s Colonies

The Great Madras Famine of 1876-78 resulted in the deaths of over 5.5 million people in Southern India, ruled & neglected by the British Crown (a rough under-estimate of deaths at best). This was the first of three major famines in India throughout the duration of Queen Victoria’s reign. Globally, the Great Madras Famine (or Great Famine) resulted in food shortages all over the world through drought and food scarcity, and the Famine from the start was entangled in constructions of empire, colonialism, and photographic propaganda that played into nationalistic fundraising efforts across England’s colonies.

For example, Australian colonists participated in the Famine Relief efforts after Indian Famine Relief Committees emerged throughout England, Scotland, Australia, and Asia. Traumatic famine photos spread throughout the empire and sparked a sense of empire loyalty in Australian British subjects. Yet, sympathy does not correlate with empathy. In “Australian Responses to the Indian Famine: Sympathy, Photography and the British,” Christina Twomey and Andrew J. May argue that photographic distribution campaigns throughout the famine “emphasized the distance between the viewer and the viewed, in ways that were productive for the fundraising effort” (235). As Australian subjects responded to famine photographs, they established a difference from the “non-white members of the imperial family” (234). Australian contributions to famine relief enabled colonists to practice their Christian charity and also establish themselves as civilized royal subjects, distinct from the vulnerable starving colonial subjects of India.

Many of the famine photographs were taken by Willoughby Wallace Hooper, who had long served as an English military officer for India. These photographs catalogued human suffering and included group portraits. All nine of his photos sent to Melbourne included a child or baby, often including a Madonna-like pose of mother and child. These photographs are horrifying and created a reactive dissonance between the viewer and the starving, suffering object. Donations coincided with the weekly dissemination of the photographs in Australian publications and flyers, and committee members of the Victorian Relief Fund even received a “souvenir” for their contributions, an album of Hooper’s photographs and other reports. Not as much is known about Australian Aboriginal responses to the Indian Famine, but Twomey and May hypothesize that Aborigones may have perceived famine subjects as more like themselves, with less cognitive dissonance (I suppose you could call it) between viewer and subject.

famine photoFigure 1. An image from Hooper’s Victorian Indian Famine Relief Fund Album, Melbourne, 1877. This image plays into the colonial gaze, and features two young mothers and holding their suffering babies in the “Madonna-like” pose of starvation.

In addition, comparing later relief funds that went to the Irish during the Irish famine of 1879-1890, the great success emerged from the perceived similarity between subjects of Australia and Ireland. Yet, the Irish campaign did not utilize photographs in Australia like the Indian Famine Relief did, especially because there was a significant Irish population in Australia at the time. The authors conclude, “That the Irish fund raised so much money without the use of photographs is less the issue than the fact that the Indian fund raised so much with them” (250). The photographs serve as both a imperial power tool to elicit sympathy and loyalty and also evidence of British imperial neglect, a double-edged sword within the colonial response.



Moore, A. G. “The Great Famine of 1876, India.” Rhythm Prism Publishing, 27 Sept. 2016,

Twomey, Christina, and Andrew J. May. “Australian Responses to the Indian Famine, 1876–78: Sympathy, Photography and the British Empire.” Australian Historical Studies, vol. 43, 252. 2, June 2012, pp. 233–252. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/1031461X.2011.640775.



  1. This blog post is an example of beautiful, concise writing (of a sort that I am too verbose to be able to achieve). You hit upon some major points that reminded me of one of the most powerful art exhibits that I’ve ever attended: “Witness” at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art ( In this exhibit, one of the central pieces focused on the role and impact of Kevin Carter’s famous photograph, taken in Sudan, of a vulture standing over a dying child. As you so aptly put it, “sympathy does not correlate with empathy” – and images like this can be an example of voyeuristic spectatorship even as they masquerade as philanthropy. Whatever feelings we, as the viewers, experience in response to these kinds of photographs, they are unlikely to encompass the reality of the subjects captured in them, and may in fact be inuring us to further tragic imagery that we may encounter in our lives.

    You did a wonderful job explaining the way in which contributing to these kinds of campaigns allowed colonists to feel an inflated sense of altruism (together with a safety/superiority in their superiority)! I would just add that the goal of photographs like these, as differentiated from photographs involving white and/or upper-class people, would be even less like empathy than sympathy: pity. Pity almost always automatically implies that he who pities is doing good, while he who is pitied is experiencing the benefits of someone else’s goodness. The power dynamic is inherent to the term. On that note, I think that your observation about the religiosity common in Hooper’s images is apropos to this distinction. Nothing (especially in this progeny-inclined time period) would be perceived as more tragic than a suffering child, and providing contributions to save children would be seen as the highest of virtues. However, this narrative inevitably reminds me of the Australian government’s “charitable” inclination to rehome Aboriginal children in white families (see one source here: In eliciting pity for the mothers and children pictured, these photographs are simultaneously removing their agency. Even in deifying his subjects, the photographer is fictionalizing and aestheticizing the reality of their suffering (in another example of Chaudhary’s phantasmagoria metaphor), only further serving to distance them from viewers of his work. Unfortunately, this problem is further exacerbated when we consider the many examples, even in the modern era, of how misguided the goals of most charitable organizations are, especially when they are more focused on finding and placating donors than on actually helping people in need.

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