Posted by: lilyj285 | November 2, 2020

The Politics of Photography: Ruins and Rebels

[Sammy House, Showing the Bodies of Sepoys Killed in ...
Felice Beato, The Ruins of Sammy House Surrounded by Scattered Bones of Sepoys Killed in Action, 1858.

One thing about ruins that we don’t always think about is the fact that they belong to a culture that, often, still exists. The term “ruins” suggests something that no longer exists as it once did; it is divorced from purpose and from whatever culture it derived from. However, this is not truly the case with such buildings and places. Whatever they are, ruins aren’t just the generalized deaths of these constructs, but photographs make them out to be this way. This is one of the problems with photography, especially staged colonial photography: it distances the viewer from the subject of the photograph, even more so when such a subject is located at exact points at which the photo appears to have a well-done “composition.” In this photograph in particular, as noticed by my fellow classmates, the skulls near the bottom are posed to be facing the camera. That makes both the creation and viewing of this photograph uncomfortably voyeuristic, though perhaps the Victorian British saw this less as discomfort and more as safety that they were so distant from such a death-marked event.

The Ruins of Sikandar Bagh Palace Showing the Skeletal ...
Felice Beato, Interior of the Sikanderbagh after the Slaughter of 2,000 Rebels, 1858.

Even when there are people present in Beato’s photos, the viewer can barely make out their faces. It is as if they are mere accomplices to the photograph, and not active participants (willing or unwilling) in it. The bodies in the picture aren’t even named, and the photo’s name, particularly the end of the title, does nothing to convey them as people: “…the Slaughter of 2000 Rebels”. These “rebels” were, are, people, even though we don’t know who they were. The use of the word “rebels” distances us from the tragedy/massacre even further. The white European layperson could easily insert themselves as the non-rebel side, and tell themselves without much convincing that it’s “good” said rebels were slaughtered, or, even if they found themselves on the rebel side, they could know that they were nowhere near the site of the massacre in Lucknow.

We have to be careful when viewing both historic and contemporary photos to ask who is telling the story, and what is their intent on telling it? Who are we in relation to the photo’s subjects? These are important questions to be able to answer, especially when action in response to the viewing is possible (like in the case of famine photography, where the British bore witness, but did nothing).


  1. You do such a great job of connecting the strategies of representation in these photographs (the focus on ruins and the rendering of human subjects anonymous or even non-human) to colonial violence and counter-insurgency.

  2. Your points about both what we discussed in class with regard to the skulls’ positioning and the role of people in the photographs are really great! Your point about the living subjects of the photographs and their role as accessories to the photographer rather than active participants in the capturing of their own images was really interesting as well. 🙂

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