Picturing Imperial Citizenship: The Colonial Office Visual Instruction Committee's Slide Lecture Series, 1902-45

by Gabrielle Amanda Moser

Institution: York University
Year: 2015
Keywords: Art history ; History
Record ID: 2058606
Full text PDF: http://hdl.handle.net/10315/28272


Citizenship has emerged as a key term in recent photography theory as way to assert the critical potential of images as tools of civic engagement and political action, insisting that photographs are a forceful language through which subjects and spectators articulate their claims to rights. Important work remains to be done, however, in tracing the historical context in which citizenship was produced as a photographable subject, and in analyzing how spectators learn to identify images of citizenship in the first place. By examining a mode of colonial education created in the British Empire at the beginning of the twentieth century that combined photography with geographical instruction, this dissertation contends that photography’s relationship to citizenship is historically constructed, colonially inflected and pedagogically reinforced. Viewers must be taught to “see” citizenship in photographs through a pedagogical process that occurs both inside and outside of the literal classroom. Taking as its case study the Colonial Office Visual Instruction Committee (COVIC)’s lantern slide lectures, a series of more than 3,000 photographs documenting the land and peoples of the empire that circulated in classrooms between 1902 and 1945, this dissertation traces the construction of imperial citizenship: an abstract, non-legal category of belonging used as both a strategy of colonial management and, conversely, for anti-colonial critique. By reading the COVIC lecture texts against the photographs, the dissertation looks for slippages between what COVIC claimed to do and the meanings that viewers may have created from the photographs’ visual evidence. Putting the COVIC images in conversation with concurrent photographic projects—particularly representations of insurrection, immigration and indentured labour in the empire—I argue the COVIC archive is a site where viewers could contest the empire’s discourses of inequality through a critical visual literacy, reading the photographs as moments when the promises of imperial citizenship were withheld. While the dissertation finds that photographs are not capable of guaranteeing the rights of citizens, they do offer spectators the opportunity to contest the logic that separates citizens from non-citizens, and to insist on recognizing and making claims for those subjects otherwise obscured within legal framings of citizenship.