Past Events

Race, Indian Revolution and the Colonial Camera

Research Lunch – Sushma Griffin

  • 22 March 2024
  • 1:00 – 2:00 pm
  • Online

This event is part of the The Paul Mellon Centre’s Spring Research Lunch series 2024.

Race, Indian Revolution and the Colonial Camera: Towards an Aesthetics of Absence

Photography’s potential for indexical detail was harnessed by the late-imperial British state to affirm certain cultural and political assumptions about the new Crown colony of India and its peoples. However, certain photographic images problematise the colonial narrative of reason. Images, saturated with distortion and strangeness, such as Harriet and Robert Tytlers’ photographs Humaion’s Tomb, where the king was captured by Hodgson, [Delhi] (1858) and Slaughter Ghat, Cawnpore (1858), and Samuel Bourne’s Benares: “Gyan Bapee” or “Well of Knowledge” (c.1868) among others, falling outside the allegories and symbolism of British Romantic landscape aesthetics and the rationalising force of empirical sciences provide a hermeneutic point of reference for the history of photography. Although raising questions about technical expertise, the images, more importantly, signal the significance of absence for photography’s interpretation, providing the opportunity to think about how the new medium relied not only on formal and semiotic signifiers but instead on their absence. When reconsidered against the photographers’ lived experiences of the 1857 Indian Revolution – contiguous and in the acute aftermath for the Tytlers; and from 1863 to 1870 for Bourne, whose arrival coincided with the boom in archaeology – the images reveal the photographers’ hand in mediating the world. This contention is a departure from the existing literature, which reads these images as allegories of loss based on their indexical quality. Thinking about the photographic in terms of absence allows us to rethink and expand its category as it brings the colonial social imaginary into view under conditions of revolution and racial violence.

Image credit: Robert and Harriet Tytler, The Emperor Humaion's Tomb near Delhi, where the King was captured, 1858. Image courtesy of British Library Images, Photo 53/(19)

About the speaker

  • Sushma Griffin holds a Paul Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship 2023–24 for Studies in British Art. In 2021–2022, she was a Getty Postdoctoral Fellow, working with a group of interdisciplinary scholars on the annual theme of “The Fragment”. Her areas of expertise include the art, architecture, and visual cultures of South Asia, with an emphasis on modernism and its contemporary legacies in photography and film. She is currently working on a monograph tentatively entitled Resistant Mediations: the Colonial Camera and the Art of Pilgrimage which is based on her doctoral thesis. She has contributed a book chapter “Vernacular Subjectivity as a Way of Seeing: Visualising Bijapur in Nujūm al-‘Ulūm and Kitab-i-Nauras” in Nazar: Vision, Belief, and Perception in Islamic Cultures (Brill, December 2021) and authored articles for the journals: The Asian Art Society of Australia Review and Artlines. She previously taught at the University of Queensland and Griffith University (Brisbane).