Cover image for Projecting Citizenship: Photography and Belonging in the British Empire By Gabrielle Moser

Projecting Citizenship

Photography and Belonging in the British Empire

Gabrielle Moser


$96.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-08127-4

$37.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-08128-1

Available as an e-book

248 pages
7" × 10"
64 b&w illustrations

Projecting Citizenship

Photography and Belonging in the British Empire

Gabrielle Moser

“Moser has provided an arresting account of how imperial citizenship was founded not in the undoing of colonialism but in its establishment. . . . Its contribution to the historiography of colonial citizenship and the methodology of the visual historian is decidedly momentous.”


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In Projecting Citizenship, Gabrielle Moser gives a comprehensive account of an unusual project produced by the British government’s Colonial Office Visual Instruction Committee at the beginning of the twentieth century—a series of lantern slide lectures that combined geography education and photography to teach schoolchildren around the world what it meant to look and to feel like an imperial citizen.

Through detailed archival research and close readings, Moser elucidates the impact of this vast collection of photographs documenting the land and peoples of the British Empire, circulated between 1902 and 1945 in classrooms from Canada to Hong Kong, from the West Indies to Australia. Moser argues that these photographs played a central role in the invention and representation of imperial citizenship. She shows how citizenship became a photographable and teachable subject by tracing the intended readings of the images that the committee hoped to impart to viewers and analyzing how spectators may have used their encounters with these photographs for protest and resistance.

Interweaving political and economic history, history of pedagogy, and theories of citizenship with a consideration of the aesthetic and affective dimensions of viewing the lectures, Projecting Citizenship offers important insights into the social inequalities and visual language of colonial rule.

“Moser has provided an arresting account of how imperial citizenship was founded not in the undoing of colonialism but in its establishment. . . . Its contribution to the historiography of colonial citizenship and the methodology of the visual historian is decidedly momentous.”
“Studies such as Moser’s have the merit of reminding us that the power to represent is far from an innocuous privilege in the hands of nationalist projects.”
“Moser’s nuanced, sophisticated, and data-rich analysis has much to offer art historians and scholars of photography, citizenship, and imperialism, and deserves to be very widely read.”
“Brilliantly elucidates the inner photographic workings of the fraught historical and cultural processes that are at work whenever we see, or think we see, images of citizens. Moser’s book adds important historical nuance to the burgeoning literature on photography and citizenship, demonstrating that the scenes of precarious spectatorship that came to structure concepts and practices of citizenship across the British Empire were often first produced by photography. The book also makes bold new theoretical claims. Its explorations of the disobedient gazes, experiences of photographic latency, and paradoxical desires that we continue to inherit from colonial visuality promise to enrich ongoing debates.”
Projecting Citizenship contributes new thought and visual material to the field in a theoretically savvy manner and in dialogue with a number of theorists of photography and colonial projects. Moser lays out how colonial photography worked with other material to form a pedagogical mission to define ‘imperial citizens.’ This is a must-read not only for those interested in colonialism’s use of photography in defining colonial subjects but also for those readers of photography and European imperialism who understand the intersubjective process as one fraught with anxieties, dangers, and promises but also containing the underpinnings of colonialism’s eventual unmaking.”
“This assiduously researched book positions itself at the intersection of two expanding fields of scholarship: studies of the ideological processes of colonialism and the practice and significance of magic-lantern shows.”

Gabrielle Moser is Assistant Professor of Art History at OCAD University.


List of IllustrationsPreface: Archival Reconstructions


Introduction: Citizenship in and out of Sight

1. The Spectator: Projecting Imperial Citizens in England and India2. The Photographer: Looking Along

3. The Subject: Developing the Image of the Indentured Laborer

4. The Archive: Residues of Noncitizens in the COVIC Archive

ConclusionFrom Imperial to Global Citizens: Picturing Citizenship in the Present




From the Introduction, “Citizenship in and out of Sight”

There is no such thing as a photograph of citizenship. Despite systematic attempts to construct it, and exhaustive efforts to define its parameters, citizenship evades the grasp of the visual. As a practice, a claim, a legal category, a tool of governmentality, and an ideal, citizenship lies just beyond our peripheral vision, coming in and out of view as an object of study in disciplines as diverse as education, geography, legal studies, history, postcolonial studies, and, more recently, the history and theory of photography. Because it must be conferred relationally, by other citizens or by a sovereign, citizenship is invisible, difficult to disentangle from other categories of belonging, and taken up by a wide range of actors to achieve often oppositional aims. Citizenship is used to justify tools of control and surveillance employed by the state for population management, in liberal discourses of social improvement through welfare and education, and as a key term for contesting these very practices by their critics (in postcolonial studies, cultural criticism, and photography theory, in particular).1 Given how difficult it is to conjure a consistent vision of the citizen, and how often scholars struggle to establish a more precise definition of citizenship, it seems strange that the past decade has seen a whole body of research emerge that tries to link photography—an inherently visual medium—with the discourses and practices of citizenship. This research not only makes a case for photography’s role in defining citizenship in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries but argues that there is something unique that photography shows us about this often-invisible category of belonging. The problem of photographing citizenship is perhaps a problem of photographic representation itself. It illuminates what Shawn Michelle Smith has described as a paradoxical desire, and a failure, to see—a desire that lies at the very heart of the medium.This disparity between the difficulty of pinning down the definition of citizenship and scholars’ sudden desire to see it in photographs raises questions about the limits of visually securing and communicating identities, and about how viewers come to recognize subjects as fellow citizens despite these limitations. A rich body of critical scholarship has explored the processes through which categorical differences (such as race, class, gender, ability, and sexuality) were visualized and solidified through photographic representations in the twentieth century, but more attention needs to be paid to how spectators come to identify and empathize with subjects in spite and in excess of these socially constructed distinctions. These processes of spectatorial recognition are, of course, culturally specific, but they are also profoundly influenced by colonial ways of knowing and seeing. By locating the trouble of picturing citizenship in the colonial context—a historical moment in which race was being legitimated as a scientific as well as social, political, and legal category—the question of what can be seen, or recognized, through photographs is thrown into sharp relief. If, as Stephen Sheehi has argued, all photographs express social relations, but do so according to different temporal logics based on their proximity to colonial power, the entangled histories of citizenship, colonialism, and photography might only be legible to us retrospectively, as afterimages.I am particularly interested in how the temporal lag that photography introduces—between production and reception, between its manifest and latent content, between its users’ desires and the limitations of what it produces, between the archiving of its documents and the histories that are written from them—might open up the possibility for acts of contestation, negotiation, resistance, and reclamation on the part of the viewer. These enactments of a disobedient gaze insist on reading past the manifest content of photographs for their latent meanings: the histories that were occluded and elided by what the colonial state wanted viewers to see, the unruly and proliferating meanings that archival subject headings attempted to suppress. Practicing a disobedient gaze, then, is a mode of looking that refuses the readings imposed on photographs by the colonial state and insists on activating photographic evidence for resistant and oppositional political purposes. It is a practice deployed both by historical viewers of colonial photographs and by researchers in the present, as a resistant method of historiography that can be activated in the archive to recuperate these afterimages. Projecting Citizenship enacts just such an unruly and disobedient mode of looking to interrogate how citizenship and photography were concomitantly shaped by colonial epistemologies.Recent photography scholarship, including work by Ariella Azoulay, Tina M. Campt, Thy Phu, Leigh Raiford, and Sharon Sliwinski, has examined the various things that spectators do with photographs to make political claims for the citizens they represent. This work has been vital in asserting photography’s potential as a tool of civic engagement and political action, insisting that images are a forceful language through which the claims to rights are articulated. Important work remains to be done, however, on how spectators learn to identify photographs of citizenship in the first place: how they move from seeing an image to recognizing its subjects as fellow, if distant, citizens. This process is not an inevitable or natural one: it is historically constructed and culturally specific. The specificities of this process need to be considered in our studies of visual citizenship because they challenge the dual promises of universality offered by photography and by modern citizenship. By asking how spectators come to understand photographs of subjects as photographs of citizens, I ask that we pay attention to the kinds of subjects that are obscured from the frame of citizenship in order for other subjects to emerge as recognizable. The wager of this book is that photography’s relationship to citizenship is historically constructed and pedagogically reinforced. Viewers must be taught to see citizenship in photographs through a lengthy and repeated pedagogical process that occurs both inside and outside of the literal classroom.Here, I am interested in pedagogy not just as a science of knowledge transmission that takes place in the explicitly instructive space of the school but as a form of cultural politics where identifications are constructed, solidified, and contested. Rather than seeing schools as instruments of state ideology where people are taught to subject themselves to rule, as Louis Althusser famously argued, I want to think about pedagogy as an intersubjective process that is always unpredictable, open to disruption by students and teachers despite the state’s efforts at uniformity. For theorists such as Deborah Britzman, Paolo Freire, Henry A. Giroux, Stuart Hall, Roger I. Simon, and others, pedagogy is an aesthetic event, one that is inherently social, affective, and sensorial. As Britzman writes, education is a psychic event that takes place in moments of interference between teacher and student, often through “the intimate staging of attention, affection, surprise and chance.” Pedagogy, whether it emerges as a tool of state control or as a project of universal humanism (projects that are not necessarily mutually exclusive), is therefore not a closed system that can be completely controlled by any one actor. Much like the event of photography, it is marked by contingency, structured by the conscious and unconscious choices of its participants. This means that, like instrumental photography projects produced by the state, pedagogical processes are open for critique and reinstrumentalization by the very populations they are meant to control. This is close to what Henry A. Giroux, building on the work of Stuart Hall, suggests when he states that pedagogy is the outcome of struggles over representations, identifications, and forms of agency. Critical public pedagogy, in particular, aims to show how notions of difference, civic responsibility, community, and belonging are produced in specific historical and discursive sites, institutions, and practices. To examine critically the role that photographs play in this struggle is to “inquire into the conditions of the possibility of agency” and to question how and where citizenship emerges as both a teachable and photographable subject.To think about the conditions that make citizenship possible as a subject of photography, this book examines a widely known but little studied series of lantern slide presentations produced by the British government’s Colonial Office beginning in 1902. Organized by the Colonial Office Visual Instruction Committee (COVIC) and advertised as a set of geography lectures for colonial and English schoolchildren, the COVIC lectures used more than 3,000 photographic lantern slides and seven textbooks to describe the British Empire to its student viewers, in classrooms all over the world, from 1907 to 1945. Designed to “illustrat[e] life in the different parts of the British Empire, as an educational means of strengthening the feeling of Imperial unity and citizenship,” the COVIC project attempted not only to capture the empire and its people but to build a photographic catalogue of what it meant to look and feel like an imperial citizen. Designed to cultivate a self-reflexive form of spectatorship, the COVIC lectures aimed to represent the behaviors and affects that permitted a subject to enter into the community of citizenry. The COVIC photographs picture people from all over the empire in the midst of their daily activities: working, farming, traveling, raising children, and going to school (figs. 2–3). The COVIC textbooks, read aloud by the classroom teacher, directed students on how to understand the hundreds of images projected onto the screen by a magic lantern, stressing the differences between the peoples and cultures of England, India, Canada, Australia, Africa, the West Indies, and “the Sea Road to the East” (Malta, Gibraltar, Cyprus, Ceylon, Singapore, and Hong Kong), while also insisting on their membership in the invisible community of imperial citizenship. Notions of civic duty and responsibility were integral to the project’s goals. As Michael E. Sadler, the founder of the committee, wrote in his proposal for the COVIC project in 1902, “The object in view is to give every citizen of the Empire an opportunity of seeing what the different parts of the Empire are like . . . and of learning what duties its possession entails.” From its inception, the very premise of the COVIC project brought together the discourses of imperialism, education, and photographic representation as concomitant forces in the making of imperial citizens.The COVIC project has so far received little academic attention, appearing only in histories of British imperialism and geographic education, and has yet to be analyzed formally from the perspectives of art history and visual culture. This is perhaps because no surviving set of the lantern slides is known to exist, forcing scholars who want to examine the COVIC images to reconstruct the lectures from the various archives in which the committee’s materials are now stored, sorting through the more than 7,600 images produced for the project in an effort to match them up with slide lists in the textbooks and re-create the original presentation of 3,000 slides. This book therefore makes a unique contribution to the literature about the Colonial Office’s use of photography as a mode of visual education by aggregating this material into a cohesive case study, while also providing a detailed visual analysis of the images. I trace how the COVIC photographs were produced but also consider how they were circulated and interpreted by the public, asking how they might be relevant to contemporary studies of art history, photography theory, citizenship studies, and visual culture. Rather than reading the COVIC images as illustrations of the textbooks’ rhetoric, as other scholars have done, I treat the committee’s photographs as rich, generative texts of their own: aesthetic lessons in imperial belonging and exclusion that may have communicated much more than the lecture texts instructed viewers to see. Such a reading emphasizes the COVIC lectures as an aesthetic, as well as a didactic, method of colonial education that was convincing not just because of its ideological message but because it offered a pleasurable and collective viewing experience.By reconstructing COVIC’s photographic archive of imperial citizenship and emphasizing the aesthetic, affective dimensions of viewing the lectures, my project foregrounds what Sukanya Banerjee calls the “extralegal life of citizenship.” It pays attention to the ways that citizenship was pictured and negotiated through photography before it was guaranteed by law, and it asks how citizenship was represented through the making, circulation, and viewing of photographs at a moment when it was not yet enshrined in legal code. In focusing on COVIC, and on the representational modes of imperial citizenship, I want to suggest that our understanding of the modern citizen as a photographable subject emerged not as a critique or dismantling of colonialism but as a complicit and integral part of colonial consolidation: a process that brought together visual culture, immigration and labor laws, education, and the rhetoric of citizenship as interweaving technologies for managing the empire’s population. As an abstract, universal ideal, imperial citizenship promised equality to all subjects of the British Empire, a promise underwritten through a series of state-produced photographic representations. In practice, however, this citizenship was always partial, precarious, and doubled: constantly contradicted by colonial decrees, state education initiatives, government immigration policies, and transnational labor laws. Building on economist T. H. Marshall’s provocative argument that, after the Second World War, citizenship in the United Kingdom became “the architect of legitimate social inequality,” I argue that photographic citizenship likewise emerged as a way to manage and maintain the inequalities of colonial rule at the beginning of the twentieth century.[Excerpt ends here.]