History can be interpreted through different mediums: language, print, art, or photographs. In his article, “The Material and Visual Culture of British India,” scholar Christopher Pinney argues that visual culture, which encompasses any graphical or pictorial form of expression, is not a “superstructure”—that is, an outcome of prior political or social action—but a representation of culture itself (Peers, 232). We tend to think of a photograph as a mere portrayal of its contents: people are just people, landscapes are just landscapes, and buildings are just buildings. But analyzing a photograph is much like reading between the lines in a book. The same way we study authors, we must scrutinize photographers’ motives for taking certain pictures. The same way we look for literary devices in our books, we must examine the facial expressions, fashion, and backgrounds in photographs. Visual culture shows us history; we use history to recreate the past and qualify the present. India and Mexico both endured colonization periods. Though these two present countries exist in different hemispheres, India and Mexico still share vast similarities, especially in the ways their peoples, past and present, experience colonial legacies. Using photographs, we can analyze these similarities. Photographs of Mexican villages exhibit culture and transformations incurred from colonialism; and photographs of Indian law enforcement reflect the effects of urbanization and colonial neglect.
C.B. Waite’s photograph titled “Adobe village in Mexico” and dated 1904, shows only two people in the far middle third. The couple looks unsuspecting; perhaps they did not know the photographer or his purpose. The photograph shows a village of adobe houses surrounded by shrubs, trees, and nopales. Moreover, a series of hills, or cerros, covers the distant background. The picture shows no activity. Maybe, mothers are in their homes while men work in the fields and children attend schools. Families may be in their homes altogether; or, the houses may be abandoned. The adobe houses do look dilapidated, and the corrales (pens) do not have any animals. We can deduce, then, that the inhabitants of this village do not possess much wealth. The photograph still leaves some questions unanswered: Where are the rest of the village members? Are the houses actually abandoned? How do these two villagers practice their family structure?
Abel Briquet’s photograph titled “Alrededores de Mexico” (1885-1895) which translated means “Surroundings of Mexico” or “Around Mexico” provides a closer look into life in a Mexican village. Unlike Waite’s photograph, which shows a broader view of the village and contains only two people afar, Briquet’s photograph focuses on a singular home and shows an entire family. In the picture, we see three males—or so we can deduce because they are wearing sombreros—and four females—three of them appear younger, and one looks as the mother. We see the fulfillment of gender roles as the mother tenderly cares for her child sitting on her lap. Two gentlemen, centered in the middle third of the photograph, appear to be talking while the rest of family looks on. From this depiction, we can postulate that one man must be the father of the on-looking family. He, too, appears to fulfill his responsibility as the father as he engages in out-of-home affairs. Like Waite’s photograph, “Alrededores de Mexico” shows a house made of adobe brick and nopales in the surroundings. The family in this photograph appears not to be of a high socioeconomic rung; their clothes and dilapidated home bring about that assumption. In the end, the photograph still beckons one open-ended question: What are the two men talking about?
In his book, Social Character in a Mexican Village: A Sociopsychoanalytic Study, German social psychologist Erich Fromm examines Mexican villagers’ lives. In his studies, Fromm found that peasant villagers suffered from poverty and frustration (stemming from the lack of upward mobility) (Fromm, 37). Photographers C.B. Waite and Abel Briquet captured just that in the photographs analyzed above; their photographs show Mexican villagers wearing meek clothing and living in decaying adobe brick houses. Fromm’s study also helps us develop theories about Briquet’s “Alrededores de Mexico” which, as we assumed earlier, depicts both male and female gender roles. Fromm states that “the villagers are likely to express the traditional attitudes of patriarchy which allots to men the right to govern women, responsibly but firmly” (Fromm, 145). Moreover, he found that villagers’ harmoniously agreed that “women should not have the same rights as men…because the husband should be like a new father who protects his wife” (Fromm, 145). Generally, villagers cited the Bible as the reason for their patriarchal beliefs. The transcendence of the Bible’s teachings into villagers’ lives reveals colonial legacy. Spanish colonizers conquered the New World with the purpose of indoctrinating new believers (among other purposes). The effect of Catholic indoctrination resonates up until the mid-nineteenth century and today.
Mexican villages also emitted culture. According to scholar Mark Wasserman, “The villages had their own forms of social stratification with caciques (local bosses), municipal officeholders, and lay leaders of religious organizations comprising the upper level” (Wasserman, 29). In certain cases, traders and large tenants also joined the top group. The bottom group, according to Wasserman, included “poorer residents who worked permanently or temporarily as hacienda peons and tenants with small holdings” (Wasserman, 30). We assumed earlier that the subjects in the photographs must have been of a lower social class; Wasserman’s revelations fit that assumption. We also saw in Briquet’s photograph that two men were talking privately; perhaps they were political activists. Village residents “concerned themselves primarily with the protection of individual and collective landholding and with minimizing taxes…” (Wasserman, 30). Each of those demands required political autonomy. Unfortunately for the Mexican villagers, the Anglo-American government also engulfed villages in the American Southwest. The villagers could not exercise autonomy; instead, they were subjugated to the rules and regulations of the Anglo-Americans. Again, here we witness the colonial legacy. The Spanish subjugated the Mexican natives upon their arrival to the New World; similarly, the Anglo-Americans imposed their governance over residents of the American Southwest.
William Johnson’s photograph titled “Bombay Police” and dated between 1855-1862, shows four posing policemen. Three of the men have similar clothing, and one of them—the one in the middle—wears distinct garments. The different clothing could be a sign of rank; perhaps, the man wearing white pants and white stripes is the chief of police. He does also have significantly more facial hair than the others—is that a distinguishing factor, too? The image shows the policemen carrying arms which look like batons. The policemen do look menacing: Was that expression rehearsed, or did they really take their jobs seriously? It is also surprising to see that these officers had the time to take a picture: Was there a lull in their day, or did they really not care for their responsibilities? The photograph raises a few other questions: Why exactly does the man in the middle have different clothing? Are policemen, in this time and place, highly respected?
William Johnson’s photograph “A Mahratta Chief and his Attendants” (1855-1862) also depicts law enforcement personnel. Just as in the “Bombay Police” photograph, these officers appear to be posing. The two photographs share another similarity: the Mahratta chief’s clothes seem more adorned and elaborate compared to the clothes of his attendants. One of the two attendants looks rather young; maybe natives were encouraged, incentivized, or forced to join public service at an early age. The chief appears to hold a baton. The young attendant appears to hold a weapon too, though it is not very distinguishable. The other attendant is sitting on the ground. Because the officers took time to pose for a picture they must not have been very busy: either they work under poor supervision, or their tasked area experiences low levels of crime. The background, which boasts an extravagant landscape, also brings the viewer to the assumption that the picture must have been purposefully posed. That very assumption beckons a few questions: What message did the photographer, William Johnson, want to convey through this picture? Through his posed portrayal, did he want to exalt policing as a lofty career? Why did these personnel really have so much lax time to pose?
Beginning in the 1850s, cotton trade skyrocketed; Bombay and Calcutta—located on opposite ends of the country—quickly became centers of trade. As trade increased, so did industrialization. And as industrialization spread, so did urbanization. The demand for cotton and infrastructure led to a demand for labor. British India, during the end of the nineteenth century, witnessed a revitalized economy. Moreover, urbanization also led to the creation of new universities. An increased desire for education heightened the human capital of the burgeoning nation. Urbanization in India also bred a new English-speaking middle class. This new socioeconomic group, a people conceived of British and Indian coexistence, collaborated with the governing British body, but identified as Indian nationals. A confused nation, as we will see, is a troublesome one. Though urbanization certainly did greatly benefit the British Indian economy, it also inevitably produced a higher crime rate.
In his article, “‘The ultimate masters of the city’: police, public order, and the poor in colonial Bombay,” scholar Prashant Kidambi describes how anxieties provoked by rapid industrial urbanization and massive labor migration triggered an important shift in colonial policing agendas. The 1890s witnessed two major urban riots. The first occurred August 11, 1893 and it involved a sectarian affray between Hindus and Muslims which vehemently escalated to a massive confrontation that encompassed large parts of surrounding cities. The second riot, which occurred on March 9, 1898, involved attempts to placate a disease plague. Search parties who were looking for patient zero, were met with dissention from surrounding communities. Again, the riot broke out and covered Madanpura, a large Indian city (Kidambi, 30-31). These two instances “rendered colonial authorities increasingly anxious about their ability to prevent conflicts from breaching the bounds of the neighbourhood and engulfing the city at large” (Kidambi, 31). Moreover, studies found an alarming correlation between increased cotton and textile trade and rioting; members of the industrial workforce comprised the largest number of riot participants. In addition to the two major riots mentioned above, laborers performed many more riots to protest unfair wages. Here, we witness the effect of colonialism: the British Raj exploited Indian workers to grow the nation’s economy.
With these tensions in mind, we can now explore the responsibilities and efficiency of Indian law enforcement during the mid and late nineteenth century. Headed by a commissioner, the Indian police forces were loosely modeled after the London Metropolitan Police (as expected). The Bombay police was astonishingly small; it was only “half the strength of Calcutta [police] and considerably weaker than London [police]” (Kidambi, 34). Moreover, citizens were not incentivized at all to join public service; police incurred long work and hours and remarkably low wages. Ironically, the police force “doubled in the last decade of the nineteenth century” but efficiency proved to be its detriment. In 1908, a provincial government in Bombay appointed a committee to investigate the city’s police; the committee concluded that “Bombay not only lacked adequately equipped police stations, but that the apparatus for the investigation of crime at the divisional level was also ineffectual” (Kidambi, 35). The report also attributed the force’s ineffiency to “an absence of educated men in the ranks of the native constables…as well as the inability of the European officers to exercise proper supervision…” (Kidambi, 35). Using this information, we can now see that the officers depicted in the photographs simply had poor supervision and ineffective training. Inevitably, inefficiency bred long lulls in their days, so the Bombay police and Mahratta chief, along with his attendants, made time to pose for a picture. We also note the effect of colonization. The British government thought an increased number of manpower would suffice to suppress the riots. However, the British did not actually care for their police workers. Wages were low, hours were long, and supervision was neglected—all of which are characterizations of a cruel subjugation.
The Mexican photographs evidence the fulfillment of gender roles; the Indian photographs exhibit the effects of urbanization. Both photographs demonstrate colonial legacy. Indubitably, these photographs emit the transformations of both cultures as they lived under colonial rule and influence. We can use these photographs to examine our own lives and cultures. Colonization has affected all of us—to understand who we are, we must understand our pasts, and how our pasts beget our present. A Mexican proverb says, “Para saber a dónde vas, hay que saber de dónde vienes.” Translated, that means “To know where you’re going, you must now where you came from.” We analyzed these photographs to understand cultural practices of the past and consequences of colonization. Attempting to unravel photographs is an arduous process. More questions are raised than answers formulated. But, we must embrace the beauty of ambiguity and interpretation. With the information we do have, however, we gain a better understanding of the progressions and shortcomings of our society today.
Fromm, Erich, and Michael Maccoby. Social Character in a Mexican Village; a Sociopsychoanalytic Study. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1970. Print.
Kidambi, Prashant. “‘The Ultimate Masters of the City’: Police, Public Order and the Poor in Colonial Bombay, C. 1893-1914.” JSTOR. N.p., 2004. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42708561?pq-origsite=summon&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents 30 Apr. 2015.
Peers, Douglas M., and Nandini Gooptu. India and the British Empire. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012. Print.
Wasserman, Mark. Everyday Life and Politics in Nineteenth Century Mexico: Men, Women, and War. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico, 2000. Print.