Picturing Secrecy – The Visualization of "Secret Societies" in Historical Photographs from West AfricaNanina Guyer
There is an awkward tension in the fact that the danger of looking at secretive things is inherent in many concepts of African secrecy – even more, an uninitiated onlooker is believed to die immediately. Yet at the same time, there is a considerable number of historical photographs, made by missionaries, colonial staff, ethnographers as well as African photographers showing – according to their captions – secretive phenomena such as "secret societies". How did the photographers have access to secretive sites and associations? Or did they just pretend to have? We completely lack a reflection of the colonial/ethnographic/photographic encounter with African secrecy. Yet, recent research has shown that Africans were not merely passive beings in the processes of visualization and had much more agency within the creation of historical photographs than previously assumed. The project’s general aim is to produce a "thick description" of two image worlds of secrecy created in colonial West Africa, which Europeans were equally fascinated and felt threatened by: 1. The secret societies of the Cameroonian Grassland, 2. The Poro/Sande secret societies of the Mende-speaking people. Drawing on concepts and methods from New Cultural History, Visual Anthropology as well as Historical Anthropology, the project is situated in the newly emerging interdisciplinary field of Visual Studies. Taking photographs as its starting point, the project explores the production, dissemination and reception of the image world of secrecy. In applying the critical perspective advocated by the exponents of the writing culture debate on the photographic encounter, we assume that pictures displaying (allegedly) secretive phenomena were sometimes staged by Africans, re-enacted or misinterpreted by the photographers. By taking an approach that understands photography as a multi-dimensional happening, we hope to show the complexities of the photographic encounter, which exceeds the simple dichotomy adopted by postcolonial studies.
The project’s central questions are:
The critical examination of the intersection of secrecy and photography offers a completely new perspective on the history both of western relations with Africa and the images of Africa in the West. Our research so far revealed that Swiss missionaries and merchants were instrumental in the production and dissemination of both investigated image worlds. By researching promising Swiss archives, we hope to gain further insights in the involvement of Swiss nationals in colonial Africa.