Afghanistan’s British Colonial Past and the Qandahar Album
Photographs show how Afghanistan was an object of British scientific inquiry.
By Dr. Marjan Wardaki
Postdoctoral Associate and Lecturer
In Afghanistan, a country whose recent history is marked with warfare and waves of humanitarian crises, the safeguarding of historical artifacts seems like a privilege not always available to itinerant Afghans struggling to evacuate their unstable homeland.
Here, international platforms seeking to preserve images of the country play a key role, particularly the rare collection of albumen prints, called the Qandahar Album, now housed at the Getty Research Institute. The viewer is granted insight into the complicated and rich history of Afghanistan’s colonial past, with an opportunity to engage in a critical exercise to analyze these pictures, and, in the process, discover Afghanistan as a new site to study the history of colonialism.
It is rare to find 19th-century images of Afghanistan. While the very invention of photography itself was announced to the members of the French Académie des Sciences in Paris in January 1839, it would not be until May of 1878 that the Irish photographer, John Burke (1843-1900), produced the first views of Afghans and Afghanistan. This was done in the context of documenting the official outcome and treaties that emerged over the course of the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878–80).
Shuffling heavy equipment across the country, presumably with the assistance of local porters, Burke travelled with the British army and produced visual documents about the unfolding of gradual imperial control over Afghanistan’s foreign policy, one that placed Afghanistan as a protectorate of the British Raj until 1919. The last standoff of this conflict was fought in the southern city of Qandahar, where Amir Mohammad Ayub Khan and his Afghan army were forced into defeat despite British casualties that resulted from a series of offensive strikes from above Bardurani Gate in the village of Deh-i-Khoja.
Due to the geographically extensive spread of the British military across the country, it meant that anyone with proper equipment could capture the consequences that the war had reaped. While Burke acted as the official photographer capturing the diplomatic progresses, it would be the Surgeon-General, Dr. Benjamin Simpson, whose photographs especially in Qandahar provided a military and technocratic lens.
Medical officers, both Indian- and British-born, provided key services to the British army well into the mid-20th century, which involved meticulously documenting their experiences over the course of their fieldwork in the colonies. A result of his involvement in the India Medical Service, Simpson was quite well versed with the camera; he had previously produced a series of photographs called Racial Types of Northern India (1862), which he exhibited at the London International Exhibition. Later pictures were featured in anthropologist Edward Tuite Dalton’s Descriptive Ethnology of Bengal (1872), a book that sought to represent the “wild tribes of India” in Assam.
It is therefore important to situate the Qandahar Album in the context of the photographer’s previous work, namely in his usual effort to represent static physical markers of cultures unknown to his audience. However, it is also important to remain mindful of key variances. Although human biographies still feature in a very specific way (one image, for instance, proudly showcases Afghan horse dealers, subjects who are said to have exhibited great reluctance toward being photographed), Simpson’s attention in the Qandahar Album, unlike his previous work, is on representing the terrain for its potential agricultural and technocratic development into an imperial center.
Photography as a Form of Colonial Science
The Qandahar Album is a collection of albumen prints, which was the main method of photographic printing from commercial portraits to scientific photography in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The most widely used albumen process involved beating a solution of sodium chloride or ammonium chloride with egg whites into a stiff froth, which would eventually liquify to coat the albumen paper. Once the print was prepared with a salted paper solution and coated with the egg solution, it was coated with silver nitrate, thus rendering the paper sensitive to light. The negative was placed in contact with the light sensitized albumen paper and exposed to sunlight, upon which it was ready to be toned. Different toning options ranging from leaving the prints untoned to brown and dark violent-black were available and of key importance here in this album.
To better analyze these prints, it is useful to remember the multitude of roles that photography can play as a form of scientific colonial practice for its viewers and users. First, photographs represent something unfamiliar that their author may not have seen before or felt needed to be captured and circulated in still form. Despite the sense of the new, the photographer approaches the unknown with a sense of the familiar or recognizes something familiar in the new.
Take, for example, Another View from North Wall, Showing the Cemetery, which surveys a “general view of the city,” including its walls and the adjacent cemetery. It checks the unfamiliar box because it captures a view of a fallen city quite different from other colonial metropoles. In contrast to an industrial city like Bombay, Qandahar is untouched by British colonialism, and therefore embodies the new.
However, the use of gold toning—a chemical process that usually required the prints to be sent to England where they were exposed and treated —results in warm tones of the print, giving the illusion of familiar bygone days. The toning process was originally used to protect photos from environmental decay and enhance its archival properties, but here this technique works to evoke the Orient’s arid climate of the desert and the dramatic contours of distant mountains in the background, where time could stand still. In that sense, it would seem important to bear in mind how the technical process of the camera can render the unfamiliar familiar and have a homogenizing effect, giving the impression that cultures can be captured in a static way.
Qandahar, a New Colonial Site
The interplay between the new and old is best highlighted in the series of images that show panoramic vistas of Qandahar’s agriculture and bordering river channels. Despite the mix in spatial content, the photographs seem to complement each other. While previous pictures of arid and timeless land introduce the viewer to an unchanged terrain, others exhibit a much more scientific and technocratic observation of the landscape and explore its potentiality for development. Here, the images show insight into possible agricultural practices and, more so, a view into how the land is managed or could potentially be harnessed by a colonial regime. Panoramic scenes allowed British technocrats to lay out trade routes and streets and transform “the old city” into modern “industrial” cities.
An interesting feature emerges when considering the connection of these images to other forms of colonial record keeping. For example, the Survey of India was a major central engineering agency that either commissioned or produced cartographic missions to map the region as part of consolidating the territories of the British Raj and situate Afghanistan as a kind of buffer state between British and Russian spheres of influence. Connecting these mapping surveys with the Qandahar Album grants us insight into the continued importance of Afghanistan as a site of geopolitical and scientific importance.
As a historian, it is easy to see the scholarly importance of the Qandahar Album, which introduces to its viewers a new site to study the practice of colonial regimes, including a glimpse into how the colonial apparatus viewed the places and images it photographed. The pictures help us visualize a more holistic perspective, especially when read alongside other scientific mediums of colonial practice, reminding us that no images are visual representations to be merely looked at and simplified as a factual imprint of Afghan culture.
Originally published by The Iris, 01.04.2023, under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.