Accepted Paper:

Colonial photography and Cyprus: the case of John Thomson  
Nicos Philippou (University of Nicosia)

Paper short abstract:

John Thomson was one of the first European travelers to survey Cyprus in 1878 after control of the island shifted from Ottoman to British rule. His Cypriot portraits reveal a preoccupation with classification and typicality and his photographic subjects appear subjected and ‘feminised’.

Paper long abstract:

In 1878 Cyprus re- emerged from obscurity to acquire new political significance when control of the island shifted from the Ottoman Empire to the British. The event created significant new curiosity about Cyprus in Europe and especially in Britain. This thirst for information about Cyprus would be satisfied by, among others, a number of British and European traveller photographers most important of which is, probably, John Thomson. It is Thomson's photographs of Cyprus taken in the autumn of 1878 that this paper examines. Thomson's work is rather popular among contemporary Cypriot institutions, like banks and cultural foundations, which publish them in glossy coffee table books, calendars and diaries. This contemporary consumption of Thomson's images is a rather uncritical one and his photographs are merely seen to function as a window to late 19th century Cyprus. It is my aim to show that Thomson's photographs are much more than documents of Cypriot things past; they are in fact the product of complex political, ideological and cultural concerns of his time and would fit in the greater scheme of the attempt of the British Empire to assert its control over the new acquisition. Thomson shared his contemporary dominant perceptions about photography which bestowed the medium a special status as scientific and value free method of documentation and his writings reveal a preoccupation with racial types and the quantification of external characteristics which relate to ideas about the readability of physiognomy, the assessment of collective characters and a colonial anxiety about colonised group loyalties. His Cypriot portraits reveal a preoccupation with classification and typicality and his photographic subjects appear subjected and 'feminised'. While expressing his Philhellenism he did not fail to express his cultural and class superiority by emphasising decay and backwardness and ignoring Cypriot elites; justifying, this way, British presence on the island on the promise of salvation. Finally, while influenced by Orientalist discourse, Thomson appears to have adopted an ambiguous gaze when assessing Cyprus as a geographical, historical and cultural territory and his writings read like a constant juxtaposition of a post- Ottoman and 'Oriental' present and a glorious 'Occidental' past.

Panel W088
One hundred years of European anthropology in and on the Middle East: 1900-2000