Between Admiration and Repudiation: Photography, Missionaries and "Secret Societies"
Nanina Guyer (University of Basel)
Paper short abstract:
This paper looks at late 19th century photographs of “secret societies” in Sierra Leone taken by missionaries belonging to different institutions and puts the production, dissemination and reception of these images into historical context.
Paper long abstract:
William Vivian, a missionary of the United Methodist Church in Sierra Leone at the end of the 19th century, probably took the earliest known photograph of initiates of the Sande sodality or Sande "secret society", an association responsible for transforming girls into marriageable women. As with many of his contemporaries, Vivian's feelings towards "secret societies", their rituals and masks oscillated between sympathy and rejection. Some missionaries documented the Sande and other secretive associations with anthropological zeal while simultaneously perceiving them as part of "heathen" Africa. Indeed, precious photographic documents of great historical value can often be credited to missionaries. Pictures of men's and women's associations offered an appealing motif that nevertheless illustrated the need for missionary work. This paper looks at late 19th century photographs of "secret societies" taken by missionaries belonging to different institutions and puts their production, dissemination and reception into historical context. The nature of the global archive of photographs depicting "secret societies" merits special attention: While some of the most fascinating images were taken by missionaries of some churches, such images are absent in other church archives. In this respect, questions need to be asked concerning institutional policies on photography but also on the delicate subject of "secret societies."
Elements toward a theory of mission photography