Accepted paper:

Mission photography as a kind of epigraphy and the archive as a kind of hermeneutic space: tracing Africa's past through the photographic collection of the Spiritans' Congregation


Madalina Florescu (CEBRAP)

Paper short abstract:

Thinking mission photography as a kind of epigraphy and to the archive as a kind of hermeneutic space. An ethnographic account of researching early 20th century African history in the archive of the Spiritans' Congregation.

Paper long abstract:

"Some missionaries were photographers, others weren't. It was according to each one's personal sensitivity," explained one of the two lay archivists who for the past decade have been organizing and cataloguing the photographic archive of the Spiritans' Congregation in Chevilly. Photographs have been stored apart from documents and without anticipating their disclosure to the public. But as the early generations of photographers passed away, their photographs have become a morass of images with little or no connection to the written archive or living memory. Seeing these photographs archive as a collection 'brought together with some purposeful intent, if only for storage' (Banks and Vokes 2010, 338) is particularly useful for developing a theory of mission photography as a kind of epigraphy and of the archive as a kind of hermeneutic space. Spiritans' were one of the main male missionary orders in Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries. Its vocation was 'the liberation of slaves' and the formation of an indigenous clergy. Like other Catholic orders, its activities were sponsored by international organizations like Propaganda Fide and the Holy Childhood Association. Most of the photographs were taken for propaganda. They belong to the characteristic missionary genre of the official depiction of the progress of Christianity and European civilisation (Geary 1991, 48). But from an anthropological perspective these photographs are also historical documents that can be used to retrieve the past from 'the other's side'. The presentation is an ethnographic account of my recent research in the Spiritans' archive.

panel P16
Elements toward a theory of mission photography