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Economies and Empire

Colonialism and the Clash of National Visions

Defining Colonialism

Learning Targets

  • I can use photography to write persuasively about a topic.
  • I can identify the moral and ethical implications of colonization.
  • I can identify the moral and ethical implications of making photographs and distributing them without the permission of those pictured.
  • I can identify the religious implications of colonization.
  • I can write from various points of view.


During the period of 1850-1915, sometimes referred to as the Age of High Imperialism, there were two types of mass-produced images of colonized peoples that helped to influence how non-Westerners were portrayed: One type of image depicted live displays of allegedly “primitive” peoples that were displayed at the various Great Exhibitions in large cities around the world (including London, Paris, and Chicago). The second type of image portrayed non-Westerners in their native cultures, thus encouraging an active international tourism industry, something that had once been accessible only to the very rich.

During this time, international exhibitions were created to showcase industrial products, encourage tourism, and to help build a sense of nationalism for the host country. These exhibitions played a key role in spreading an ideology of “progress” and early forms of mass consumerism among Western countries. At these early exhibitions, or expos, it was not unusual to see actual displays of people from African or Asian countries. These displays coincided with the public’s growing interest in scientific theories about the origins of various races. These displays also tended to exploit myths about “exotic” cultures, including myths of cannibalism. This was done in part to cast the colonized as savage, and therefore either in need of salvaging, or removing any human element from their culture, making it easier to justify exploiting their culture and their land. These exhibitions represented the colonized as “others” who did not exist within the bounds of what the colonizers defined as humanity. Because they were not seen as modern—with their seeming absence of organized religion, government, and education—they appeared to be “lacking” these things as defined by the standards of the colonizers. Thus, the goal of many of the exhibits at these exhibitions was to persuade Western visitors that colonization, or imperialism, was benevolent and would benefit both sides.

Photographs made in colonized countries were an important element of these international exhibitions. Because relatively few people traveled, these images were regarded as evidence of what life was like in distant parts of the various empires. By representing the colonized people as somehow savage or primitive, the photos reinforced the idea that Europeans were entitled and even obligated to “civilize” their colonies. According to Maxwell, “…the public had faith in photography not only because it worked on a physically descriptive level, but because it confirmed their sense of omnipresence” (2000, p. 12) [1].

However, some colonial studio portraits were commissioned by colonized people as an attempt to recover ethnic pride and dignity. In some cases, the colonized people hired photographers and chose the wardrobe and pose that would be later become the image seen by visitors to these large exhibitions. In other instances, documentary photographers attempted to capture what effect colonization had on the colonized. “A kind of empowerment was achieved by the relatively rare documentary photographs that attempted to record the fate of indigenous communities who had been…coerced into leaving their traditional lands. By recording their subjects’ attempts at modernization and resistance, these photographs located colonized peoples within the framework of modern history—a place denied them by the colonial stereotype” (Maxwell, 2000, p. 13).

Begin the Activity

Using Images to Counter Colonization
Students may work either individually or in groups. Hand out copies of the images or project them. Tell students that these images will be on display at the 1851 World Expo in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London. Their task will be to write from the perspective of a person in the photograph, urging the Expo director and the people of London to think twice before blindly supporting colonization efforts. Ask students to carefully observe the images before they start inferring in the process of telling their story. Encourage students to be creative, but be sure that students can support their claims. Have students consider the following questions:

Questions to Consider

  • How can photographs be used to promote a particular point of view?
  • Who might create specific photographs and for what purpose?
  • What role can photographs play in advancing a cause or a movement?
  • What themes are present in these photographs?

Extension Activity

Literature Connection—Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism
Aimé Césaire was a Martinique-born poet, author, and politician. One of his most famous works, Discourse on Colonialism, spoke out against European colonial racism and hypocrisy. He criticized Europe for creating the colonies—only to exploit them solely for Europe’s own benefit. Césaire demonstrated how colonialism worked to “decivilize” the colonizer, and how such hatred and immorality ultimately made the colonizer appear to be weak and barbaric.

In his text, Césaire asks, “What, fundamentally, is colonization”? (1950, p. 32) Working in conjunction with the language arts teacher, have students read Césaire’s text, and then answer that critical question. In their answers, encourage students to refer to images that both support and criticize colonization.



  1.  Maxwell, Anne. Colonial Photography and Exhibitions: Representations of the ‘Native’ and the Making of European Identities. London: Leicester University Press, 2000.

next: Responses to Colonization: Africa and India

Grade Level

High School


Social Studies
World History


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