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Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum

Economies and Empire: Colonialism and the Clash of National Visions


Source: Smithsonian Institution Archives.

In the two hundred years between 1500 and 1700, travel by land and sea linked disparate parts of the globe in intricate relationships based on resources, wealth, trade, and power. This expanded system of international trade brought peoples and cultures into contact, and set in motion the phenomenon in which certain European powers came to dominate and exploit much of Africa and South Asia. A few such powers established far-flung footholds early: The British East India Company and the Dutch East India Company were founded in the early 1600s to control the spice trade in Asian waters and the export of cotton and textiles from India. Soon, the Dutch would also establish a foothold in South Africa. In the centuries to come, European nations would continue to set up trade ventures and colonial outposts all around the world. By 1920, nearly 600 million people in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, the Pacific basin, and South America were living under one of nine colonial powers. In the aftermath of World War II, nationalist movements began to topple European regimes and win their independence.

Source: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZC4-12000

This collection explores colonialism, traditionally thought of as a practice of domination by one group over another, subjugated group. The term colonialism has usually referred to instances in which one nation moved people to a new region, installing permanent settlements. Once there, the settlers maintained a political affiliation and loyalty to the home country. To varying degrees and by different measures, European “imperial” powers attempted to coerce indigenous populations into allegiance to the home country—that is, by annexing the territory as part of the home country, or by more indirect controls. The term “colonialism” usually refers to the act of subjugation, and “imperialism” to the methods employed (such as through military or economic domination). However, the terms are not always used consistently, even among scholars. Despite the difficulties of terminology, what is most important for this collection is an understanding that colonialism created relationships between groups of people who previously had not interacted.

Focusing on the course of European political domination in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this collection will consider some of the interactions between people in Africa and India and European colonizers, and explore the ways in which colonialism affected the colonizer and the colonized.

Photography was an essential tool of colonialist regimes, as photographers traveled widely during the turn of the century. Regimes, as well as publishing companies, also hired and trained photographers to work in these regions and to produce images. Printed in albums, and then on postcards made for tourists, it was a popular fashion to collect these images and bring them home as souvenirs or gifts after a trip abroad. These images also served various other purposes, such as helping to build support in the home country, for entertainment or curiosity, or for government officials, religious, and corporate heads to record and monitor their work there. As resistance to colonialism took shape in the twentieth century, photographers were often on hand to document these large-scale and sometimes violent events.


World History Era 8

  • Standard 3A: The student understands postwar efforts to achieve lasting peace and social and economic recovery.
  • Standard 3B: The student understands economic, social and political transformations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America in the 1920s and 1930s.
  • Standard 5A: The student understands major global trends from 1900 to the end of World War II.

Common Core State Standards: English Language Arts/History/Social Studies/Grade 11-12

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.2: Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source: provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.7: Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11.12.9: Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.

Common Core State Standards: English Language Arts/Writing/Grade 11-12

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.11-12.1.B: Develop claim(s) and counterclaims fairly and thoroughly, supplying the most relevant evidence for each while pointing out the strength and limitations of both in a manner that anticipates the audience’s knowledge level, concerns, values and possible biases.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.11-12.2.D: Use precise language, domain-specific vocabulary, and techniques such as metaphor, simile, and analogy to manage the complexity of the topic.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.11-12.4: Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose and audience.

Common Core State Standards/English Language Arts Standards/Reading/Informational Text/Grade 11-12

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.7: Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words in order to address a question or solve a problem.

Curriculum Snapshot

  • Colonialism, the system of control by European powers over parts of Africa and the subcontinent of Asia
  • The origins and instrumental uses of colonial photography
  • Resistance to colonialism in the form of nationalist movements by using two case studies: India and Algeria

References and Further Readings

Chaudhary, Zahid R. Afterimage of Empire: Photography in Nineteenth-Century India. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.

Dunn, Ross and Laura Mitchell. Panorama: A World History. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2015.

Edwards, Elizabeth and Matt Mead, “Absent Histories and Absent Images: Photographs, Museums and the Colonial Past,” Museum & Society, 11(1) (March 2013): 19–38.

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

Ryan, James R. Picturing Empire: Photography and the Visualization of the British Empire.Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Common Core State Standards (2014).

Césaire, Aimé. “Discourse on Colonialism.” Translated by Joan Pinkham. New York and London: Monthly Review Press, 1972. Originally published as “Discours sur le colonialisme by Editions Presence Africaine,” 1955.

National Center for History in the Schools (2014).

Annenberg Learner: Bridging World History

Photographs, Colonial Legacy and Museums in Contemporary European Culture. “What is colonial about colonial photographs?”


“Mahatma Gandhi: Noncooperation”

“Discourse on colonialism”

“Algerian War”


Edwards, Elizabeth. Anthropology and Photography, 1860–1920 Yale University Press, 1992.

Key Learning Targets

Students will:

  • Explore some of the ways in which colonized peoples and their colonizers interacted.
  • Examine photographs for information about colonial societies, photographers, and the people who consumed the images.
  • Be able to discuss what is in the photos and what is not pictured.
  • Think about the meaning and impact of photographic images of colonialism, the popular perception of these countries, and how that may have changed over time.
  • Compare and contrast the different methods of resistance to colonialism that occurred in India and Algeria.

Essential Questions

Essential questions help organize the content of these collections. Exploring the concept of colonization through this collection of photographs, students are invited to consider the following questions:

  • How did European countries justify colonialism?
  • What were the main interests of the colonists?
  • How did photographs help to justify or undermine the message or policies of colonialism?
  • How did photographs help to shape perceptions of these regions?
  • What are some of the conditions that led to nationalist movements?
  • How does colonialism conflict with nationalism?
  • What different ways of resisting colonialism did people devise?
  • How did photographers define the resisters and the colonizers?

Prerequisite Knowledge

Before viewing the photos and engaging in the activities, students should have background knowledge of how Western European countries (most notably the British, French, and Dutch) established colonies throughout Africa and Asia during this colonial era. You may want to reference a map that shows this expansion.

Activating Students’ Prior Knowledge
High School
Literature, Social Studies, World History

Ask students what comes to mind when they think about the word “colonialism” and the word “imperialism.” Can they provide any examples? What countries do they think of? What time period? What specifically do they recall about Dutch colonization? British colonization? Can they think of any modern-day colonization/imperialism issues?

Using Photographs to Support a Claim
High School
Literature, Social Studies, World History


The push to colonize Africa began after the mid-nineteenth century. Over the course of roughly 40 years, the leading European powers began their conquest of much of tropical Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Island Pacific. Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, and Portugal waged wars abroad, either building new empires or enlarging already existing ones. This time of empire building and expansion is also known as the “new imperialism,” in which the countries previously mentioned, plus Japan and the United States, conquered societies that lacked comparable wealth or military strength. Even though the ethnic societies that were invaded devised a variety of strategies to defend themselves, by the early 1900s, the invading forces had gained sufficient control to start organizing colonial governments and extracting exportable resources.


  • I can articulate how photography served to define, support, and eventually undermine colonialist agendas.
  • I can identify conditions that led to nationalist movements.
  • I can describe the impact that photography had on colonialism.
  • I can write from differing perspectives about colonialism.
  • I can identify different methods of resistance to colonialism in different countries.

Source: EEPA 1977-0001-374, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

Colonialism is the term used to describe the establishment, exploitation, maintenance, acquisition, and expansion of colonies in one territory by people from another territory. It is a set of unequal relationships between the colonial power and the colony, and often between the colonists and the indigenous population. Similarly, imperialism, as it is defined by the Dictionary of Human Geography, is an unequal human and territorial relationship, usually in the form of an empire, based on ideas of superiority and practices of dominance, and involving the extension of authority and control of one state or people over another.

In 1830, France invaded and captured the North African port city of Algiers. King Charles X of France was motivated more by political prestige than by any clear strategic aim, as he (and few other European leaders) had little knowledge of the African interior. During this time, France focused on “civilizing” Algeria, and as a result, Algerian culture suffered. Algeria became a destination for thousands of European immigrants, who later became known as Pied-Noirs, or “black feet,” referring to people of French or other European ancestry. Many of these settlers migrated to Africa—not to work or serve temporarily, but to establish permanent communities where they expected to live a European lifestyle. They routinely displaced African farmers by legal or illegal means and with full colonial government support. Most of the country’s Arabic and Berber-speaking Muslim majority was reduced to the status of landless, and depended on earning small wages working for European agribusiness. Settlers expected the European colonial government to protect them and grant them economic opportunities and social privileges that the majority of the population was not entitled to. European settlers also enjoyed political power that went way beyond their numbers in terms of total population.

During roughly the same time, the British were capitalizing off of their ownership of India. As a British imperial possession, the population of more than 250 million (compared to a mere 31 million in Britain) offered many opportunities for obtaining goods and money. Iron and steel plants were created, and soon India was supplying tons of rail stock to the colonial transport authority. These rail lines were used to export growing amounts of tropical groceries and “drug foods,” such as sugar, coffee, tea, cocoa, tobacco, and opium, to places where wealthy urban classes could afford them. Cotton, too, was a popular crop, especially in India, and was exported in great quantities, and especially during the American Civil War. As a result, investors opened millions of acres of land in both India and Algeria to commercial farming. The movement of once self-sufficient farmers into agricultural wage work most often led to poverty.

Begin the Activity

Source: Tropenmuseum of the Royal Tropical Institute, KIT

Part 1: Newspaper Report
Students may work either individually or in groups. Hand out copies of the images or project them. Tell students that they are working for a major newspaper, and their field photographers have just developed these images. It is now their job to write an article based on one of two views:

  • They are writing from the European viewpoint to support the economic, cultural, religious, and political opportunities that colonial ventures offered. They want to encourage fellow Europeans to consider purchasing products from the colony—and possibly moving there—because of the wealth of economic opportunity.


  • They are writing from the viewpoint of the colonized, in protest of colonization. They want to persuade Europeans to stop purchasing products from the colony or moving there because of the damage it is causing to their society.

Ask students what they will need to know about the images to write the article. Encourage them to cite where in the image or in their research they can support their comments in their article.

Throughout the activity, ask students to keep the RAFT acronym in mind:

R: Role. Identify possible roles. What role are they taking on?

A: Audience. Identify possible audiences. (For example, not everyone in the colonized country would be against the colonizers.)

F: Format. What format will they be using? (In this case, it’s a newspaper article.)

T: Topic. For their topic (colonization), be sure they choose strong verbs. They are writing to persuade, argue, support, etc.

Questions to Consider

  • What is the perspective or point of view of the photographs? What is emphasized and how (such as objects or props, placement of people, relationship of people to objects or architecture, relationships between people)?
  • Do you think these photos were posed or candid? What message, story, or experience is the photographer trying to relay to the viewer?
  • What aspects of the scene in the photograph can be manipulated to promote colonialist views?
  • Why do you think colonization happened to the extent that it did?
  • What events set up conditions that were favorable for colonization to take place?

Part 2: Design a Poster
Working in small groups, have students design and create a poster that either supports or criticizes colonialism. Invite students to use the photographs that were used in the newspaper activity. This poster could be used to persuade politicians, tourists, business owners, or any other relevant group from the period. These posters could be displayed alongside the newspaper articles, or independently.

Source: National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, NAA INV 06043800

Extension Activity

Literature Connection
Nigerian author Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, focuses on the clash between colonialism and traditional African culture. The story chronicles the life of Okonkwo, a tribal leader who struggles to accept the changes that white colonizers bring to his village. In partnership with the language arts teacher, have students read Achebe’s novel and consider the myriad moral and ethical dilemmas that are explored. Ask students why they think this novel is still relevant today.

Defining Colonialism
High School
Literature, Social Studies, World History


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.


  • 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.

Photographer: Jessie Tarbox Beals
Source: Missouri History Museum, St. Louis

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.

Source: Missouri History Museum, St. Louis

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.

Responses to Colonization: Africa and India
High School
Literature, Social Studies, World History


After World War II Britain and France, weakened economically and militarily, had fewer resources with which to operate their colonies and diminished strength for suppressing colonial revolts. These European powers, ever more eager for financial gain, intensified exploitation of colonies such as India and Algeria, fueling the flames of nationalism. Ultimately, the colonizers would be ousted. India gained its independence 1947 and Algeria in 1962.


  • I can identify similar themes found in photographs.
  • I can use photographs to identify responses to colonization.
  • I can use photographs to compare and contrast responses to colonization.
  • I can explain how photographs can be used to promote a specific ideology.
  • I can write persuasively to support a claim.

Photographer: © Nicolas Tikhomiroff
Source: Magnum Photos

In Algeria, people of European origin constituted a minority of about 15 percent of the population, and fiercely opposed the idea of Algerian independence. France considered the territory to be more than merely a dependent colony, but a permanent part of France. There was a large economic and social disparity between the privileged, mostly city-dwelling European minority and the Muslim population of peasants and urban workers. Therefore, the French government refused to follow a majority rule. As a consequence, there were eight years of violent war. The National Liberation Front (FLN) demanded a sovereign, democratic, and socialist Algeria founded on Islamic ideals. Facing a very expensive fight, France began negotiations with the FLN in 1960, and independence was gained in 1962. Untold thousands of Muslim civilians were killed by French attacks and bombing raids, and more than 2 million Algerians were forced to relocate to French concentration camps or to flee to surrounding countries, where many thousands more died of starvation and disease.

For additional background on Algeria and India, see the activity called Using Photographs to Support a Claim. See also References and Further Reading.

Begin the Activity

Source: Bettmann/Corbis/AP Images

Part 1: If Pictures Could Talk
Students may work either individually or in groups. Hand out copies of the images or project them. Tell students that they will translate the photo(s) into a narrative interview. Decide which character(s) in the photo(s) will be interviewed, and what they might say. The script should contain questions from the reporter and responses from the character(s) being interviewed. Have students consider the following questions:

Questions to Consider

  • What clues can I detect in the photographs that indicate a specific response to colonialism?
  • How do these photographs contribute effectively to this response?
  • How could these photographs be used to promote a specific ideology?
  • Who would create these photographs and for what purposes?

Part 2: Compare and Contrast
Students may work either individually or in groups. Hand out copies of the images or project them. Ask students to describe what they see. Have them take notes on what they notice in the photographs, and then identify clues that might suggest differing responses to seeking independence from colonialism.

Series Directory

Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum


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