Postcards from Zambia (1)
The evolution of photography and the history of Zambia show some intriguing parallels, not only in their timelines but also in the way they reflect moments in world history, their paths crossing in often extraordinary ways. This book provides documentary photographs of the country and in the process reflects the culmination of those two histories, of photography and Zambia. By extrapolation it charts a course for the next phase of the country’s journey from colonialism through independence to a liberal future, and coincidently points the way to a much needed new genre in its photographic voyage.
In 1855 David Livingstone became the first European to set eyes on Mosi-oa-Tunya, the waterfalls he christened Victoria Falls, a decade after European expeditionary photography took hold. From there, the fortunes of photography and of the area to become Zambia take on the twists and turns of the mighty Zambezi itself, where their paths first crossed.
Subsequent occupation, colonisation, independence, black oppression, world wars, and the whimsical fortunes of copper all interweave in the narration of the country, subjects that have also become the philosophical drivers of social documentary photography and made some of the world’s great photographers, including a few from Southern Africa.
This book is called Postcards from Zambia because postcards play a symbolic role in the history of photography and the colonial projects of European countries.
There was a relatively reliable photographic process by 1839 called the daguerreotype, which created an image rather like a picture on a mirror; Talbot’s paper-negative calotype closely followed in 1840. By 1846, a camera was considered essential for colonial expeditions, but it was not until the ‘wet-plate’ collodian process, developed by mid-1851, that expeditionary photography became practicable (Ryan, 28).
Forest Residence: Itetzi-Tetzi Road
Today, we are rarely conscious of photographs, but in those early times, the issue was: can the image be trusted to be an accurate copy of the subject and, if so, how can it be art? A question that was explored using notions of ‘precision or composition, clarity or idealism and Naturalism or Pictorialism’, culminating in what has been called ‘Victorian aesthetics’ (Bate, 28), an approach that still describes many photographs taken today.
Although photographs were taken in Zambia early in the history of photography, they were not the first in the region, and there may be others undocumented. The earliest surviving photograph taken in southern Africa is of a Native Woman of Sofala, Mozambique, claimed to be Queen Xai Xai, taken by E. Thiésson in 1845 (Haney, 35). Photographic equipment and chemicals were reportedly available in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth from 1847 (36).
The camera arrived in the geographic area now called Zambia with David Livingstone’s brother Charles, the photographer on the Royal Geographic Society’s (RGS) 1858-64 official British expedition to the Zambezi led by David Livingstone. There is one surviving photograph of 40 by Charles, a stereoscopic picture of a baobab, which is in the Livingstone Museum (Ryan, 32). Dr Kirk, also a member of the expedition, was a keen amateur photographer, but he used Talbot’s calotype, and ironically many of his pictures still survive. The expedition did not include Mosi-oa-Tunya.
Although Charles Livingstone was required to photograph ‘characteristic specimens of different tribes’, this was difficult due to lengthy exposure times and the lack of familiarity local people had with being photographed. This may also explain why, in early expeditions, the expeditionary team was not photographed; every picture had to be posed for several minutes.
The first attempt to photograph Mosi-oa-Tunya was by hunter, trader and photographer James Chapman, on an 1859-63 expedition with Thomas Baines after he had been dismissed from Livingstone’s expedition (Ryan, 42). This attempt failed.
By 1879, there were eight coal-fired furnaces producing iron in Maamba (Roberts, 101), and high quality hoes, arrowheads and other equipment were found in the Lozi Kingdom, Western Province, by an English trader in 1853 (103). Elsewhere, early examples of documentary photography surface: John Thomson’s Street Life in London (1877) and Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives (1890) were the start of social documentary photography, focussing on ‘issues of poverty, child labour, abject social housing conditions and the plight of the poor, and other social and political injustices’ (Bate, 49).
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