Capturing Tibet: Colonialism and the Camera – A Curatorial Reflection

This week I was lucky enough to be in McLeod Ganj, a hill station in Himachal Pradesh, India for the opening of the exhibition, Capturing Tibet: Colonialism and the Camera, an exhibition I curated for The Tibet Museum using the Tibet collections at World Museum.

Promoting Capturing Tibet in McLeod Ganj
The exhibition features more than 200 photographs taken during the 1903-04 British-led Mission to Tibet. Commonly known as the Younghusband Expedition – named after the Mission’s leader, Colonel (late Sir) Francis Younghusband (1863-1942) – the Mission set out from the hill stations of British India as a trade delegation, but as negotiations stalled and the British moved further and further into Tibet the Mission descended into a military invasion. As they made their way to Lhasa the British killed hundreds of Tibetans during several battles, and looted and destroyed monasteries and estates.

The main focus of the exhibition falls on two photograph albums created by colonial officers following their return to British-controlled India. The first includes images taken by the official Mission photographer, John Claude White (1853-1918), and the second is a compilation of more informal images by several photographers, including John Claude White, army medic Gerald Irvine Davys and colonial administrator Charles Bell (1870-1945).* This is the first time both albums have been shown in their entirety. Both albums belonged to Charles Bell and are now in the Charles Bell collection at National Museums Liverpool.

Historical photographs like those in Capturing Tibet are regularly posted on Facebook, Weibo and Twitter by Tibetans, making them an important visual commodity for Tibetan netizens.  Yet, they are often isolated. They are separated from the books they have been published in or the archival collections they are part of and their historical context is regularly silenced, that is, any information on the event that led to the taking of the photograph is very often missing. It was then important for me to return some of the most iconic images of Tibet to the moments they were taken by British officers as they advanced into Tibet in 1903-04. Most importantly, I wanted to show these images in a space accessible to a large Tibetan community, allowing Tibetans to see these images not just as representations of old Tibet, but as a useful archive of historical evidence. This bi-lingual exhibition (in Tibetan and English) has been designed so that it requires a minimal amount of installation and transportation, making it much easier for the Tibet Museum to tour the exhibition to other Tibetan settlements in India. This will give Tibetans living throughout India the opportunity to see these images and think about their significance in recording an important moment in early 20th century Tibetan history.

Although these images are available on-line via World Museum’s on-line collection pages, it is clear to me that many Tibetans who visited the exhibition were not aware of Liverpool’s collection, nor were they aware that so many photographs were taken during the British invasion. Lhakpa Kyizom,  a reporter for Voice of America covered the exhibition opening. She spoke to one visitor who voiced his surprise at the number of photographs in the exhibition. He  thought that only one photograph was taken during the Mission to Tibet and on seeing the photographs he told Lhakpa Kyizom that he was going to bring his children to the exhibition, so they could see for themselves.

The albums were reproduced at actual size for the exhibition

Raising awareness and re-imagining the roles of Tibetan objects and images by making colonial era collections available to Tibetan communities is an important aim of Object Lessons, but even I have to admit that I was not expecting the affect of this exhibition to be quite so immediate! What it does show is the importance of taking collections-based research produced in Europe’s museums and universities out of the institution. In this case, exhibiting reproductions of the albums that closely match the scale and order of the originals allows Tibetan visitors to approach material and visual culture in new ways and to see how these iconic photographs are part of a much larger web of images that were archived together to create a specific (colonial) visual narrative. This is something Christopher Pinney refers to as, ‘a collective photographic practice to systematically order reality though the “archive”‘ (Pinney 2013, 125). Having the opportunity to see the original sequence of photographs in each album and to experience this ordering of the Tibetan world by British officers provides a very different visual experience from that offered by the often isolating practices of social media platforms.

Furthermore, the actual process of viewing the albums – the physical act of turning pages and making connections between images – provides an unexpected materiality to the image, an idea championed by Elizabeth Edwards. Placed in albums the photographs becomes things, with weight and girth, which viewers come to appreciate as they turn the album’s pages with care – and in the case of the large album – with some effort. This is further reinforced by the delicately performed unpacking and supporting of long gate-folded images by exhibition visitors in order to reveal the expansive panoramas of the Tibetan landscapes and city-scapes folded into the pages of the John Claude White album.

For the exhibition I decided to reproduce the albums without any critical commentary or intervention from me, for example, I did not change the colonial spellings of names and places in the captions. Instead, I used the exhibition panels to highlight a variety of ways the museum goer could approach the images and the albums. I suggested that visitors could:

– Trace the route of the Mission from the Teesta River in Sikkim to Lhasa.
– See how the British portrayed Tibet to the outside world.
– View these images as British propaganda and intelligence gathering.
– Identify Tibetan, Chinese and Himalayan officials photographed by the British.
– Understand how Tibetans reacted to the arrival of the British.
– Think about these photographs as an archive of people and places.

John Claude White captioned this photograph, “View in Lhassa. Looking towards the Jo Khang.” There is no mention of the crowd that had gathered to protect the Jokhang from the British. “Album 1”, Charles Bell collection, 50.31.148 National Museums Liverpool.

Alongside the overarching concepts, I also highlighted ideas of colonial violence in relation to animal labour (several thousand yaks, mules and ponies died during the mission due to disease, starvation and exhaustion) and importantly I wanted to highlight Tibetan resistance. In her new book, Photography and Tibet Clare Harris warns against viewing the Lhasa albums as simply reflecting, ‘colonialist supremacy in visual and military terms,’ as, ‘such a reading may overlook some of the finer details of history’ (Harris 2016, 62). I then, particularly wanted to draw attention to things ignored by the British when their photographs were published back in Britain. This is most obvious in the exhibition panel entitled, Lhasa. In this panel I chose two photographs that show Tibetan crowds confronting the camera and resisting the British presence in Lhasa. Despite these very obvious human shields creating a barrier between the British and the scenes they were trying to capture, John Claude White chose to ignore the presence of the Tibetans when he sat down to write the captions for these photographs. To a small extent then, this exhibition places Tibetans and their actions back into the visual narrative of a contested colonial encounter.


* It is interesting to note that although Bell did not take part in the Mission to Tibet, he nevertheless inserted images of himself  – taken during his tenure as Assistant Political Officer in Chumbi Valley (Dromo) – into the unofficial Mission album he created using photographs taken by several Mission photographers. 


Exhibition Details:

Capturing Tibet: Colonialism and the Camera during the Mission to Lhasa

14th April – 24th May 2017

The Tibet Museum, Temple Complex, McLeod Ganj, H.P., India


Bibliographic References

Edwards, Elizabeth and Janice Hart (eds.) (2004), Photographs Objects Histories: On the Materiality of Images Routledge.

Harris, Clare (2016), Photography and Tibet Reaktion Books Ltd.

Pinney, Christopher (2013), ‘Some Indian “Views of India”: The Ethics of Representation,’ in Nakamura, Fuyubi, Morgan Perkins and Olivier Krisher (eds.) Asia through Art and Anthropology Bloomsbury Publishing, pp: 123-133.


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