Congo Free State, 1904: Humanitarian Photographs

Between 1904-1908, the photographs of Alice Harris (1870-1970) were a chief component in efforts to raise European and North American public awareness about atrocities committed in King Leopold’s colony, l’Etat Indépendent du Congo (or the Congo Free State). Alice and her husband, John, worked as missionaries for the British based Congo Balolo Mission since shortly after their 1898 marriage. Her pictures represent an early form of what is today considered humanitarian photography: “the mobilization of photography in the service of humanitarian initiatives across state boundaries” (Fehrenbach and Rodogno 2015: p. 1). King Leopold II of Belgium surreptitiously acquired a great proportion of the Congo River basin essentially as his own personal colony with the Berlin Act of 1885 (Grant 2001; Hochschild 1999). He framed his engagement into Africa as a humanitarian action by claiming it to be in the best interests of the Congolese people since it was meant to eradicate the “Arab” slave trade that operated out of the northeastern part of the continent. That Belgium hosted the signing of the anti-slavery Brussels Conference Act of 1890 undoubtedly added currency to his rhetoric. Colonial operations involved African forces under the direction of European officers applying violent tactics to local Congolese labourers, their families and entire communities to coerce them into collecting wild rubber, ivory and palm oil, or to penalize them when they did not meet their demands regarding quantities or time.

Nsala of Wala looks at the severed hand and foot of his five-year old daughter (1904). From photograh taken at Baringa, Congo state, May 15, 1904 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Through the Congo Reform Association (CRA) that formed in 1904, the Harrises worked together with E.D. Morel, a British shipping clerk and journalist, to bring public attention to the atrocities in the colony. Additional public knowledge came with the release of the damning Congo Report (1904). The CRA’s campaigns leaned heavily on photographs as an act of witnessing, and to provide evidence of atrocities. Alice Harris’ photographs were and continue to be the most circulated pictures of flogging, chain ganging, and mutilation (Thompson 2007; Twomey 2012). Her images were published in Morel's monthly West African Mail and in his books King Leopold's Rule in Africa and Red Rubber. They were also included in Mark Twain’s 1905 King Leopold’s Soliloquy, and other secular press publications. The Harrises presented the photographs along with stories of atrocities through missionary pamphlets and in popular lantern lectures that they toured across Britain and the United States (Grant 2001). The context and discourses in which the pictures were mobilized generated diverse emotional sentiments that supported the campaign.

Due in large part to public and political pressure, Leopold lost control of the Congo. In 1908, it was transferred to the Belgian government as the Belgian Congo (Pavlakis 2010). The Congo reform campaign has been characterized as the “largest humanitarian movement in British imperial politics during the late Victorian and Edwardian eras” (Grant 2001: p. 28). The CRA’s reach was international, in part because it recalled and revived the abolitionist campaigns of the mid nineteenth century. Although the CRA eventually folded, Morel’s call for property and free trade rights for the Congolese has resulted in this moment being characterized as the childhood of human rights (Sliwinski 2011).

Mutilated children and adults from Congo (c.1900-1905). From Alice Harris [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

While the photographs that circulated with the Congo reform campaign could, as John Harris said of his wife’s photographs, “rouse any audience to an outburst of rage,” they also reveal a set of problematics that are potential with all humanitarian photographs (and photographs of atrocity more generally).

First, campaign photographs are a product of the dominant ideologies of their time. Atrocity photographs have been rightly criticized for reinforcing stereotypes and exaggerating differences in accordance with contemporary racial ideologies and colonial ideas of civilization and progress. Likewise, the photographs inspired engagement by appealing to a shared common humanity, while simultaneously requiring authentication from European interlocutors (Twomey 2012). Second, the use of these photographs may reveal contradictory motivations. For instance, interests in ending violence in the Congo did not include a broader appeal to ending global structures of political violence. Rather, reform appeals supported British missionary and commercial interests that were articulated to notions of humanitarianism that themselves stemmed from Christianity and liberal capitalism (Grant 2001).

Third, unintended emotional responses might emerge from these photographs at the expense of victims’ suffering; they can feed into perceptions of certain bodies being exotically sexual or endemically violent. There is also the danger that these photographs generate pleasure in seeing the pain of others, or moral righteousness on the part of spectators by affecting a ‘proper’ response to the suffering of others (Haltunnen 1995).

Undoubtedly, Alice Harris’ photographs had an affective force rivaling other media in representing the otherwise unrepresentable (e.g., pain, resilience), and to politicize suffering by linking it to the policies of Leopold’s rule. Several photographic forms produced and circulated by the Harrises and the CRA have since become iconographic, while others recall religious iconography that prefigured the invention of photography. Flogging re-enactments recall religious imagery of Christ being treated similarly, while chain-gang photographs recall slavery illustrations from the abolitionist era (Peffer 2008). Photographs such as those of individual Congolese pictured with severed limbs against a white backdrop for maximum visual effect reemerge during Sierra Leone’s civil war from 1991-2000, directly referencing atrocities committed in the Conge Free State. As Alice Harris’ photographs continue to circulate in historiographies and critiques about the humanitarian movement, they have become—like all humanitarian photographs—a point of entry into exploring trajectories of the concept, practice and politics of humanitarianism. The continuities in visual forms from the time of the CRA to today are suggestive of the complex webs of relations across space and time that ultimately constitute contemporary forms of humanitarian action.

Further reading

The list references historical and theoretical streams of scholarship. Included are references to histories of the Harrises, the Congo Reform Association, and of humanitarian photography more generally. Additional sources provide historically grounded cultural theories of humanitarian and atrocity photography.

Short Biographical Note on Contributor

Sonya de Laat is a visual artist and PhD candidate in Media Studies at Western University in London, ON, Canada. She is also Research Coordinator for the Humanitarian Healthcare Ethics research group at McMaster University. In treating photography as an event, she is interested in exploring the medium’s role in constituting modern humanitarianism and in being a source of unique knowledge on the politics of humanitarian action. In tracing the situations, commotions and relations associated with archival and recent humanitarian photographs, Sonya claims that the medium offers new perspectives on humanitarianism past and present. Her dissertation, “Regarding Aid: The Photographic Situation of Humanitarianism,” is financially supported by the Ontario Graduate Scholarship. Sonya was a participant of the Global Humanitarianism Research Academy (GHRA) 2015.