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CLACS Caribbean Studies Seminar Series actively promotes intellectual engagement and knowledge exchange by providing scholars - including postgraduate students and early career researchers - with the opportunity to present their interdisciplinary, comparative and integrated research on the Caribbean.

Photos and Phantasms: Decolonizing institutional archives and Harry Johnston’s photographs of the Caribbean (1908 – 1909)

Speaker: Joanne Norcup (Yesu Persaud Centre for Caribbean Studies, University of Warwick) 

Photos and Phantasms: Harry Johnston’s photographs of the Caribbean 1908 – 1909 was a 1998 British Council funded international touring exhibition. It comprised of 70 photographs selected from over 200 photographic glass-plate negatives that had been rediscovered in 1995 boxed and uncatalogued where they had been deposited in the basement archive of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) after the death of the originator of the images - Sir Harry Hamilton Johnston - in 1927. The exhibition was unprecedented: a rare collection of colonial-era images exemplifying the diversity, ingenuity, and dignity of the everyday lives of African Caribbean people at the turn of the 20th century and was described by Pat Bishop as “punctuation marks in history, portraying working class Africans as being aware of their power despite the common notion that slavery had left them powerless.”1  Until 1998 the photographs had never been on public display. After its press launch in London in March, the exhibition toured the Caribbean countries of Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, Cuba and Haiti between April and October 1998. From the outset, Photos and Phantasms was more than just the exhibition. Touring the images in their countries of origin was also a means through which to repatriate complete sets of the exhibition photographs to gift to the national cultural collection of each country 90 years after the photographs had been taken. In every country toured, lectures and workshops with local artists, historians, and academics were run alongside the exhibition to engage students and public visitors with the materials. The intention was very much for Caribbean people to enrich and re-narrate personal, national, and regional histories with these vital visual artefacts. The originators of the exhibition – a collaboration between the then picture library keeper of the RGS, Joanna Scaddens; head of the Visual Arts Department of the British Council, Brett Rogers; and led by Jamaican-British artist, academic and curator, Dr Petrine Archer-Straw, envisioned what might, 25 years later, be seen as an avant la lettre decolonising the archives project.

This seminar will introduce the origin story of the photographs and exhibition before attending to the afterlives of both the exhibition and its photographs. It will consider the geographies of reception the exhibition received in London and across the Caribbean during and after it toured, and how attempts to veto the exhibition were successfully challenged. In doing so, this presentation will critically explore where, who, and how certain geographies and institutions benefitted from the recovery of the photographs, discuss the mercurial nature of colonial photographic archives, and ask questions of the geographies of race, archival practices and inequality that persist in a digital age. This allows broader discussions to be made regarding the ways contemporary cultural repatriation projects are envisioned and enacted.

Dr Joanne Norcup is an independent researcher and writer who works as Associate Lecturer in the Geography department of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the Open University and Honorary Research Fellow in the Yesu Persaud Centre for Caribbean Studies, University of Warwick. Dr Norcup’s interdisciplinary research attends to the global historical geographies of education and knowledge-making, archives, public libraries, and popular cultures with particular focus on anti-racism in the 19th and 20th centuries. This research was funded by a British Academy small grant.

1 Pat Bishop quoted at the launch event of the exhibition in Trinidad from the article ’Bishop proud of photo exhibit’ Sunday Express (Trinidad) May 17th 1998.p22.

Seminar Programme
Autumn term
10 October 2023
7 November 2023  
5 December 2023            
Spring term

Eve Hayes de Kalaf (IHR) and Jack Webb (Manchester)

The Caribbean Studies Seminar Series is organised by the Centre for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CLACS) in collaboration with Race, Roots and Resistance (University of Manchester)

All are welcome to attend this free seminar, which will be held online via Zoom at 16:00 GMT. You will need to register in advance to receive the online joining link. Please click on the Book Now button at the top of the page to register.

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