The Colonial Album


Archive Case
9 January – 8 April 2012

Colonial Album
Album cover, Percy Coriat, Sudan,
1928–1931 [2007.34.3]
This exhibition shows how very ‘ordinary’ albums from the colonial period can provide a unique insight into the colonial experience. Colonial albums are common, owned by many families who were involved in colonial activities, such as administration, missions, engineering, medical work or teaching. They are now recognised as important historical documents, and yet they are rarely seen.

The albums exhibited were produced by Percy Coriat, Ernest Emley and William Freer Hill between 1905 and 1935, and relate to periods spent in Sudan, Kenya, and Nigeria respectively. All three use photography as a tool to communicate and record the relationships between different cultures within a colonial context.

On the surface colonial albums are very similar, yet they reveal different experiences of the colonial past for both the photographer and those photographed. While such photographs sometimes show very difficult histories and encounters, when displayed in their original context they can also complicate how we understand the colonial past and the various kinds of social encounter it involved.

Thinking about the colonial past with these albums reveals different kinds of experiences: political work and hostile relations with the local population dominate Coriat’s photographs; Emley’s albums are more peaceable, showing the every-day nature of the colonial experience; Hill’s photographs are a more distant stereotypical view of Africa – not only in the way in which he photographed local people but the way he later chose two of the more ‘exotic’ images to be reproduced and enlarged.

Ernest Douglas Emley

Album, E. D. Emley, Kenya
Album, E. D. Emley, Kenya, 1914–1948 [2003.132.2]


Ernest Emley’s album, compiled between the First and Second World Wars, reveals the personal relationships between the colonial and the local population. The domestic scenes created by Emley, an administrative officer in the Turkana region of Kenya, are scenes of everyday interaction and life, both for him and for local people. The photographs have the immediate quality of ordinary snapshots.

The way Turkana people are dressed, and how they are posed in front of the camera, is influenced by the colonial administrative aims of ‘civility’ and ‘order’. Images such as these have often been used to show the social and cultural results of colonialism.

It is likely, however, that the people of Turkana in these photographs knew Emley well and have been photographed as a result of personal relationships. It is possible that they also had some influence over how they wished to be represented, not just how Emley saw them. The family portrait, for example, resembles the British family portrait seen on the other page.

Percy Coriat

The albums produced by Percy Coriat in Sudan in the 1920s and 1930s mostly record hisadministrative work and military operations among the Nuer people, who were resistant to colonial control.

Album, Percy Coriat, Sudan
Album, Percy Coriat, Sudan,1928–31 [2007.34.2]


Coriat was a District Commissioner in Nuerland, and is seen in some images in the album alongside the local population. This album has a political narrative, not only within the images themselves but also in the later ‘life’ of the album as people have responded to it. On one of the pages, for instance, a potentially sensitive image has been removed at some point, leaving only the caption to continue Coriat’s original narrative.

The images of Coriat addressing local people show that although this album has a political intensity, reflecting the troubled and hostile situation in Nuerland at the time, there are also nuances of personal relationships (Coriat spoke the local language). Which Nuer people are named and which are not is also significant. Those named in his albums are the local leaders who had to be identified, for political or military reasons, the rest remain unnamed.

William Freer Hill

Album, William Freer Hill, Nigeria
Album, William Freer Hill, Nigeria, 1905–15 [2006.79.1]
William Hill was an engineer, working on and photographing the building of the railways in Nigeria, between 1905 and 1915.

His album has been produced with a clear intention to be seen by others, to narrate his overall experience in Africa – he had worked earlier on the railways in South Africa. It has been put together with great care and the photographs carefully composed. In this way the album can be contrasted with the others shown here.

The photographic compositions have an aesthetic quality, which generalises his experience and bring a romantic quality to the colonial past. This aestheticresponse is demonstrated in the way that two images of a‘timeless Africa’ of the imagination, such as that ‘Pagan hunter’
Pagan hunter’. Print enlargement. William Freer Hill,
Nigeria, 1905–1915
captioned ‘Pagan Hunter’, have been chosen forenlargement and singular treatment, aestheticized and isolated from the narrative of the album.


Exhibition curated by Jaina Mistry, Elizabeth Edwards and Christopher Morton, as part of the project ‘Photographs, Colonial Legacy and Museums in Contemporary European Culture (PhotoCLEC)’, funded by Humanities in the European Research Area (HERA), with additional support from De Montfort University. Exhibition design by Jon Eccles.