Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 24, 2023
Gabrielle Moser Projecting Citizenship: Photography and Belonging in the British Empire University Park: Penn State University Press, 2019. 248 pp.; 64 b/w ills. Paper $37.95 (9780271081281)

As the twenty-first century progresses, imperial ties continue to loosen, but not without controversy and protest: the recent coronation of Charles III, for example, was greeted with enthusiasm by many—but not all—of his British subjects, and around Britain’s former imperial territories has prompted critical reflection on the legacies of British governance, including invasion, violence, slavery, and many other cultural practices and institutions now more universally recognized as exploitative and oppressive. The proposal that loyal subjects everywhere pledge their allegiance out loud to the King was greeted with particular astonishment, although some welcomed this as a participatory and inclusive new ritual. Moser’s book seems especially timely, then, in examining a set of visual pedagogical technologies aiming to create imperial ties across global territories, in the very different climate of one century ago.

The core archive of this innovative study is a set of seven geography lectures circulated by the Colonial Office Visual Instruction Committee (COVIC), founded in 1902. The COVIC photographic archive comprises more than 3000 photographs to teach schoolchildren across the British Empire “what it meant to look and to feel like an imperial citizen at the beginning of the twentieth century” (xi). Each lecture began from the viewers’ home country and then journeyed through one of the empire’s chief territories, showing its people and streets, in seeking to create a sense of belonging as an imperial citizen. In this book Gabrielle Moser seeks to reconstruct this project—and its reception by local people who may have contested its use in imperial governance. As Moser explains, this entails a deep understanding of the archival processes which make these images available to us in the present, and she develops a deliberately speculative approach in imagining viewer encounters.

In her introduction Moser locates her study within the exciting body of work that has emerged over the last decade arguing for photography’s privileged status in helping us understand relationships between citizens, between citizens and noncitizens, and between people and the state through dynamic visual practices. Legal definitions of citizenship refer to the formal status of recognized subject of a state or commonwealth, as well as a relationship between an individual and a state that confers access to equal civil, political, and social rights. However, as Moser explains, British imperial citizenship has been “uniquely fuzzy and vague” (9): only after the Second World War was the British Nationality Act of 1948 passed, but this provided only for the status of British subject and offered few rights. Instead, former colonies such as Canada and Australia subsequently passed their own laws establishing the category of national citizenship. Moser therefore addresses imperial citizenship as a broad field of approaches and perspectives that is contingent and dynamic, and formed, debated, and shared across a wide range of cultural processes and relationships—rather than focusing upon narrowly legal definitions of citizenship.

While it might seem anachronistic to deploy a category that did not formally exist throughout the period examined, Moser’s conceptual framework draws power from Ariella Azoulay’s influential The Civil Contract of Photography (Zone Books, 2008) in insisting on the emancipatory potential—as well as the limits—of the medium to provide a form of civil spectatorship. “Visual citizenship” has come to refer to people’s use of visual images to identify and define the rights and responsibilities attached to citizenship status, and an active mode of engagement in which an imagined political community is produced by all participants including the viewer. Visual citizenship is both an active skill, and a means of defining relations between people and state. Moser is careful to problematize these processes, asking about the limits of photography and drawing from conceptual frameworks which attend to the medium’s circulation and social impact. She asks what people do with images, and attends to the diverse material, social, and cultural circumstances in which we view them, seeking to consider both the image’s content and its use value. A central concept for Moser is pedagogy—both in the sense of classroom teaching but also more broadly as a form of cultural politics into which all are indoctrinated as a technology of colonial governance. Where much theorization of photography and rights has focused on moments of crisis or trauma, Moser foregrounds the banal, and ordinary colonial environments, to chart the appearance or invisibility of imperial citizens.

Following Azoulay’s concept of the photographic scene with its multiple participants, the book is structured around the experiences of the spectator, the photographer, and the subject—and of the archive itself—in their encounter with the COVIC lectures. Her first chapter, “The Spectator: Projecting Imperial Citizens in England and India” examines how the lectures were produced in the historical context of imperial representation. Intended to prompt self-reflexive responses among its viewers, these comprised one banal, and one exotic narrative, aiming to show diversity in the pursuit of demonstrating imperial citizenship’s all-encompassing capacity.

Chapter two, “The Photographer: Looking Along the Archival Grain in Canada” examines the function of the archive and its status as a site of disruption as well as of imperial knowledge-formation. Starting with photographer Alfred Hugh Fisher’s journey up the Ottawa River, this chapter focuses on interactions between photographer and subjects, and the cultural contestations they reveal. Reading both against and with the archival organization of Fisher’s twenty-nine-album collection, held in the Cambridge University Library (we are told elsewhere that Fisher made more than 7,600 images for COVIC between 1907 and 1910), Moser attends both to what is omitted from the final lecture selections, as well as the instabilities revealed within the archive’s formal organization. Images of local police forces, for example, signal both the (re)production of citizens but also betray anxieties about belonging and citizenship.

Moser’s third chapter, “The Subject: Developing the Image of the Indentured Laborer,” examines the recurring figure of the low-wage laborer (referred to pejoratively as “coolies”) across the COVIC project, usually represented as a woman laborer, and the inclusion of indentured labor within the logic of imperial citizenship. As an outcome of the abolition of slavery by Britain in 1833, new forms of unfree labor proliferated, and Moser suggests that photographs of women laborers provided a troubling reminder of the hypocrisies of colonial rule. She explores how these images both reveal slavery’s legacies in the form of slavery-like practices and pose an unacknowledged problem for COVIC editors in accounts of Britain’s former slave colonies. Adopting a psychoanalytical approach, Moser argues for this motif as the negative repressed obverse of the imperial citizen—and explores its consequent political potential in offering a “latent critique”—which may then be developed by more savvy or critical viewers of the project.

Chapter five, “The Archive: Residues of Noncitizens in the COVIC Archive” examines the controversy surrounding so-called Komagatu Maru incident in which Canada refused a shipload of immigrants in 1914. Visual imagery of emigrants was deployed both by those claiming rights and those denying them, signaling both the plasticity but also the limits of imperial citizenship. The final chapter explores the legacies of this history through the nonprofit organization Autograph APB’s narration of Black immigration into Britain. Moser sounds a final note of warning, in arguing that merely recognizing citizens does not serve to confer or police their access to rights.

A notable strength of Moser’s study is her careful, close reading of the rich visual material—allowing us to really engage with her perspective, and her often complex arguments. Sometimes Moser’s own voice is somewhat drowned out by the (primarily US-based) theoreticians she draws upon throughout. Although appreciating the limits of evidence for responses to the ephemeral events staged by lantern-slide lectures, the examples Moser does find of audience responses are precious—such as when one Ghanaian headmaster observed that it was difficult to explain a lecture about maritime travel to students who had never seen the sea—and reinforce the application of Azoulay’s apparatus. Moser’s nuanced, sophisticated, and data-rich analysis has much to offer art historians and scholars of photography, citizenship, and imperialism, and deserves to be very widely read.

Jane Lydon
Professor, Wesfarmers Chair in Australian History, University of Western Australia