Decolonizing Irish Photo-Archives: Anti-imperialism and Human Rights in Roger Casement’s photographs of the Putumayo Atrocities

Justin Carville

Keywords: Colonial governmentality; Putumayo atrocities; Imaging Human Rights; Empire; Decolonialism

Participation: presential

As what Friedrich Engels described as England’s fist colony, Ireland’s place within British imperial culture has received little scholarly attention beyond the role of settler, Anglo-Irish politicians and military commanders in shaping policies of colonial administration in Asia, Africa and the Middle- East. The absence of Ireland’s place within histories of British imperialism is most notable in history of photography were Ireland is either ignored as a distinct colony or subsumed into the achievements of English photography. Despite this lacuna of Ireland’s contribution to the cultural politics of visualising imperialism, the Irish contributed extensively to imperial imaginary throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Early amateur photographers were amongst the first to incorporate photography into the antiquarian and archaeological pursuits on The Grand Tours, and some of the earliest commercial photographers in parts of the British empire were Irish soldiers deployed to colonies overseas. One of the few figures to be associated with histories of photography and imperialism, the diplomat Roger Casement, has been identified as pioneering figure in the emergence of photography within human rights discourse through his inclusion of photograph’s in his 1903 Congo report. However, Casement’s use of photography in his exposure of human rights abuses of the Putumayo Indians in the aftermath of his journey along the Peruvian Amazon in 1910, has received less attention in accounts of photography and imperialism. Casement bought a camera for his investigation into the abuses of the Peruvian Amazon Company, and took over 12 rolls of film of which only a small number of photographs remain in Irish archives. Of the photographs that are known to exist, Casement demonstrated not only a desire to document the plight of the Putumayo Indians but also an awareness of photography’s capacity to disclose simultaneously the brutality of racial regimes of capitalism, and the humanity of those it subjugated. In particular, Casement evidenced the potential of photography to influence geo-political relations of imperialism by compiling and supplementing his own photographs with those of others into a dossier designed to influence American political relations with the region. In this paper I explore this aspect of Casement’s use of photography through his archive of photographs in Ireland and those images he compiled and sent to British consular offices in Washington. Drawing on Foucault’s concept of ‘counter-conducts,’ the paper discusses Casement’s photographs of Putumayo atrocities through the entanglements of colonial governmentality and anti-imperialism. Positioning Casement’s photographs within the geo-political tensions of empire, the paper argues that his mobilisation of photography as a form of radical disclosure of human rights abuses provided a space for what Foucault describes as the ‘insurrection of subjugated knowledge’ and voices to emerge as an oppositional visual articulation to imperialism.


Justin Carville teaches Historical and Theoretical Studies in Photography at the Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Dun Laoghaire. A former Government of Ireland Senior Research Scholar in the Humanities and Social Sciences, he has published essays in; Afterimage, Source, Circa, Next Level, The Journal of Early Popular Culture, Photography & Culture, The Journal of European Studies and Modernist Cultures. His publications include Photography and Ireland (Reaktion, 2011) and as editor Visualizing Dublin: Visual Culture, Modernity and the Representation of Urban Space