Family photographs, thorny histories and the archives


Our beloved family stories from our grandparents need to be cherished and remembered. Knowing our family’s history is important to shape who we are, but we must be careful not to romanticise our ancestors. Our own past and History are connected, but then again, in order to understand how people lived in past decades and centuries, we must consider the interconnections between the different groups of people. It is crucial to recognise in the context of a period how people formed, and were part of, societies, cultures, systems, communities and nations, and how they interacted with each other. Therefore, we should not glorify the past, but instead try to understand what happened. This is particularly true of the colonial past and wartime.

Some of us own – or have seen – photographs of our forebears, who were either part of the colonial system (‘colonisers’), under the colonial system (‘colonised’), or migrants coming from the empires or commonwealths. Many of us are aware of portrait photographs during wartimes. These individuals, families and generations were photographed in varied circumstances. These pictures were taken by colonial authorities, army officials, commercial photographers, ethnographers and amateurs, photojournalists and, more recently in the twentieth century, also by family members and friends. First, it might appear that there is only one way to see these portraits; after all, photographs give the impression that what we see is reality, the truth. However, our reading of these images is deeply connected to the stories we have heard about them, and the memories – or transmission of memories – and lives of those who appear on these portraits. It does not mean that these stories are not true, but they are connected to individuals and their memories. In History, we have to distance ourselves from specific individuals’ outlooks, and instead attempt to comprehend how different people and communities lived together (or not) and experienced their surroundings, while understanding how they perceived themselves and the world that they were experiencing.

In March 2023, I organised with Sarah Lewin (Information and Archives Manager) a workshop at the Hampshire Record Office about how to approach these photographs. We had a group of students from the University of Winchester, who specialise in History, Anthropology, Archaeology and Heritage Studies. During the session, I highlighted three examples.

First, a photograph that highlights some recent scandals in Britain. In ‘Hidden histories: Indenture to Windrush’,[1] Maria del Pilar Kaladeen explores the story of her family’s erasure from history, because of the lack of awareness that surrounds the system of indenture in the British Empire that lasted from 1834 to 1917. The photograph that she uses to start her discussion on these issues was taken on 22nd June 1948 and is called ‘Some of the first Immigrants from the Caribbean island of Jamaica arrive at Tilbury, London, on board the Empire Windrush’. She explains how the indenture system brought her ancestors from India to the Caribbean, and later her father from Guyana (then British Guiana) to the United Kingdom in 1961, as a Windrush-era migrant. She refers to her father as an “invisible passenger”.

The second example takes place towards the end of the violent conquest of Algeria by the French (1827-1857), with a photograph taken by the famous French photographer Félix Jacques Antoine Moulin. ‘Si Mohammed Ben Saharaoui, Lieutenant Breugnot, Docteur Maffre, Miloud Ben Messaoud, Oran’,[2] taken in 1856-57, is a portrait of military and medical officials with local Algerian chiefs. It gives the impression of a partnership between the newly established colonial authorities and local populations. However, this was not the case. The conquest was done through atrocities and the establishment of the French rule was anything but easy and peaceful.

The third example comes again from what appears to be an authoritative group portrait; this time during a British military campaign to Burma (now Myanmar). Willoughby Wallace Hooper’s ‘Group of officers of the Burmah Expeditionary Force on board the Tenasserim’[3] is a typical photograph that some people would have in their family albums, and a ‘positive’ narrative around this type of portrait of a great-grandparent is common amongst the construction of the remembering of our ancestors. However, once again, these military and colonial campaigns were often about annexation of territories and the subjugation of people. In this case, what is also significant is that the photographer, Hooper – who was also an army officer – was known for his photographs of dying Indian people from famines, that were partly caused by the colonial system (Madras famines of 1876-78).[4] Following the Burma campaign (1885-86), he was subject to a court of enquiry for behaving in a “callous and indecorous” way because he photographed the execution by firing squad of Burmese rebels.

Then, Sarah showed us a selection of material from the Hampshire Record Office. All of them were fascinating, they deserve proper attention and assessment. For instance, a photograph album from The Royal Green Jackets Regimental Archive previously belonging Captain A. White (Egypt, Africa – Rifle Brigade, c1898); a postcard album from Boxall family collection of topographical, novelty, family cards etc. (c1905-c1920); a photograph album believed to belong to Douglas Carnegie, taken while on military service in India (1890s).[5] The students also made some research on the catalogue and were able to see the material they selected. Below are two students’ own comments on the photographs they had selected.

Katie Wright: In this workshop, I looked at photographs, documents and newspapers writing about Ellison Macartney, a British soldier and prisoner of war in Germany in World War Two. The archives held photographs of Ellison at different points of his capture, the last of which was made evident by his lack of head and facial hair and weight loss in his face. Mostly all the documents here were German, with his signed statement in English, promising not to escape the camp. The archives also held English newspapers reporting the imprisonment of Ellison, and the rest of his group ‘the Calais Defenders’. When relating these archives to the idea of family and memory, I considered the point of view of families whose ancestors may have also been prisoners of war. The photographs showcasing Ellison’s changing appearance, and statement of not leaving the camp on his walks highlight the unimaginable conditions suffered, which may highlight upsetting family memories, or upsetting history they feel a close, personal connection to. The other point of view is that of German memory, and the modern-day reception of seeing an example alike Ellison’s, which introduces an interesting way of dealing with family and memory.[6]

Eleanor Hartfield: ‘A Zulu War Dance’ – I used the search term ‘war dance’, due to its cultural connections. War dance is the mocking of combat, where the dances usually have some sort of ritual meaning within the society. In this photograph you get a real sense of war and military tradition through their clothes, spears, and the shields they were holding. Positioned like a wall of defence, it is almost like you can feel the tension and pride coming through the photo. Though it does not show the more gruesome essence of war, it does well to show something that isn’t necessarily associated with the British. As for the photographer, being there and seeing this ‘wall of defence’, perhaps evoked many emotions, including fascination. This photograph came on a page of a collection of photographs which depicted normal life, their camp, swimming, and men and women interacting together.[7]

‘Kaffirs giving a War Dance’ c.1899 – Recently, there has been an  interest/interest of study within the archives to ‘decolonise terminology’, and when searching for war dance photographs, it is one that jumped out due to its offensive language. The term ‘Kaffirs’ is an insulting term in use for South Africans. This particular photograph can be seen as a lot more immersive due to the action of the picture. Lots of movement is depicted in this photo, evoking language, action, and the surreal emotion of the photographer running with them and being part of something that they may not have been part of before. Personally, I love this photograph, due to the array of movements, I felt a lot more emotion looking at it and felt very positive.[8]

To conclude, colonial history is a difficult period of national and world history. It is a period that saw conflicts, violence, and limitation of individual liberties. While some people did improve their personal status and lives, a clear majority suffered the consequences of the colonial systems. Because colonial history has been very present in world history for centuries, it is quite complex, with many countries involved and with many aspects to study and comprehend. What we need to remind ourselves when we look at old photographs is that beyond the individual perspectives and family stories, there is a bigger picture that is much more complex and rarely as triumphant as one might want to believe. It is therefore by studying fully these different connections alongside the wider colonial past and/or wartimes that we can fully comprehend these photographs and family history.


[1] Maria del Pilar Kaladeen, ‘Hidden histories: Indenture to Windrush’, British Library articles,, published on 04/10/2018.

[2] Félix Jacques Antoine Moulin. ‘F. 17 : Si Mohammed Ben Saharaoui, Lieutenant Breugnot, Docteur Maffre, Miloud Ben Messaoud, Oran’, in Recueil. Vues d’Algérie, portraits d’Algériens et de personnalités françaises en Algérie (1856-1857), Bibliothèque nationale de France,, accessed on 03/07/2019.

[3] Willoughby Wallace Hooper, ‘Group of officers of the Burmah Expeditionary Force on board “the Tenasserim”, which left Madras on 3rd Nov, 1885, and arrived at Rangoon on the morning of 8th Nov, having on board 4/1 RA and Q/1 RA’ (1885), British Library,, accessed on 03/07/2019.

[4] Willoughby Wallace Hooper, ‘Famine in Bangalore, India: a group of emaciated women and children’ (1876/1878), Wellcome Trust Collection,, accessed on 04/07/2019.

Note: please, be aware that these photographs can be difficult to look at.

[5] 170A12W/P/8101, photograph album previously belonging to Captain A. White relating to Egypt and Africa, c1898 (Rifle Brigade records, from the Royal Green Jackets Regimental Archive); 73M83/4, postcard album from Boxall family collection of topographical, novelty, family cards etc. (c1905-c1920); 133A15/A13/42, photograph album believed to belong to Douglas Carnegie, taken while on military service in India (1890s). and to access the catalogue.

[6] 170A12W/P/8053, Lieutenant Colonel Ellison-Macartney’s scrapbook, 1938-1950s (Queen Victoria’s Rifles and Queen’s Royal Rifles records, from the Royal Green Jackets Regimental Archive).

[7] 170A12W/P/2225/c, ‘A Zulu war dance’, from a collection of photographs of service in South Africa during the Boer War, 1899-1902 (King’s Royal Rifle Corps records, from the Royal Green Jackets Regimental Archive).

[8] 170A12W/D/2314/07, ‘Kaffirs giving a war dance’ , c1899, from Captain A White’s photograph collection from the Khartoum expedition and Boer War (Rifle Brigade records, from the Royal Green Jackets Regimental Archive).

Author: Dr Xavier Guégan

Bio: Dr Xavier Guégan is Senior Lecturer in Colonial and Postcolonial History at the University of Winchester. He researches, publishes and lectures about South Asian history under British colonial rule and North African history under French colonial rule, including imperial culture and ideologies, and comparative analysis. His main expertise assesses the correlation between photography and history, and memory.

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