Alice Seely-Harris traveled to the Congo Free State as a missionary, which was under total control of Belgian King Leopold II. After witnessing many atrocities there, she became an activist photographing and creating a travelling slideshow touring much of Europe and the US. The images highlighted the plight of the Congolese and is seen as groundbreaking documentary photography, shifting perceptions of colonialism, slavery, as well as gaining public attention and a significant political will to intervene, rightfully ending the brutal regime of the Belgian King. (Liverpoolmuseums.org.uk, 2019).
The significance of the images and the impact on highlighting human suffering shouldn’t be diluted here, however It is important to understand the context of the time – The Congo Free State was a Catholic nation as was the king. Seely-Harris was a Christian British Missionary at the height of the Empire and colonial rule.
One reading of the images is that of a perceived moral authority that being a British Protestant had over Catholic violence. Protestants missionaries were part of a larger agenda of gaining territories, sent out by the state to take the message of British Protestants to the ‘Native’ and converting the local population to Christianity. Showing the King’s abhorrent treatment of the Congolese was an opportunity to show that under a more ‘civilized’ form of colonialism, a British Colonialism, these kinds of atrocities would not be happening (Sealy, 2019)†
Given that The Congo did not gain independence until the 1960s and the inherent racism and violence persisted in that culture up until then, the images did not make the Congolese free from slavery, the choice was a violent Catholic regime, or the rule of another version of colonial power.
- *Liverpoolmuseums.org.uk. (2019). Alice Seeley Harris – International Slavery Museum, Liverpool museums. [online] Available at: https://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/ism/exhibitions/brutal-exposure/alice-seeley-harris.aspx [Accessed 26 Nov. 2019].
- †Sealy, M. (2019). Decolonising the camera. 1st ed. London: LW.