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Members' Research Report Archive

The Surface of Things: A History of Photography from the Swahili Coast, 1860 to the Present

Prita Meier, New York University
William C. Seitz Senior Fellow, 2017–2018


Postcard of a young woman in Dar es Salaam, present-day Tanzania, photograph before 1910, postcard printed c. 1940s. Collection of Christraud M. Geary

The Swahili coast of eastern Africa is one of the most fluid nodes of the Global South, where people, ideas, and materials from all over the world converge and intermingle. A Muslim cultural complex, it has long been in dialogue through its arts with places across the Indian Ocean, especially the coastal regions of South Asia and the Middle East. Strikingly, not long after its invention in the 1830s, photography, one of Europe’s most revolutionary media, became essential to Swahili practices of self-fashioning. Commercial photography studios were wildly popular on the Swahili coast from the 1870s until the 1970s: Swahilis, Arabs, South Asians, and Europeans all frequented them to have portraits made or to buy images of others. The local engagement with photography very much attests to Africa’s global interconnectivity. But what did—and does—it mean to the diverse communities living in this littoral region? Why was the photograph so immediately desirable, especially given that before its introduction locals did not produce pictorial likenesses?

During my residency at CASVA I have been completing a book manuscript that seeks to answer these questions. Tentatively titled “The Surface of Things: A History of Photography from the Swahili Coast, 1860 to the Present,” it will be the first major transregional study of popular vernacular photography from this area and is based on my extensive fieldwork and archival research in Kenya and Tanzania over the last eight years. I focus especially on late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century photographs. I write about a range of photographs, including large albumen prints, cartes de visite, postcards, and personal familial snapshots from more than thirty public and private archives in Africa, Europe, and North America. While I provide important social and historical contexts, I primarily foreground the aesthetic and cultural politics of photography, revealing how photos accrued value as they circulated from one context to another or from one port to another. In fact, especially before independence from Britain in the 1960s, the photograph was primarily understood as an itinerant thing, made and sold by humble merchants from South Asia, who also had opened the first commercial photography studios in Mombasa and Zanzibar by the 1860s or perhaps even earlier.

“The Surface of Things” consists of seven chapters (including an introduction and a coda). The first part charts the introduction of photographs to the Swahili coast during the second half of the nineteenth century, showing how photography was absorbed into a much older tradition of collecting mobile trade objects. It presents photographs as surface ornament and also argues that this photography was very much about the haptics of interior architecture. The book’s second part focuses on the complex role that photographs of people played in relationship to capitalist globalization and colonization. Presenting photography as both a technology of empire and a technology of self, I juxtapose studio photographs of Swahilis created for consumption in the colonial metropole to portraits commissioned by local residents (including new immigrants, such as Europeans and Arabs), revealing how both genres are very much connected to processes of objectification and artifice. Especially when printed and framed as a carte de visite or postcard, the photograph effectively presented the subject as a traveling, transferable, and interchangeable type. But the conformity and the normativity of these objects also engendered new forms of transcultural engagement, at least on the level of surface similitude. The photograph also presented people as things in new ways. These surface effects of the photograph in fact constituted the making of a new aesthetic on the Swahili coast, through which the difference between sentient beings and things became less clear.

The final part of the book emphasizes that photography on the Swahili coast, as elsewhere in the world, was also constituted by rupture and revolution. By the 1950s and 1960s the ways their parents and grandparents posed and dressed in black-and-white portrait photographs seemed suspect and artificial to younger generations. By that time, sitting for one’s photographic portrait was a leisure activity for youth, who loved the modern mass media culture of big cities like Mombasa. Local teenagers delighted in playing with the contingent, temporary nature of the photographic encounter. Rather than making photography a performance of communal identity, they used it to craft creative and inventive likenesses, ones that emphasized the exteriority of the self. Strikingly, these photographs are now viewed by younger generations as not properly local, largely because the sitters are dressed in Western fashions.