A decentred lens: decolonising historical photography between China and Ireland

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Historical photography - ‘the living image of a dead thing’, in Barthes’s phrase - is often overlooked in discussions of cultural heritage decolonisation. Focusing on a little-known collection of historical photography of China held in Belfast which was the subject of a Sino-Irish research partnership, this paper explores how the multiplicious histories of coloniality in both Ireland and China present possibilities for historical and curatorial decolonisation of photography beyond colonial binaries.

Like many such collections, the photography accumulated by the Irishman Robert Hart during his half-century as a British imperial administrator in China resists easy categorisation, and sits uneasily between coloniser and colonised, Europe and Asia, native and foreign, imperial and anti-imperial. Drawing on work by Igor Kopytoff, Arjun Appadurai, Malek Alloula, Elizabeth Edwards and James Hevia among others, this paper takes an object-biography perspective to this collection. This approach understands photographs not as the products of a single moment of artistic creation, but instead as the results of social processes connecting the people, objects and places in the frame with their wider world, as well as with the circumstances that led to the creation of each image.

Decentring questions of provenance in favour of a broader understanding of creation and dissemination allows the photographs to be recentred within the wider heritage of both China and Ireland. This approach also highlights the inadequacy of a narrowly capitalist or legalistic understanding of heritage ownership, raising broader issues of moral rights in photography and of cultural restitution beyond standard understandings of illicit appropriation. The paper finally considers both the potential and the limitations of reproductions and digitisation of historical photography in the context of debates about cultural repatriation of heritage artefacts.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 28 Oct 2022
EventModern Heritage in the Anthropocene Symposium - The Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London, London, United Kingdom
Duration: 26 Oct 202228 Oct 2022


ConferenceModern Heritage in the Anthropocene Symposium
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address


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