Photoanthropocene: the decentered lens of colonial photography

Emma Reisz*

*Corresponding author for this work

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Photography—what Barthes called “the living image of a dead thing”—is often overlooked in discussions of cultural heritage decolonization. This paper focuses on a historical photograph attributed to the Hong Kong commercial photographer Lai Fong 黎芳, also known as Afong, that documents the aftermath of the Tianjin massacre of 1870. A photographic print of the image is held in the Robert Hart collection, a little-known collection of historical photographs accumulated by the Irishman Robert Hart during his half-century as an administrator in China. Like many such collections—and like Tianjin itself in the late Qing period—the photography collection resists easy categorization, and sits uneasily between Europe and Asia, Chinese and foreign, imperial and anti-imperial. This essay proposes a “photoanthropocene” perspective, drawing on theoretical writing by Mirzoeff, Zylinska, and others to locate colonial photography within the early anthropocene. The photoanthropocene offers new ways to understand, interpret, and decolonize colonial photography.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)101-117
Number of pages17
JournalCurator: The Museum Journal
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2024


  • anthropocene
  • China
  • colonial photography
  • decolonisation
  • Lai Fong
  • Afong
  • Sir Robert Hart


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