The other day I opened a small cardboard box given to me by my Mum. Inside I found delicate pockets with negatives saved from the rubbish tip – the school she worked in was clearing out storage space and everything was being thrown away.
I kept the box for years but recently discovered my husband Chris has scanning equipment to handle the large format negatives, so we set to work…. I never expected to be so excited as each image revealed itself… One after another, fascinating untouched photographs appeared from British missionaries based in Africa, from 1916 and thereabouts…
The arresting images include women with scarification, some sort of military march, impressive Zulu warriors in full regalia, and my favourite – a grinning man with his teeth filed to points. The Victorian lady in white really sets the colonial time period, as do annotations with such comments as ‘a peculiar hairstyle.’ Some of the countries referred to (Rhodesia and Nyasaland for instance) have changed names and borders, some several times in the interim.
The photographer had a great eye for portraiture, the subjects appear strong and unfalteringly return the viewer’s gaze. It is absorbing to think about the equipment the photographers must have used to take the pictures in situ, their feelings and motivations and what the subjects must have felt towards them. Did they ever see the processed exposures? The young girls playing in the pictures would be more than one hundred years old if they were around today.
I am grateful the little box was rescued from the landfill as a thought-provoking glimpse through the lens of another place and time.