Problematic Visual Culture: Orientalism and Expedition Photography

By Michaela Brant, class of ‘23

The Problematic Visual Culture series seeks to highlight works of art, film, and other media that display and perpetuate harmful, discriminatory ideas. The series also aims to address the effects of these works on our individual and collective biases.

On April 22, 121 people logged onto a Zoom webinar to hear Assistant Director Diana Larsen and student ambassadors Ata Chowdry, Matt DiBenedetto, Ethan Starr, and Peyton Wilson (from the Collections Management Committee) present their research on items in the McMullen’s permanent collection. The presentation centered around expedition photography in the Middle East and North Africa, and how the photos and practices embody the idea of Orientalism. 

DiBenedetto contextualized the discussion through the framework of Edward W. Said, a literary theorist who coined the term “Orientalism” in his 1978 book of the same name. “The Orient,” while it often refers generally to the areas east of the Mediterranean Sea and Southeast Europe (the Middle East, Asia, and North Africa), does not technically refer to an actual geographic region. Instead, “the Orient” is a region of imagination. It is a place for Europeans to project their curiosities, fascinations, and anxieties. DiBenedetto summarized that the point of the “Orient” (East) and the “Occident” (West) was to create two disparate essences. This binary was key for the rationalization and subsequent explosion of European imperialism and colonialism. European powers were able to convince people that places in the “Orient” needed to be “civilized” by “benevolent” countries. 

Larsen discussed that Orientalist works began as propaganda paintings to display non-European regions in a light that justified imperialism and colonialism. By the late 1800s, these works also became popular decoration and tourists’ souvenirs. Expedition photographers accompanied royal family members and the wealthy on trips to photograph “the Orient.” One example of an expedition photographer that Larsen gave was Francis Bedford. Born in London, Bedford began his career photographing architecture mainly in England during the 1850s to sell to middle-class tourists. The Queen of England hired him to travel with Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, on his trip to the Middle East, where Bedford photographed landscapes, architecture, and figures.

Bedford and other photographers of this time, capitalized on the abundance of sun in the region, making the manipulation of contrast between light and dark easier while producing photographic prints. According to Larsen, this contrast added mystery and provided the viewer with a “tantalizing glimpse of the Orient.” The problem with these expeditions and resulting photographs was that the monarchy funded them to justify imperialism and colonialism, providing a constructed, idyllic view of these regions and people. 

Schroeder & Cie. (Zürich, Switzerland), Karnak: Way of the Sphinxes and the Pylon of Euergetes II, c. 1870-75. Image courtesy McMullen Museum of Art.

DiBenedetto tied these scholarly ideas about Orientalism to the Swiss company Schroeder & Cie.’s photograph Karnak: Way of the Sphinxes and the Pylon of Euergetes II. The photo depicts Karnak, a massive and complex religious center of the Kingdom of Thebes in Egypt. DiBenedetto pointed out the positioning of the Egyptians on the road versus the European expeditioner on the side. He noted how the photograph seemed posed, and the separation between the two groups of people visually reinforces the binary of East versus West and other Egyptians. Additionally, the location of the photograph, and the ruins in the background, leave out the signifiers of the vibrant modern society of Egypt in the 19th century. Between the distinct othering of the Egyptians and the intentional background construction, this photograph suggests that Europeans of this time had a moral obligation to “civilize” Egypt.

Unknown, Rue de la Casbah d’Alger c. 1870s. Image courtesy McMullen Museum of Art.

Wilson chose a photograph by an unknown photographer, titled Rue de la Casbah d’Alger. Algeria was France’s oldest North African colonial holding. Wilson invited the audience to consider the composition of the photograph: the subject is isolated from any other people or structures that could give a sense of the vibrant society in Algiers. The social and geographical contexts that would make French presence there problematic were wholly left out. French occupation of Algiers led to the destruction of religious spaces, turning them into Christian churches and military buildings. Again, photographs like this disregard the reality of “the Orient.” This image is stripped of its context and is used to reinforce French imperial and colonial agendas through staging Algerian society in opposition to European values. 

C. and G. Zangaki (Greece), Arabs Posing in Front of Suez Canal at Suez City c. 1885. Image courtesy McMullen Museum of Art.

Chowdry presented a photograph from 1885 by the two Greek brothers, the Zangakis, who photographed Europe and the Middle East. Chowdry used this opportunity to tie the history of the Suez Canal into the concept of Orientalism. The location of the Canal played an essential role in the “Scramble for Africa,” as Britain and France fought over who would control the land. Europe developed imperialist interests in India and China (especially in the South Pacific for France) once they realized they could connect the Mediterranean and Red Seas, allowing for shorter trips to Asia. England seized control of Egypt in 1882—and the troops that had invaded and occupied it did not leave until 1956. The construction of the Suez Canal in Egypt, which put Egyptian workers like those in the photograph in immense danger, allowed Westerners to have more control over the East as both colonizers and tourists. With little to no real benefit to the Egyptians, the Canal became a symbol of British and French imperialism. The photograph and the Canal are yet more examples of Europeans capitalizing on the sentiments of fascination and entitlement cultivated around Asia. 

Avraham Hay (Baghdad, Iraq, 1944), The Wilderness of Sinai, 1986. Image courtesy McMullen Museum of Art.

Starr rounded out the presentation with a more recent photograph, Avraham Hay’s The Wilderness of Sinai, which the McMullen featured in a 1996 exhibition. This photograph, among others, was originally paired with engravings by J. M. W. Turner, a Romantic artist. The carvings and photographs are from similar visual perspectives. However, Hay is operating as a documentarian. His objective, said Starr, was to show the facts on the ground, contrary to other photographers from earlier in the presentation. Since Hay is both from and lives in the region being documented, he has a unique perspective. However, there are still questions to be asked with this work. How do we consider this work in the context of today’s conflict between Israel and Palestine? What do we make of the presence of a church in this photograph, and who has a claim to this site? Although on the outer limits of Orientalism, this photograph still invites us to ask questions about where and from whom the work originated.

This “Into the Collection” event, which McMullen Museum Director Professor Nancy Netzer called “absolutely dazzling,” was the most attended of its kind this year. If you missed it, you can watch the full talk here. This event highlights the importance of thinking critically about the origins of different artworks within our museum’s holdings. All art is intentional, so it is important to consider the historical, political, and social contexts surrounding a work. Whether in a museum, on the internet, or anywhere else, DiBenedetto said it best: “the images that we encounter in daily life are more than meet the eye.”

Works cited:

Edward W. Said, Orientalism, (New York: Vintage Books, 1979).

Diana Larsen, Ata Chowdry, Matt DiBenedetto, Ethan Starr, and Peyton Wilson, “Into the Collection: Orientalism and Expedition Photography,” April 22, 2021, McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lm2TPPQK3-4&t=2724s. 

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