The Absent Photograph

Carol Williams

“[former pupil] Mel Good spoke of the northern [indigenous] people who attended the [Alberni Indian Residential] school . . He was concerned that many of the children that went to that place were never to be returned to their parents and communities. Their spirits were stuck in this place, he said. “A lot of souls are curled up in the fetal position,” he said, “stuck in the walls and the attic” of the dormitory building.” (Steele)

 Readers will notice this analysis of a single photograph of a young Indigenous girl with a Brownie camera circa 1950 fails to include the photograph; this is because the name and identity of the youth depicted are no longer available to researchers.  From acquisition records, we know that the photograph was recovered from houses abandoned in the 1960s at Friendly Cove in Mowachaht territory on the coast of Northern Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada, south of Alaska.  Unavailable is her family name, tribal affiliation, or life story. The cause of this loss is rooted in colonialism.  While I attempted to trace her kin for permission, I was unable to find anyone who might identify her. The absence of connections between the subject portrayed, the photograph’s origins, or how the image ended up in the archive is relevant.  As political geographer Sarah de Leeuw observed, the tentacles of settler colonialism  “operate[s] not only at the level of territories, maps, and resources, but also –and more importantly –in the intimate, embodied, domestic, micro-scale geographies...” (de Leeuw 2016, 14-15).

The lines of transmission are difficult to re-construct because this identity loss correlates with the colonial dispossession of Indigenous people from territory, culture, and families over generations.  Such losses also directly correspond to Indigenous experiences in federally-sponsored Residential Schools operating from the 1880s to 1990s.  Invented by settler governments hand in glove with Anglican, Catholic, Methodist and other churches, Canada’s schools were modeled after Philadelphia’s Carlisle School. The Anglican Church, for example, directed “about three dozen Indian and Eskimo residential schools and hostels” across northern and central western Canada.  Anglican Church history claims the purpose of the schools was to “re-educate” Indigenous peoples in the ways of the white man. (Anglican Church). 

Indigenous children and youth were not only severed from territories and family when they were removed into often distant schools supervised by Christian surrogates other losses followed: languages, ceremony, and spirituality were prohibited, indigenous governance was condemned, and the acceptance of binary heteropatriarchal gender roles was expected.  One school administrator reflected a father’s response to placing his daughter at the Alert Bay Girls’ Home as follows, “You cannot think how sorrowful he [father] looked after he had yield[ed her] to our care—surely it was like cutting off a right hand.” An internee who was initially excited about the prospect eventually understood the implications, “after I got there, I had a different feeling altogether . . . Mom and Dad had gone, [I] wouldn’t see them again for a long time.”  While enrollment was not initially compulsory, children were not always in schools willingly. Separations could be painfully extensive.

This photograph departs from the convention of portraying regiments of youth entrapped in the colonial geography of the Residential school. And the image also significantly departs from the standard before and after genre of Indian school portraiture, which served to account for the successful transformation of Indigenous pupils into “civilized” and presumably “docile” subjects.  This image alternatively provides an intriguing glimpse of liberation from institutional subordination: a girl at the point of departure stands on a dock in a maritime community. Her surroundings instantly signify: a remote island existence; the promise of mobility. Wearing a modern knee-length plaid skirt, a kerchief is knotted around her throat, distinctive earrings dangle from her ears and a belt of interlocking metal links is painstakingly aligned with the twist of her kerchief.  Her hair is neatly clipped and styled. She holds her Brownie, a portable camera introduced in 1900 that linked image making with physical and imaginative travel, in an assured manner.  The Brownie was a perfect companion for someone on the verge of separation from kin and eager to sustain intimate attachments.  

Her stylish comportment, trendsetting curl and clip, and overall fashion savvy defies external assumptions that she is sheltered in an outlying British colony.  She appears eager to participate in worldly events. But in light of the oppressive national bio politics that removed Indigenous youth from homes into schools does her pending departure imply a freely made decisionIs she off to a nearby Indian Residential School perhaps the Alert Bay Girls Home?  

 It is highly likely this young woman possessed more than basic knowledge of the schools.  Photography was taught in the regular curriculum at the government sponsored Indian industrial school at Alert Bay as early as 1907.  Records show George Eastman of the Kodak Eastman Company visited communities of the northwest coast travelling from Seattle to Alaska at century’s turn.  During Eastman’s visit to Alert Bay, one local claimed, “[Eastman] instructed our [sic] Indians how to operate cameras.” William Halliday, the regional agent for Canada’s Department of Indian Affairs confirmed, “Several of the young men have cameras and take fairly good pictures.”   Never missing an opportunity to pontificate on the state of the local Indians, Halliday qualified his complement by adding, “if the evil influence of the potlatch [ceremony] could only be done away with, this band would forge right ahead.”  Like other officials, Halliday believed that only when and if Indigenous youth abandoned tradition would they cede to all things modern. The call for Indians to modernize infantilized those who, in reality, were creatively resilient.  Photography was one of a multitude of skills or tools imported by Euro Americans that, Halliday believed, would accelerate assimilation of Indian youth if they would willingly submit.  That Indians be complicit with their own subordination undergirded Halliday’s bureaucratic paternalism. What he failed to acknowledge was that student access to photography may afford a route towards visual sovereignty.

By the 1950s Indigenous youth, including girls were active photographers. Photography had received the stamp of approval within the white man’s educational scheme. But students didn’t necessarily fulfill the demands of their ‘masters.’ If administrators used photography instrumentally as a way to prove their commitment to the good work of assimilation to convert Indians into modern subjects Indigenous users might pursue a more sovereign, non-conformist, usage.

This young woman appears independent, composed, fashionable, assured, and technologically literate.  Her comportment and panache shows a familiarity with ideas and trends beyond the region.  The warmth and receptivity of her facial expression speaks to a familial or friendly gaze on the other side of the camera’s lens.  Racialized subjects in settler nations reclaimed photography for laudatory or celebratory purposes choosing to depict themselves as industrious or self-sufficient; embodying  model citizenship. (Phu). For those individuals situated on the margins of ideal citizenship, photography might visualize “national violence” showing the state’s expectation of docility but in other ways photography offered a route to visual self-determination as evident in this image of a girl, boldly poised on the threshold of escape.


Anglican Church of Canada, “Historical Sketch for Anglican Residential Schools” Accessed 2 April 2018    

Farrell, Brenna. “Photos: Before and After Carlisle,” Radiolab (January 29, 2015) Accessed 2 April 2018

Pegler Gordon, Anna. Review of Picturing Model Citizens; Civility in Asian American Visual Culture by Thy Phu.  Melus 39, no. 2 (Summer 2014): 242.

Steele, Deborah.  “Tseshaht hosts survivors for demolition of Peake Hall.” Ha-Shilth-Sa, February 12, 2009.

Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Centre,  “Analyzing before and after photographs and exploring student files,” Accessed 12 April 2018

 de Leeuw, Sarah. “Tender grounds: Intimate visceral violence and British Columbia’s

colonial geographies,” Political Geography 52 (2016): 14-23.