Picturing Pain

Last week several dozen scholars of religion met at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom to discuss the global history of evangelicalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The conference, organized by Kendrick Oliver, whose research on religion and the space program you really must become acquainted with, was terrific. Papers ranged from religious broadcasting (Tim Stoneman, Georgia Tech Lorraine), charismatic Anglican short-term missions (John Maiden, Open University), World Vision (David King, IUPUI), and Carl McIntire, the ICCC, and European evangelicals (Markku Ruotsila, University of Helsinki). Among the many gems I learned: European fundamentalists associated with the ICCC pushed back against McIntire to be allowed to drink, smoke, and attend the cinema—and won!

One of the most intriguing sessions dealt with material and visual culture. Photography became particularly important to the missionary project in the late nineteenth century. Pictures seemed to bridge space, culture and language. They seemed factual. They seemed able to communicate when words could not. But Didiet Aubert of Sorbonne Nouvelle University, speaking on “The Missionary Archive as Family Album,” noted the scholarly limits of missionary photography. Most archival collections, lacking dates and organization, are typically a mess.  Even those that are dated and classified are not reliable as “factual” evidence. They are framed, cropped, and posed.

But there also lies much of their value. The very process of creating visual culture helps demonstrate the construction and projection of missionary ideals. Many of the panelists noted that missionaries were projecting images to a sending community wanting evidence of success in converting exotic peoples. During a talk entitled “Opening Blind Eyes: The Evangelical Photographic Frontier in the 19th-Century North American Pacific Northwest,” Carol Williams of the University of Lethbridge in Alberta showed a series of fascinating photos meant to depict darkness, filth, and heathenism (even as the very same images betrayed sophisticated, if not Christian, cultures). Several showed the domestication of Native women into Euro-American housewifery. In a talk entitled “Saving Pagan Babies: Missionary Photography and US-China Relations,” Margaret Kuo of California State University-Long Beach showed a series of photos of missionaries trying to civilize natives. Boys were pictured transforming from emaciation to health, from wearing Chinese clothing to Western costumes, and from venerating Buddhist symbols to Christian crosses. The most favored images pictured entire families that had been converted. These photographs—which evoked both suffering and salvation—justified the missionaries’ existence.

Another genre of missionary photography featured the missionaries themselves. They were pictured in exotic locations with exotic animals doing exotic things in triumphant poses of missionary romanticism. Didiet Aubert juxtaposed these images with personal letters and diaries, which revealed a profound sense of vulnerability. Behind those brave faces sometimes lay intense anxieties caused by troubled marriages, feuds with other missionaries, and spiritual doubt.

While most missionaries used the new technology with considerable enthusiasm, some did with considerable ambivalence. For every Passionist priest walking around China with a good-sized camera slung around his neck during the 1920s (Kuo flashed multiple images of this), there were some who resisted. One administrator was called a “hapless old fossil” by colleagues for not utilizing photographs to raise more funds. In a case study of evangelical missionaries working in famine-stricken India in the 1890s, Heather Curtis of Tufts University told the story of a skeptical missionary named Mark Fuller. He worried about a pornography of pain that played on the emotions of viewers and encouraged a view of Indians as helpless, uncivilized savages who needed a superior West to save them. In an act that sought to subvert the imperial project, Fuller published pictures of Indians helping Indians in a Christian & Missionary Alliance magazine. He wanted to clearly distinguish between Christian faith and Western imperialism.

But in the end, the utility of photography triumphed. It managed to powerfully communicate what Elaine Scarry has called “pain’s inexpressibility.” It encouraged “spectatorial sympathy” on the American home front. Curtis suggests that evangelicals were pioneers in their strategy of “picturing pain.” In fact, she contends that the use of photography to describe awful conditions was not yet being used among secular humanitarian organizations. But they soon caught on to this incredibly effective technique. During one 12-month stretch in the 1890s, one entrepreneurial evangelical missions agency raised $100,000, an incredible amount, when they began using photography to depict the appalling conditions during the famine. Secular organizations quickly followed suit. Picturing pain fueled the growth of the humanitarian industry.

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