Many people have asked me about the photograph that I used for the cover of Colonial Desire. I spent quite a long time looking for a cover image for the book. I wanted a photograph that would represent colonial desire in operation. I
searched for some weeks in various archives of colonial photography. There were plenty of photographs which presented people as objects of colonial desire--erotic photographs of various kinds--but they always left the desiring person invisible, the seeing eye behind the camera, caught in a moment of desire represented only by the desirable person, which was exactly what I did not want. By far the greatest number of photographs that I saw, however, were the expression of a different form of
colonial desire, not discussed in the book--the slaughter of game. I must have seen thousands of photographs of dead carcases, often with the killer posing in the foreground. Some of the animals that had been shot dead in the photographs are now extinct. I found it hard to keep going through this photographic necropolis.
Finally I found this photograph in an album in Rhodes House Library, Oxford.
There was little information given inside about it, no names or dates. The album consists of photographs taken in British East Africa, probably from the late nineteenth century. The photographs for the most part record the building of a railway line. The men photographed here were probably engineers, and reappear in several of the photographs. This particular photograph has the caption ‘Picnic (?)’. What is very rare about the image is that the European men are pictured here
together with their African ‘wives’, who would doubtless have travelled with them as they worked on the railway. It was very unusual for European men to have themselves photographed in this way, creating a permanent record of their local domestic arrangements in the colonies. Only one is hiding his face behind the tent flap, very different in aspect to the relaxed man in the foreground on the left who holds a child on his knee and stares directly at the camera. The symmetry of the
Europeans in white, relaxing in domestic comfort with the African women, three of whom are wearing dresses made from the same cloth, gives the image a formal quality that adds to its enigmatic aura.