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Online Archive Preserves Images from Christian Missions in Africa, Asia

Screenshot of International Mission Photography Archive administered by the Center for Religion and Civic Culture and the Digital Library at the University of Southern California
Screenshot of International Mission Photography Archive administered by the Center for Religion and Civic Culture and the Digital Library at the University of Southern California

An ambitious Internet project is bringing to light forgotten images from Africa, Asia, and other parts of the world during the period when missionaries were active. The International Mission Photography Archive contains more than 60,000 historic photographs that show cultural interaction - through missionaries - with the West. In some cases, the pictures provide surprising insights.

Sociologist Jon Miller coordinates the project and says that in many communities, missionaries took more pictures than anyone else.

"They were the ones who were permanently anchored in communities rather than just in administrative centers," he said. "They were the ones who were itinerating around and so they had much better contact. They were only rivaled by the merchants, who moved around as much as they did, but were not nearly as interested in documenting and covering their movements. "

The online archive contains photographs taken by missionaries from the 1860s until World War II.

Twelve major archives in the United States and Europe are sharing their pictures for the project. The Internet archive is administered by the Center for Religion and Civic Culture and the Digital Library at the University of Southern California.

Miller says the photographs vary in subject matter and quality. He says some are visually stunning and others, while technically crude, reveal surprises about life in Africa, Asia and other parts of the world where missionaries were active.

3 pupils from Bamum - Johanne, Mose & Daniel
3 pupils from Bamum - Johanne, Mose & Daniel

'Multiracial reality'

He says a mission outpost of the Moravian Brethren in Genadendal in modern South Africa is a case in point. The mission was established in 1737 and, over the years, became racially diverse.

"I think that by looking at those photographs, you can see that there was a multiracial reality, a reality of racial equality and interaction on an egalitarian basis, that was institutionalized," said Miller. "It was anchored in that part of South Africa from 1900 until 1950. And it’s really poignant to look at those pictures, and then think ahead to what followed in the 1950s and 1960s, where there was a conscious government attempt to simply crush all expressions of that."

He says another fascinating collection comes from a missionary who documented traditional life in West Africa. "There’s a woman named Anna Wuhrmann who was active in Cameroon who set about documenting court life in the traditional kingdoms of that region of Africa, and the photographs that she produced are just exquisite," said Miller.

He says missionaries often left home filled with stereotypes about people they considered "heathen." But he said missionaries were often impressed by those they met in the field.

"There was one missionary in particular, one of my favorite characters, who wrote back to his superiors in Europe about imposing European culture on West Africa, and he said, now think about it," said Miller. "How many of you people in Europe are really happy about the condition of European culture at this point? Are you sure you want to export that?"

The missionary wrote that traditional Africans had a stronger sense of family than Germans did.

Margaret Hollister (top left) with family in 1926
Margaret Hollister (top left) with family in 1926

Miller says thousands of photographs still need to be digitized, catalogued and posted to the online archive. He says millions of other mission photographs may be still stored in church offices or people's attics. That was the case with Margaret Hollister, whose father and grandfather were Presbyterian missionaries in China and lived through turbulent times there.

Her grandfather, Watson Hayes, was a noted figure in the transition from late imperial China to the early republic. She says he established a seminary in Shandong province and was active in the movement to reform education.

"He became known as a scholar very early because he believed that the Chinese should not have to learn English to be taught in the mission schools," said Hollister.

Hollister's father, John Hayes, was also a Presbyterian minister and remained in China through the early 1950s, when the Communist government accused and convicted him of being an American spy.

But from 1917 onwards, Hayes took pictures throughout China, and Hollister still has several hundred, including one dramatic image of child workers.

"It’s of boys working in a coal mine," he said. "They would send the young boys in, nine or ten years old, because they could fit into the small tunnels, and it shows these kids coming out of the mine with the piles of coal on their shoulders."

Hollister is looking for an archive for the family photos.

Jon Miller says the rich resources of the International Mission Photography Archive can be viewed by anyone online. He says they offer an intimate glimpse of the colonial era and give scholars additional tools to understand the formative periods of many modern nations.