On March 26, 1993, The New York Times published a photograph by Kevin Carter that became the haunting image of the famine in Sudan: an emaciated child in foetal position, in the background a hooded vulture. Newspapers and magazines around the globe carried the image and in 1994 Carter was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his work. Although the girl’s ultimate fate remains unknown, it is believed that she succeeded in escaping the inevitable fate suggested by the photograph.

The question of ethics in photography is almost as old as photography itself. “For photographs to accuse and possibly invoke a moral response, they must shock,” Judith Butler wrote in her essay Torture and the Ethics of Photography. The framing of the two subjects in Carter’s photograph shocked people across the world into recognising what was unfolding in Sudan. But the shock soon spread beyond the frame. Who shot the photograph and what role could he have played? Inevitably, Carter faced public criticism.

When the famine of 1876 started taking its toll on the people of the Madras Presidency, a few stray voices could be heard within the colonial administration that maintained that the British must shoulder responsibility for the deaths.

One such voice belonged to the physician, William Robert Cornish, Sanitary Commissioner of Madras, who lamented the absence of a photographer attached to his office. Words could at best “feebly represent the actual facts,” he said. If the administration could only “see the living skeletons assembled at feeding houses” as he had, Dr Cornish hoped they might budge from their stubborn and unquestioning support of the principle of laissez faire.

Witness to a disaster

A special correspondent of the monthly Friend of India aired similar views while writing from North Arcot:

“I feel an irresistible longing to send you photographs of some of the living skeletons, of which there are evidently hundreds in the districts immediately surrounding Madras. Words convey a poor idea of the appearance of a human being for some days before he dies of starvation.” 

The sights he saw had to be represented to the English public. He promised a nationwide sensation if newspapers like the London Illustrated or the Graphic were to send their artists to document the famine.

A photographer did appear on the scene soon enough, although he was perhaps not what Dr Cornish had hoped for. Willoughby Wallace Hooper was an amateur photographer serving in the 7th Madras Cavalry. In 1862, four years after his arrival in India, Hooper was transferred to the 4th Cavalry, Saugor and Secunderbad, enabling him to continue sharpening his skills while working on one of the grandest ethnographic projects undertaken by the government in India.

This was the eight-volume book The People of India, a brainchild of Governor-General and Lady Canning, who had initially desired to carry home with them images of the people they ruled over. Following the First War of Independence in 1857, under Viceroy Canning, the proposed volumes became an official project under the India Office. Hooper contributed over 450 ethnographic photographs to the project and soon thereafter, in collaboration with photographer George Western, launched a photography studio named Hooper and Western.

Inmates of a relief camp in Madras (during the famine of 1876-1878), by Willoughby Wallace Hooper. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Hooper started photographing the famine around 1887. Zahid R Chaudhary has suggested in Afterimage of Empire (2012) that his photographs were sold commercially and circulated in private photograph albums. The October 6, 1877 issue of The Graphic featured images of the Madras famine, captioned “Forsaken” and “The last of the herd”. These were engravings based on Hooper’s photographs, fulfilling in a way the hopes of the Friend of India correspondent.

Ways of seeing

Whether or not Hooper’s primary motivation was journalistic, his manner of setting up the photographs was problematic to say the least – their captions no less so. The Picture Library of the Royal Geographical Society hosts a number of these photographs (From S0001994 to 2131). The images show emaciated bodies of people who have been left to lead what Giorgio Agamben would describe as the “bare life,” in various postures and arrangements.

Some of the photographs were shot outdoors, either in villages or more likely, in relief camps. In a few photographs the subjects are made to hold their poses in front of public buildings with neo-classical balustrades, while others appear to be shot in semi-studio setups. Evidently these are extremely fragile lives. “He [Hooper] one evening selected seven persons whom he wished to photograph,” The Times of India reported, “but the light not being favourable he said he would come in the morning and photograph them. The next morning he came, and found that they had all died during the night.”

An engraving from 'The Graphic', October 1877. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

Observers understood that many who had not yet died were beyond any hope of recovery and yet the State remained by and large indifferent. One of the photographs, whose engraving appeared in The Graphic, shows a young boy and an infant at the foot a tree with a crow sitting nearby. It eerily foreshadows the much more threatening presence of the vulture in Sudan. There were graphic reports of dogs in the villages feasting on the mortal remains of the dying.

Let them starve

In the initial days of the famine, the Viceroy, Lord Lytton, was busy organising and channelling funds for the elaborate Delhi Durbar, where Queen Victoria would be proclaimed Empress of India or Kaiser-i-Hind. Sir Richard Temple was appointed Special Famine Commissioner in Madras. During the famine that gripped Bengal and Bihar in 1873-1874, he had restricted the damage by importing rice from Burma. He had been chastised since for his “extravagance” of trying to save lives of colonial subjects. In Madras, Temple was a changed man – rarely taking care to observe while visiting the relief camps and imposing rules that for all practical purposes, denied food to the starving millions.

Historian Mike Davis, in Late Victorian Holocausts (2002), points out that many who joined the East India Company were schooled at Haileybury, where one Reverend Thomas Malthus had taught as Professor of History and Political Economy. Malthusian economics, convenient interpretations of Adam Smith, and social-Darwinism combined to form an ideology that killed 5.5 million Indians only in the British territories between 1876 and 1878 and anything between 6.1 and 10.3 million people in all of India. The Famine Commission justified Lord Lytton’s reasoning, Davis writes, saying that if help was meted out during the famine, people would assume that the poor were entitled to it at all times. British trade could not take a backseat for the sake of Indian lives.

Child born of famine-stricken mother, by Willoughby Wallace Hooper. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Final witness

Food crops had been replaced by cash crops in the Deccan and anyone with capital was allowed to speculate in the exporting and business of grains. Having given the market a free hand, the colonial administration did take some grossly inadequate steps when the rains failed. The relief camps that were set up were militarised and seemingly arbitrary laws governed the distribution of food. For instance, Davis tells us, the “distance law” dictated that no one could work within a 10-kilometre radius of their homes. As a result, the famished inhabitants of villages tried to seek work in distant areas hoping to earn enough to buy grains, and perished in thousands on the way.

Hooper was criticised in magazines like Punch for his detached aestheticisation of famine-stricken lives. The careful arrangement of the people betrayed a motive that was not purely journalistic. The famine photographs, however, were not the only examples of his lack of ethics when it came to photography.

As Provost-General during third Anglo-Burmese war (1885), Hooper was present at the execution of a dacoit in Mandalay. The photographer came prepared with his camera. Just as the firing squad was about to fire that fatal shot, Hooper asked them to hold back while he adjusted his focus. Once he was happy with what he saw – having on a whim extended the life of a convicted man by half an unexpected minute – he asked the executioners to carry on as usual.

Burmese dissidents immediately before the shooting, by Willoughby Wallace Hooper. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

It is telling that a few of the captions of the famine photographs describe the people in the frames as objects, for it is only with an absolute lack of empathy for a different race and people that a position of ethical detachment can be achieved.

Grattan Geary, author of Burmah, after the Conquest (1886), was an eyewitness of the Mandalay incident. In his account, after a few statutory words of criticism, he attributed Hooper’s act “not to any inhumanity, but to what may almost be regarded as a passion for securing an indelible record of human expression at the supreme moment”. This particular incident, however, invited censure from the administrative officers.

There are of course different grades to the compromise one might strike between the urgency to document and any potential moral obligation. In search of an answer to the question of whether famines can at all be successfully represented, we turn to Mrinal Sen’s 1980 film, Akaler sandhane or In Search of Famine. Although Sen’s film is not about documentaries, he takes as his subject the problematic act of filmmaking itself.

An engraving from 'The Graphic', October 1877. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

An urban film crew make their way to a village, hoping to shoot a movie about the 1943 famine – another of the British Empire’s man-made disasters. They fail to do so, and are told by the village schoolmaster that they must return to their studios, where such a project might be carried out in isolation without involving lives at risk.

It has long been established that photographs do not represent absolute objective truth. The question of ethics, therefore, is never played out exclusively in the framed image. Ultimately the work must reflect back upon itself, making visible that which lies behind the camera. The question of agency of the photographer or film-maker must arise, and with that, it becomes essential to account not just for the photographer’s actions but the entire technological and state apparatus that is involved in framing and circulating images representing the most extreme of man-made human situations.