Africa Through a Lens

An online archive of photos taken from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office photographic collection housed in the UK's National Archives.

A dental assistant attends a patient at the Dental Unit, Princess Margaret Hospital, Dar es Salaam (1960) - Catalogue reference: CO 1060/164.

Last week I wrote about Afrobarometer, a site featuring survey data from 35 African nations. Since Afrobarometer is based among multiple continent-based partners, this week I wanted to feature a project that is based in the United Kingdom (in future weeks, expect projects based in the U.S., France, and a range of African nations).  By varying the perspectives of the projects that are featured in this series, this series can showcase a range of perspectives and approaches to African digital archives. This week’s featured archive is Africa Through a Lens:

Put together by the National Archives in the United Kingdom, Africa Through a Lens is part of the wider World Through a Lens collection, featuring photos taken from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office photographic collection housed in the National Archives.  This collection covers nearly a century of history on the African continent, with content from 25 countries from the Scramble for Africa, the colonial era, and the era of independence.  Jenni Orme, Diverse Histories specialist for the National Archives, summarized the importance of this collection in an introductory podcast for the project, explaining that this collection allows for “glimpses into one of the most challenging times in the history of the British Empire and the political formation of the Africa that we recognize today.”  These glimpses are obviously glimpses through Western eyes, but through these photographs the viewer is granted “a chance to see and imagine the experiences of those who were being observed,” making this, according to Orme, “both a personal as well as a political collection.”

Type hairdressing (1901) – Catalogue reference: CO 1069/34

The photos have all been posted on the National Archive’s Flickr account, allowing for both easy access and commentary.  The project encourages users to contribute any insights they have on the photographs in the comments.  This is especially useful for the photos that there is limited data available on, cataloged under “Africa-Unknown”.  Users can comment on these photos, adding their own insights and ideas about their content and location.  This is an awesome feature for this site, because it allows users to participate in the cataloging of these materials, opening up knowledge production beyond the archive and into the general public.

Follow the National Archives UK on Twitter @UkNatArchives for updates and announcements about their collections.

  • Feel free to send me suggestions in the comments or via Twitter of sites you want us to cover.

Further Reading

The skeleton in the closet

The novelist Nadifa Mohamed complicates Britain’s troubled, racist legal history through the personal tale of one otherwise insignificant person, a Somali immigrant to Cardiff in Wales.

Life to the sound of gunfire

Nigerians fleeing extremist violence at home take refuge across the border in Niger among an already fragile population. Together they proceed to carve out a way to live better lives for now.

Democraticizing money

Cameroonian economist Joseph Tchundjang Pouemi died in 1984, either poisoned or by suicide. His ideas about the international monetary system and the CFA franc are worth revisiting.