Exposing the Congo

Alice Seeley Harris with Congolese children

James West unearths the horrifying truth behind colonial brutality and sees how photography became a powerful catalyst in the campaign for human rights…

This powerful exhibition, Brutal Exposure: the Congo, currently on show at the International Slavery Museum and developed in partnership with Autograph ABP and Anti-Slavery International, documents the violent exploitation of Congolese people and national resources at the hands of King Leopold II of Belgium in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

It centres on the work of Alice Seeley Harris, whose images contributed to perhaps the first cohesive photographic human rights campaign. Harris and her husband Rev. John H. Harris travelled to West Africa as missionaries, shortly after their marriage in 1898, but the horrific treatment of native Congolese at the hands of Belgian colonial agents and officials prompted them to become active campaigners for justice in the Congo.

Reverend Harris had campaigned against slavery in British East Africa prior to his marriage, and would go on to become parliamentary secretary to the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines Protection Society and a committed anti-imperialist. Through publishing books, papers and photographs, alongside giving public lectures and speeches, the Harris’s contributed to a fundamental shift in public awareness regarding Belgian colonial exploitation and a reappraisal of British colonial interests in Africa. More recently the atrocities committed in the Belgian Congo have gained broader recognition through Adam Hochschild’s acclaimed 1998 bestseller King Leopold’s Ghost, a title taken from a 1914 poem by Vachel Lindsay recalling the mutilation of Congolese men, women and children to encourage higher rubber production:

Listen to the yell of Leopold’s ghost,

Burning in Hell for his hand-maimed host.

Hear how the demons chuckle and yell,

Cutting his hands off, down in Hell.

The roles of Alice Seeley Harris and her husband as activists and educators is used to frame the exhibition’s ambition and layout, beginning with a large timeline displaying the convergent histories of human rights photojournalism, Anti-Slavery International and the modern Congo state. This is complemented by large boards which give further information on the relationship between Liverpool shipping companies and the Congo, Alice Seeley Harris’s life and activism, and the extent to which Leopold abused his control of the newly formed Congo Free State to create his own personal fiefdom.

From here our attention is channelled towards a booth emblazoned with the cover page of a lecture on the Congo atrocities revised by John Harris and Edmund D. Morel. A prominent author who would go on to become a radical politician, Morel was a key founder of the Congo Reform Association in 1904 which became a key voice against Leopold. The inside of the booth aims to recreate the atmosphere of an early nineteenth century anti-slavery rally, where Alice Seeley Harris’s photographs were used in lantern slide shows to accompany lectures from members of the Congo Reform Association.

“The combination of a voiceover, which details the widespread murder and mutilation of Congolese workers, alongside fleeting glimpses of Harris’s grainy images, creates a growing sense of apprehension and dread”

In this darkened and intimate space, a short lecture extract is complemented by a video slideshow of Seeley Harris’s images. The combination of a voiceover, which details the widespread murder and mutilation of Congolese workers, alongside fleeting glimpses of Harris’s grainy images, creates a growing sense of apprehension and dread which is realised in the next section of the exhibition. Here, the sense of uncomfortable intimacy manifested through the lecture recreation is expanded as we are allowed to linger on around 40 backlit copies of Harris’s photographs.

The use of a Kodak Brownie, one of the world’s first portable cameras, allowed Seeley Harris to document Leopold’s exploitation, but also to capture more everyday pictures of Congolese life. This results in an unsettling combination of intensely violent images with peaceful scenes of family life and indigenous culture. Similarly, the small size and poor composition of many frames forces us to get uncomfortably close to the photographs.

Within the context of the darkened room and the backlit display, the effect is akin to peering into a terrarium containing a scorpion or tarantula — edging ever closer to witness an unsavoury truth, only to recoil slightly as the violence contained within many of Harris’s photographs is made visible. In one of the exhibition’s most powerful images, we struggle to decipher a pitiful collection of objects which sits at the feet of a man named Nsala, only to flinch away as we notice the photograph’s description and realise that these objects are ‘the severed hand and foot of his five year old daughter murdered by ABIR militia.’

I use the zoological comparison to evoke the same anticipation of violence, but also the sudden visibility with which we discern the contents of the frame which momentarily breaks down the barrier between ourselves and the subject. However, this analogy touches on a broader tension which permeates the exhibition, intersecting with colonial depictions of the black body and Harris’s role as a missionary.

In its own way, the contrast between images of Seeley Harris stood in beaming white linen above a pyramid of Congolese children cuts just as sharply as images of disfigurement. Whilst Harris’s photography should be commended for drawing attention to Belgian abuses in the Congo, her lens displays a missionary zeal that is arguably no less damaging.

Nevertheless, these images powerfully illustrate the potential for photography to both document human rights abuses. Indeed, in his 1905 piece King Leopold’s Soliloquy, Mark Twain imagined the king fuming over the righteous power of the camera wielded by Seeley Harris and other activists: “The kodak has been a sore calamity to us… the incorruptible kodak — the only witness I have encountered in my long experience that I couldn’t bribe.” Brutal Exposure certainly succeeds in generating the same visceral reaction to Harris’s images generated a century earlier, and testifies to the enduring power of photography.

The main exhibition space is complimented by a resource area which contains a short video exploring the ‘ghosts’ of colonial rule in the Congo, and continuing violence in the post-colonial period which stems from the same desire to exploit the country’s vast natural resources. In addition to this and other educational resources on Leopold’s interventions in the Congo, visitors are offered the chance to sign Anti-Slavery petitions and take literature from the exhibition’s partnership organisations Autograph ABP and Anti-Slavery International.

As the above review should have made clear, Brutal Exposure contains content that some visitors may find distressing. Parental guidance is advised, and I would suggest that parents or carers who are unsure of the exhibitions suitability should to visit without their children first. However, due to its multimedia format and educational emphasis I would certainly recommend the exhibition for children over the age of 12.

James West

Brutal Exposure: the Congo will be on show at the International Slavery Museum until 7 September 2014, free entry, open daily 10am-5pm

Images courtesy The Harris Lantern Slide Show © Anti-Slavery International/ Autograph ABP

Posted on 10/02/2014 by thedoublenegative