It’s 1904. The Congo. A man sits on a porch, staring intensely at something. At first you can’t tell at what—but a closer look reveals the sickening truth: It’s the severed foot and hand of a child.
Nsala, the man in the picture, was photographed by English missionary Alice Seeley Harris after he arrived at her mission clutching a parcel that contained what was left of his five-year-old daughter. She’d been killed and dismembered as a punishment when his village failed to meet the rubber quotas demanded by the imperial regime.
Harris went on to take hundreds of pictures like this, documenting the violence, enslavement, and exploitation inflicted on the Congolese people by agents of the Belgian King Leopold II, Queen Victoria’s cousin. From 1885, Leopold ran the Congo Free State as his personal money spinner, getting rich off forced labor while pretending it was a humanitarian project. After they were made public, these pictures forced people in Europe to face what was really happening and, under public pressure, the Congo was signed over the the Belgian state in 1908. It wouldn’t gain independence until 1960. With Seeley Harris’s rarely-seen collection showing at the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, I caught up with the museum’s director, Dr. Richard Benjamin, over the phone.
VICE: Alice Seeley Harris went to the Congo in her 20s as a missionary and ended up taking these pictures of colonial atrocities. What do we know of her motivations?
Dr. Richard Benjamin: As a missionary, obviously she had a zeal in other areas. Some of the images are disturbing in terms of how she’s posed with the Congolese children. It’s really hard to get an idea of what she was thinking at the time. It’s an interesting juxtaposition: The campaign was good, but was the work she was carrying out there? What were the reasons behind it?
Tell us a bit about how her pictures were seen at the time.
You’re looking at a campaign that was the equivalent of a PowerPoint at the time: slides. There were literally hundreds of talks around the country—Liverpool, London, Glasgow, Birmingham—by members of the Congo Reform Association, an early human rights organization, which included Harris, her husband, and people like [the journalist and activist] Edmund Dean Morel.
How much difference did that campaign make?
A big difference, absolutely. People of the highest level started to sign up and give money. You have to remember that King Leopold was connected to the British royal family. Regardless of whether the royal family had some link to it or not, it would have been seen that way. There was a groundswell in public opinion.
The images are quite graphic. Does that trouble you?
As the International Slavery Museum we have a lot of very visceral pictures—some contemporary. We’ve always thought long and hard about that. You don’t want to be gratuitous, but it’s a fine line because you do want to show people what something is.
I recently saw a presentation by an academic called Petra Bopp. She showed a picture of a young lady crossing a stream, in the sunlight—a lovely image. She’d been researching photos taken by the German army in the Second World War, when soldiers would put together scrapbooks. On the back of that image was the word “minesweeping.” The girl was a human minesweeper.
That was one of the most shocking images I’ve seen in many years but, actually, as an image in itself, it wasn’t violent. It made me think: There is something to be said for benevolent, nonviolent images. If you display them well, they can be really graphic.
Campaigning photography has changed over the years. There’s a stress on positivity, on not presenting people as victims. Is there still a role for pictures like Harris’s?
I’m aware that NGOs have moved away from the imagery of a young African child with flies around them. I was brought up on those kind of Band Aid images so I get what people are saying but if a ten-year-old or a 15-year-old were to see a campaign today, would they get a sense of how horrific it is? Sometimes you need to have a hammer and you need to hit hard.
So you need both?
Yes, you need to empower people. In the museum is a display called the black achievers wall—we place that very deliberately so that young people who are probably learning for the first time about Britain’s or Liverpool’s role in the slave trade don’t go away associating black or African history solely with slavery and oppression. You have to be hard-hitting but then you also have to say: People get through things, they achieve. Africa doesn’t stand still, things move forward.
Congolese groups have been involved in the exhibition. What’s their take?
Vava Tampa, the founder of Save the Congo, came to do a talk with us about his work. He was saying to not just associate the Congo with negative imagery. We had one member of the Congolese Association of Merseyside who had a different understanding of the difficulties in the Congo. When I was growing up, Mobutu Sese Seko was seen as an infamous dictator. But, interestingly, she wasn’t as negative about him as the West was. In the exhibition we have Patrice Lumumba as a positive role model, a freedom fighter. That’s the stance we take, but not everyone in the Congo would agree.
Do any particular photographs from the show stick in your mind?
There’s one image of a European being carried in a kind of hammock by two African porters. We asked Petronelle Moanda, operations manager of the Congolese Association of Merseyside, to give us a quote. She said, “It is a blessing to be Congolese and nobody can become Congolese by might, by greed or by power!” I deliberately put that uplifting quote with that image to say: there is a horrific aspect to Congolese history but you also have very proud, successful individuals.
by Rachel Segal Hamilton for VICE.COM