Patrick Augenstein

Reactivating the optics of colonialism : a critical engagement with historical German photography in Rwanda

Just as none of us is outside or beyond geography, none of is completely free from the struggle over geography. That struggle is complex and interesting because it is not only about soldier and cannons but also about forms, about images and imaginings.
(Said, 1993)

Edward Said, one of the leading intellectuals within the discourse of postcolonial studies, establishes an important connection for the theoretical framing to this lecture. He brings in visual artefacts and the practices of visualization, as an integral part for the analysis of colonialism and it’s “after-effects”. He not only points out their active role and involvement in the establishing of geographical facts – assisted through the university disciplines of geography – but critically brings them on a levelled playing field with military superiority, knowingly needed to bring the age of colonialism about. 

With the help of a case-study from Rwanda, this lecture tries to engage with visual artefact deriving from German colonialism in Rwanda, remobilising them for a discussion on present-day landscape changes.

Almost universally, the loss of forest cover in Rwanda, Africa’s most densely populated country, has been explained by population growth. Imaginations of vast forest landscapes prior to colonialism shape today’s landscape restoration policies, aiming at 30% forest cover countrywide by 2020.

Newly „re-discovered“ historical photographs from 1892-1916 challenges this established narrative. The course of events over the past 100 years might not be synonymous with the narrative of deforestation that follows a reverse trajectory as population increases. As systematically re-photographed viewsheds across Rwanda show, the contrary seems plausible. Increasing numbers of people often coincided with an increase in overall standing biomass. Deforestation has been clearly less drastic than previously thought. In fact, the overall standing biomass has increased in all re-photographed viewsheds.

Linking repeat photography and ecology proofed to be an innovative approach to critically engage with long-standing narratives on landscape change and the corresponding political frameworks aiming at restoring these lands. Yet, we need to ask ourselves: did geographical research fully transcend its colonial past and its hegemonial acts, claiming discourse sovereignty in speaking about “the foreign lands”? 

The historic photographs of this research confess to the colonial project, which reached its apogee towards the end of the First World War with 85 % of the terrestrial land surface pocketed by colonial powers. With all of the utilised visual archive of this study deriving from just this period of time, it seems crucial to shed light, not only on how these images operated during colonial time itself – but also, on how, in postcolonial times and through the theorems of postcolonial study, we can critically engage and re-mobilize these images for the cause of landscape analysis.