Photo Captions

Hidden People in Colonial Era Photographs


1931 League of Nations Commission of Enquiry into the Control of Opium-Smoking in the Far East, Report to the Council, Vol. 1, 32


This is a photograph from late 1920s Burma, taken by an unnamed photographer with a League of Nations' commission that was documenting opium use in the "Far East." The opium shop was one of 120 in the British ruled colony, located on Canal Street, today's Anawrahta Road in busy downtown Yangon. The unsmiling men that the caption identifies as "Indian consumers" are two among "235 Burmans, 12,619 Chinese, and 365 Indians" in 1929 who were registered to smoke opium, a yet legal drug.

Many official photographs from colonial era Southeast Asia were taken under peculiar circumstances of asymmetry—of power, of perspective, of inequality and diminished dignity. How can we see these hidden worlds? In the images we encounter, what is visible (and familiar), what is not? Look at the right-hand corner, in the shadows. There is a dark-skinned third man, in a white coat. Another figure is completely invisible: an administrator called the Resident Excise Officer. The British created this position in 1902 to oversee the day-to-day management of the hugely lucrative opium shops. The League of Nations admired how in Burma "Government control of the licensed vendors is very detailed and continuale. It is exercised through the resident excise officer attached to each shop, who must be in the shop during the whole time that it is open." Yet he is not there. Or at least we do not see him.

Perhaps such palpable absences remind us of the imperious summons that cast individuals as documented others and the politics behind selective visualizations. Alongside bearing witness to the early 20th century lives of drug addicts before they were criminalized, this photograph also alerts us to the urban economies and colonial states that survived on their conscription, while remaining out of respectable sight.


Diana Kim