African historiography has over the past decade begun to pay increasing attention to photographs as a source for African history. A growing body of work has raised a number of methodological and theoretical questions about how scholars can and should work with images. From their experience with written documents, historians are aware of the ideologically charged conditions under which colonial knowledge was produced. This awareness has armed scholars with a skepticism to look beyond the image itself and examine the physical and technological environment in which photographers worked. Posed studio shots that create “natural” settings and post-event retouching are only some of the practices photographers used to endow their images with a greater semblance of accuracy.
Andrew Roberts and David Killingray's “outline” of photography in Africa charts the development of photographic techniques and how their use created specific kinds of images of Africa; Virginia-Lee Webb emphasizes photographers' manipulation of not only their subjects, but also the environment in which they were photographed. What this work has produced is an oft-spoken axiom that photographic images of Africa (or any other place) ought not be taken at face value. This axiom has guided a significant amount of scholarship, although Beatrix Heintze wisely cautions against overinterpretation.
Scholars who work with written documentary evidence from the colonial period have well established the ways in which administrators, missionaries, and other Europeans represented Africans as an “other,” as they sought to create cultural and social distance between themselves and Africans. Still other scholars have combined written and oral materials to show how Africans established their own identities and interpreted colonial discourses to create alternative, liberating discursive spaces.