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I came across this image on a ‘free media web hosting site’ where I lazily put in the term “Prison” to the search. I am unwilling to name the site as I do not wish you to suffer the same banner ads and unedited content.

Unknown

Women prisoners working on road, Tanzania. circa 1901. Source: Unknown

The search returned the usual images of pets in crates (1st-person caption optional), macro-shots of rusting locks and/or bars, stock images of barb wire, and photos from Eastern State Penitentiary (which does many photography workshops). There were three images that were worth a second glance – the other two being images WWII prisoners of war.

Despite having no means to confirm its authenticity or the accuracy of the caption, I thought the image worthy of a quick reflection. The image is contrary to the usual representation of incarcerated peoples – the era; the gender of the subjects; the continent; the anonymity of the photographer. De facto, this becomes a visual source in its most naive understanding; all we have to go on are the women depicted. The photograph wriggles away from all the contextual information one needs to assess its political purpose.

The responses of the women to the camera (pride, defiance, awkwardness, subjection – and even laughter from a lady in the background) compel me to presume nothing of this picture. I question the authority to which they are subject, I question the legitimacy of the charge by which they are held prisoner, I certainly can’t reconcile hard labour with a mode of justice for grown women. This is a depiction of slavery more than it is of criminal justice.

If the date in the caption is accurate, Tanzania (then Tanganyika) was under German rule. “Tanzania as it exists today consists of the union of what was once Tanganyika and the islands of Zanzibar. Formerly a German colony from the 1880s through 1919, the post-World War I accords and the League of Nations charter designated the area a British Mandate (except for a small area in the northwest, which was ceded to Belgium and later became Rwanda and Burundi). British rule came to an end and Tanganyika became officially independent in 1961.”

I rarely harp on about “the power of photography” because it is a subjective assessment, but I will vouch for that personal reaction to imagery that can stop you in your tracks and get you thinking.

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