Recovering the absent presence and the unseen: Henri Gaden's photographic encounters in West Africa, 1894-1907

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This article explores invisibility and the unseen, as well as presence and visibility, in relation to a French colonial photographic archive left by Henri Gaden. This archive comprises numerous collections of images and documents; it is heterogeneous and multi-vocal in nature, a feature that is theorised. Part of this article focuses on a case study of Henri Gaden and the development of his photographic methods. However, a broader argument is made about the way the French colonial regime, often contradictory in its goals, facilitated photographic invisibility through cropping images. There is a strategic invisibility in the construction of this archive, manufactured invisibilities that point to contradictions and uncertainties, which reveal anxieties and desires of colonial authorities. The article highlights another form of the unseen: epistemic invisibility of modernist photographic methods – i.e. in the framing of an image, especially the absent presence of the photographer, as well as the unseen social relationships which constitute a photographic encounter. By attending to Gaden's voluminous correspondence, analytical strategies are developed to recover these forms of the unseen. Reading across varied archival sources not only highlights their contradictory nature, but also makes visible those aspects of the photographic encounter that would otherwise be left invisible.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)10-22
Number of pages13
JournalVisual Anthropology Review
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 15 May 2019


  • Archives
  • Colonial photography
  • French colonialism
  • Henri Gaden
  • Photographic invisibility
  • West Africa


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