A chance find at a local flea market ultimately led a Hope College professor to an international conference held in South Africa recently.
Dr. Neal Sobania, who is director of international
education and a professor of history at Hope, was among
those who made presentations during "Encounters with
Photography: Photographing people in southern Africa, 1860
to 1999," held in Cape Town, South Africa, on Wednesday-
Saturday, July 14-17.
Sobania presented "Stereoscopic Imagery in Support
of a Colonial Project, South West Africa, 1905." His talk
focused on a set of photographs taken in German colonial
Africa, in present-day Namibia.
The images are stereoscopic slides, which feature
two nearly-identical images next to one another on a card
intended to be seen through a hand-held viewer, creating a
three-dimensional effect. According to Sobania, the
stereoscopic viewer was introduced in London at the Crystal
Palace Exhibition of 1851, and by the turn of the century
was so popular that millions of images were produced
annually for public sale.
Sobania's interest in stereoscopic images of
Africa began locally and unexpectedly at an antique fair in
Allegan County, when he discovered a set depicting gold
mining in colonial South Africa. A specialist in African
history who holds a doctorate in African social and economic
history from the University of London, he initially acquired
them for use as a teaching aid in his Hope courses on
African history, but found them intriguing enough to also
investigate the genre as a researcher.
He has continued to collect stereoscopic slides in
the years since. His talk at the conference focused on a
more-recent acquisition: a 100-card set of stereoscopic
slides titled "Deutsch-Sudwest-Afrika" (German South West
Africa), which he purchased from an international dealer
about six years ago.
Taken in 1904 and 1905 by a professional
photographer and published by Leo Donnevert of Saarlouis,
Germany, the slides show a variety of scenes. Many are
military-themed with titles like "Laundry room of the Marine
Field Hospital in Okahandja 1904," "Mountain artillery after
the battle near Onganjira 1904" and "Colonial Troops
detachment on the march."
According to Sobania, the content of such slide
sets could be carefully crafted to convey a specific
message. He noted that photographs from turn-of-the-century
European colonies, for example, tended to emphasize that
colonial powers were a positive influence.
"What was presented and what was absent provided a
clear sense and message to those in the colonial empire that
Africa and its people would benefit from the 'civilizing'
influence of the West," he said. "Since stereographs
catered to a popular audience, this created world was made
available to millions for visual inspection."
The conference was organized by The South African
Museum and The University of Cape Town. The keynote address
was "Photography and the Performance of History," by
Elizabeth Edwards of the Pitt Rivers Museum of Oxford,
England. Other talks ranged from "Africa Obscura:
Representation, Identity and Control," to "'Interesting and
Picturesque': staging encounters for the British
Association in South Africa, 1905" and "Terrible Truths:
The rise and fall of photography as scientific medium in the
field of ethnography."
The event featured presentations by scholars from
around the world, including South Africa, Australia,
England, Finland, Germany, Scotland, Switzerland and Wales.
Sobania was one of four experts from the United States who