Education About Asia

Digital Archives: Teaching Indian Colonial History Through Photographs

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Digital Photography in the Classroom

We often use photographs in a history classroom to illustrate a point rather than as a foundation for our courses. I coteach an interdisciplinary course that integrates visual culture and history into an undergraduate class titled On the Edges of Empire: India and Mexico/American Southwest at Southern Methodist University. I was surprised to stumble upon a unique digital collection at the SMU DeGolyer Special Collections Library, which is known for its archives related to the US west, borderlands, and transportation. Despite their array of digitized photographs, I did not expect to find one of the most extensive collections of William Johnson’s photographs of India from the mid-nineteenth century. And the best part: all these photographs were digitized, allowing students access to them beyond the walls of the DeGolyer Library.1 This digital archive created a world of opportunity for new approaches to integrate visual culture analysis into the classroom. Not only can projects be designed using these digital photographs, they provide lecturers great opportunities to integrate them in classes through experiential learning. The objective of this essay is to suggest possibilities for utilizing photographs in a history classroom through drawing upon the digital collection of Johnson’s photographs, titled Photographs of Western India, circa 1855 to 1862 (Image 1). Johnson was a member of the Bombay Civil Service, and his photographs are most well-known from a volume he published in 1863 titled The Oriental Race and Tribes: Residents and Visitors of Bombay.2 The three volumes of Johnson’s photographs at DeGolyer Library, however, contain the most extensive collection of Johnson’s photographs in the world. All three volumes are digitized and include photographs of people, buildings, and scenery.


1. The finding aid is available at The Texas Archival Resources Online, “Photographs of Western India,” accessed August 25, 2015,

2. Clark Worswick and Ainslie Embree, The Last Empire: Photography in British India, 1855–1911 (New York: Aperture Inc., 1976), 5.