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October 2014: Missionaries as Photographers

Above: This striking black and white image found in the personal scrapbooks of missionary Victory Guy Plymire features the 17th-century palace of the Dalai Lama in Tibet. A gifted amateur phographer, Plymire's fascination with the Tibetan people and landscape produced many such stunning depictions, which can be found in Collection 341 The Papers of Victor Guy Plymire .

 

Left: A detail of a larger photograph from Elisabeth Elliot's slides found in Collection 278 The Papers of Elisabeth Elliot, this image captures a photograph within a photograph, as American missionaries document their experiences in Amazonian Ecuador among the Waorani Indians.

 

Missionaries find themselves in disparate places all over the world, and even though their primary role is not to be photographers, they often have a camera in hand to capture the landscape, people, rituals, homes, costumes, daily activities, ministry activities, staff group shots, and more. Sometimes the images are intended for use in prayer letters, or marketing efforts by their agency or sending church. Sometimes missionaries, like amateur anthropologists, are perhaps among the first to photograph a people group, such as Elisabeth Elliot's shots of Waorani people.

As we archivists say to budding researchers, understanding why a document is created (including photographs) is one key to interpreting the document. Knowing the intended use of these photographs helps us understand them more deeply.

The photographs featured in this month's Bulletin Board are a tiny fraction of the many shots, still mostly hard-copy versions on paper or as slides rather than in digital form. These rarely come to us as lone images but rather in a scrapbook, or part of a set of slides or in between letters. Many more photographs from missionaries' private collections can be found in the following collections: CN 110, CN 136, CN 215, CN 232, CN 272, CN 379, CN 435, CN 451, CN 481, CN 534.

Above: A missionary with Africa Inland Mission, Paul Austin turns his camera on indigenous Kenyan women engaged in their daily activities.

Right: Even missionaries get to be tourists. Paul Austin's personal scrapbooks contain images of his mission work in Kenya as well as his vacation snapshots of the Great Pyramids of Giza in Egypt.

Both these photographs and more can be found in Collection 81 The Records of Africa Inland Mission.

 

 


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Last Revised: 10/01/14
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