Shadow Catchers at the Indian School: photography, representation and reclamation (AHRC)

Project Details


Utilising photographs of American Indian children as primary historical sources, my work will explore how photography became a medium through which the white population was invited to view the dramatic transformation of "savage " Indians into "civilised " students. This project focuses on the Carlisle Indian School, a "living experiment" organised to prove to white Americans that Indian children could be "civilized" and educated for citizenship. The school sought to obliterate native cultures and teach children to look, behave and think like white Americans. Carlisle's founder and superintendent, Captain Richard Henry Pratt, commissioned local Carlisle photographer, John Nicholas Choate, to document his project and supply visual evidence of its success. These photographs are as important to the official record as written records and letters, but surprisingly, they have received little attention from historians.

"Shadow Catchers at the Indian School: photography, representation and reclamation" will begin with an introductory chapter outlining for readers the theoretical frame of the book and explaining the multi-faceted nature of photographs generally and these photographs in particular. Created to perform a specific function, their meaning neverthless depends on the historical context of their viewing and this has shifted and changed over time. One of the underlying assumptions of my study is that no photograph can be fully understood at any single point in its existence. For example, a picture of an Indian boy, commissioned by white officials to demonstrate to a white audience that Indians were educable, was also sent home to his family to provide proof of his well-being and, more than a century later, that same photograph spanned the generations to supply the only surviving visual evidence of this boy's life at the school for his descentdants.

The main body of the book will be divided into three sections. The first will analyse the familiar before/after pairs of pictures taken at the Carlisle Indian School, as well as hundreds of other photographs of Carlisle students, to ascertain how the transformation process was presented. In particular, it will interrogate how "savagery" and "civilisation" were visually constructed through use of the camera, with a special focus on how racial issues were negotiated. The second section will scrutinise photographs of the built environment of the Carlisle Indian School campus --the carefully constructed space where this transformation was to be achieved --to determine how the place where this experiment was conducted was presented to the public (what was being shown and what concealed). The third section will explore firstly, how pupils and parents viewed and used these photographs at the time of their creation; the ways they claimed and adapted them to their own purposes. Secondly, the place Indian families and communities in the twenty-first century have created for these nineteenth century photographs .
Effective start/end date1/03/0830/06/08


  • Arts and Humanities Research Council: £25,405.00