Guide to historical photographs from Africa on the web

This guide gives an overview about selected web-projects making (historical) photographs from Africa available online in digital format.


Kurt v. Schleinitz, 1907/1914, Tanzania, 004-1051-14

Kurt v. Schleinitz, 1907/1914, Tanzania, 004-1051-14

Image databases mainly result from large digitization projects making these important visual traces accessible not only for the African studies scholar but also for the people in Africa interested in their own history.

Often, these historical sources are not available in the country where the photograph has been taken in the past. So an unrestricted, worldwide access improves the local knowledge about the visual past and supports the preservation of the local cultural heritage. While the indexing of some of these projects was done from a very European point of view (prejudices and habit), local African people may add their interpretation and knowledge of persons, objects and places to the metadata attached to the pictures. Also they are encouraged to offer counter-interpretations and local productions of meaning.

An attempt to offer a Togolese interpretation of German colonial pictures is made by the research project of Dr. Koukou Azamede working on a critical interpretation and didactic presentation of historical photographs from the archive of the German Colonial Society (Deutsche Kolonialgesellschaft).

Kolonialfotografie-ScreenshotRight now most of the image databases offer a somehow static presentation of pictures in sequence, deprived of their storage in the physical collection. Most of the projects tell not much about the contemporary use of the pictures. Open questions concern the flow of images across spaces, the re-use of pictures in other media (e.g. newspapers, books etc.) and the continuing (even unintended) effects. There is a growing literature on visual history and visual anthropology with some brilliant studies on individual photographs. However, right now, this did not have an impact on the design, interfaces, organization and contextual framing of image databases.

While interpreting photographs is a very demanding task, locating images on the web is only seemingly easy. Especially, it is difficult if one looks for photographs of very specific places, persons or material objects. One has to rely on verbal descriptions of the visual content. Often image databases use classifications or special thesauri to index the content. However, one has to look very closely on how theses thesauri do work, how the terms are spelled, not all do offer a search with synonyms, etc.

Another possibility to make the discovery of photographs from Africa easier would be the aggregation of scattered content in one digital place. An example might be the project “WikiAfrica” with over 30,000 African contributions to Wikipedia and the Wikimedia project thanks to the involvement of 100 institutions. It contains e.g. the image collections of the Brooklyn, the Tropenmuseum and the National Archives UK.

Some works to enter the academic discussion:
  • Heike Behrend: Contesting visibility. Photographic practices on the East African coast, Bielefeld: Transcript 2013.
  • Adam Jones (ed.): Through a glass, darkly: photographs of the Leipzig Mission from East Africa, 1896 – 1939, Leipzig: Univ.-Verl. 2013.
  • Richard Vokes (ed.): Photography in Africa: ethnographic perspectives, Oxford: Currey 2012.
  • Thomas Jack Thompson: Light on darkness? Missionary photography of Africa in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans 2012.
  • Jens Jaeger: Colony as Heimat? The Formation of Colonial Identity in Germany around 1900, German History 27 (2009), 4, pp. 467-489.
  • Wolfram Hartmann (ed.): The colonising camera : photographs in the making of Namibia history, Cape Town: Univ. of Cape Town Press 1998.
  • (in German:) Christine Brocks: Ist Clio im Bilde? Neuere historische Forschungen zum Visuellen, in: Archiv für Sozialgeschichte 53 (2013), pp. 453-486.
  • more literature via ilissAfrica
Photographer E. Hecker in Ovamboland, A_0ii_6874

Photographer E. Hecker in Ovamboland, A_0ii_6874

Digital collections of individual libraries and archives

  • Colonial picture archive, Frankfurt University Library, includes the image collection of the Deutsche Kolonialgesellschaft (DKG) documenting especially the German colonial activities. The database presents 53000 digitized historical pictures covering the whole of Africa and comprises the collection of photographs, photo albums and postcards owned by the Sam Cohen Library, Swakopmund, Namibia. While the general search interface is in German, the Africa-section can be retrieved in English via ilissAfrica.
  • Photographs of Africa, University of Florida Smathers Libraries, includes photographs of Africa from various research projects and photographers, e.g. by cinematographer/photographer Martin Rikli (1898-1969) documenting his Ethiopian expedition from 1935-36.  Another example ist the 1940 photograph album by Entomologist and Professor Lewis Berner conducting malaria research in the Gold Coast.
  • The Humphrey Winterton Collection of East African Photographs: 1860-1960,  Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies at Northwestern University, includes about 7,610 photographs organized in 76 separate albums, scrapbooks or loose collections and 230 glass lantern slides.
  • University of Wisconsin Digital Collections in African Studies, with the Harold E. Scheub Image Collection and “Africa Focus: Sights and Sounds of a Continent” offering 3000 slides and 500 photographs drawn from contributions by UWM faculty.
  • Liberian Photograph Collections as a part of Indiana University Liberian Collections, with Willie A. and Lucile S. Whitten Photography Collection (Liberia in the 1960s and 1970s), William V. S. Tubman Photograph Collection and Frederick D McEvoy Photograph Collection (1967-1968 Sabo labor migrants in southeastern Liberia).
  • Visual resources Relating to Africa at Yale, e.g. photographs taken by professor David E. Apter to complement field research on African nationalism and the transition to independence from 1952 to 1960.
  • Frobenius Institute’s online image database consists of 60.000 images produced mainly during numerous expeditions in the first half of the 20th century to Africa.
  • DEVA – Digitalisierung, Edition, Vernetzung, project by African Studies in Bayreuth. Available are the photographic archive by the linguist and theologian Ernst Dammann and his wife Ruth, mainly from field research in Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia and South Africa, 1933-1975; photographs taken by the anthropologist Professor Otto Friedrich Raum during his teaching and research journeys in South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe, 1938-1968; and photographs taken during field research by Professor Gerd Spittler in North and West Africa since 1967, mainly on Tuarag and Hausa in Niger, Nigeria and Algeria.
  • Picture archive “African Independence Jubilees” of the Department of Anthropology and African Studies, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, with more than 12,000 photos of the different events that were part of the official jubilee anniversary programs as well as other events that also celebrated the nation in some way (User’s Guide).
  • Photographic and Film collections, University of Cape Town, UCT Libraries
  • Digital Namibian Archive (DNA), a collaborative project by Utah Valley University and the Polytechnic of Namibia operating in conjunction with the Namibian National Archive. The digital photo collection includes e.g. the Stolze Album about Swakopmund.
  • Online photo archive of the University Library of Antanarivo, Madagascar.
  • The Cape Coast Archive, an effort by Ghanaian institutions together with the University of Virginia Library, and the United States branch of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), to document the unique cultural landscape of the Cape Coast, Ghana region. See especially the “Images from Military Museum” sub-collection.
  • Memórias de África e do Oriente, digitized photographs on lusophone Africa, e.g. a political activism collection of the Arquivo Histórico de São Tomé e Príncipe, 1975.
  • Swaziland Digital Archives, photo archive with photographs from Swaziland from 1860 to the 1990s, including explanations about the photos and small texts about the respective era. Many pictures were taken by the photographer Joseph Raucher.
  • picture archive of the Royal Geographical Society Picture Library
  • picture archive of the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (Photothèque Indigo)
  • the photograph holdings of the Genocide Archive Rwanda
  • the work of photographer and publisher of postcards Edmond Fortier, CENTRE EDMOND FORTIER, with photo exhibitions on Guinée 1905, Bénin 1908/09, Djenné 1906, Dogon 1905, St-Louis 1900, Tombouctou 1906
  • Nigeria’s Pan-Atlantic University presents its collection of rare historical documents and photographs via the Google Cultural Institute. Spanning 1851-1914, they tell the story of Nigeria’s formation as a colony. The second exhibition traces the transformation of Lagos from a cosmopolitan colonial trading center to West Africa’s largest metropolis.

Missionary archives

  • International Mission Photography Archive (IMPA), University of Southern California Digital Library,  historical images from Protestant and Catholic missionary collections in Britain, Norway, Germany, France, Switzerland, and the United States. Included are (the following is a shortened quote from the “about”-site):
      • The Moravian Church (Herrnhuter Brüdergemeine), established in 1722, was the first Protestant missionary society to send its agents to West and South Africa. The selection of photographs focuses on  Nyasa, Nyamwezi, South Africa West (the area just outside Cape Town) and South Africa East (the area between East London and Durban).
      • The Leipzig Mission (Evangelisch-Lutherisches Missionswerk Leipzig), founded in 1836, was active in East Africa. The archive in Leipzig possesses some 20,000 historical photos. In IMPA included are pictures by the missionaries Wilhelm Guth (who worked mainly in Pare, 1913-17 and 1927-38) and Leonhard Blumer (active mainly in Arusha, 1912-13 and 1924-26).
      • Basel Mission, from its inception in 1815 until the mid-twentieth century. Of a total of 75,000 images taken before 1950, 28,400 have been digitally accessible since 2002. The main areas of activity were Ghana and Cameroon.
        An innovative approach is the “Visual Interpretation of Photos taken from the Basel Mission Picture Archive” by Emmanuel Akyeampong placing the missionary use of photography within a cultural and historical setting.
        The new search interface of Basel Mission is called BM Archives.
      • The photograph collection of the Mission Archives at the School of Mission and Theology in Stavanger is mainly related to the work of the Norwegian Mission Society (formerly known as Norwegian Missionary Society), founded in 1842. Digitized images in this collection currently include pictures from Madagascar and South Africa.
      • The selection from the 25,000 prints held at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) come from the collections of the Council for World Mission (formerly the London Missionary Society), and the Methodist Missionary Society. Some of the photographs were taken by missionary workers in the field, such as the lay mission worker, John Parrett who served as a printer for the London Missionary Society in Madagascar from 1862 to 1885.
    Mission school, German East Africa, 006-1150-07

    Mission school, German East Africa, 006-1150-07

    • The Yale University Divinity School Day Missions Library is a world-renowned collection documenting world Christianity and the history of the missionary movement. Selections from its archival and manuscript collections for the IMPA project have focused on photographic postcards of mission work primarily in Africa and the Pacific Islands.
    • Founded in 1971, the Défap-Service protestant de mission in Paris has inherited the library and archive of the Société des missions évangéliques de Paris (SMEP), known in English as the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society (PEMS). The Society had been active between 1822 and 1971 in Africa: Cameroon, Gabon, Congo-Brazzaville, Togo, Zambia, Southern Africa, Lesotho, Madagascar. 18,000 images have been digitized in 2008/2009 of which 6,500 (Madagascar, Cameroon and Gabon) have now been integrated into the IMPA site.
  • Pictorial Archives of the United Evangelical Mission, Wuppertal, offering images from the Rhenish Mission and the Bethel Mission up to about 1960. Some of the images are available in digital format, however, not accessible online.
  • Photographic archive of the Mission of Northern Germany (Norddeutsche Missionsgesellschaft) in the Staatsarchiv Bremen with a focus on Togo.

National Archives and Libraries with a colonial (or global) history:

  • Africa Through a Lens” by the British National Archives, offers an online collection of thousands of images taken from a collection of Foreign and Commonwealth Office images. The original records include what appear to be personal scrapbooks, official albums, printed pamphlets and even framed photographs and paintings. Some images are official public information shots. These images have been added to Flickr so that everyone can comment, tag and share them. Regional focus is on South Africa (>500), Ghana, Kenya (>700), and Nigeria (>900).
  • Endangered Archives Programme, British Library, includes some projects on Africa,  e.g. EAP054 “Archiving a Cameroonian photographic studio” and EAP139 “Rescuing Liberian history – preserving the photographs of William VS Tubman”, Liberia’s longest-serving President.
  • Gallica, Bibliothèque nationale de France, the digital library of the National Library in France has 6,500 photographs, e.g. advanced search (subject “Africa” and type of document “image”). See also the dossier “Voyages en Afrique“.
  • Digital Picture Archives of the German Federal Archives with 150,000 pictures of their collection of more than 11 Million pictures and posters online. On the one hand one can find a lot of pictures concerning political visits of German politicians in African countries (see “Topic Search” => “Geography World” => “Afrika”). On the other hand there are many historical pictures of the German colonies via “Classification” => “Aa 700”, e.g. 860 pictures of German East Africa (Tanzania).
  • Base Ulysse (Banque d’images), Archives nationales d’outre-mer, Aix-en-Provence, France, with several thousand digitized images of the French colonial empire.
  • Many other national libraries offer pictures from Africa, e.g. the National Library of Australia, and the Library of Congress.


Digital Collections of Museums

  • Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, with several collections that have been largely digitalized and are introduced and explained in brief by scientists of the RMCA or by external specialists. Especially noteworthy are the photographs of the expedition of Charles Lemaire (1898-1900), the photos of Herzekiah-Andrew Shanu (1858-1905) of Nigerian origin, the collection of photographs of Henry Morton Stanley, the urban photography of Joseph Makula (worked in 1956 as the only Congolese photographer at Congopresse, the official agency of Belgian Congo), and the ethnographic field photographs of Auguste M. Bal (administrator in the Bangala district of the former Belgian Congo.
  • Pitt Rivers Museum for anthropology and archaeology (University of Oxford) has Virtual Collections, e.g. 350 historical Luo photographs taken between 1902 and 1936.
  • Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art with over 300,000 still photographic images documenting the arts, people and history of Africa over the past 120 years. Photographer and filmmaker Eliot Elisofon (1911-1973) created an enduring visual record of African life from 1947 to 1973.
    Further pictures of other Smithsonian institutions are available via the Collections Search Center.
  • African Photography”, photography of West Africa and beyond (1840 to now), e.g. with the Passavant collection of 274 photographs from West and Central Africa held by the Basel Ethnographic Museum (Museum der Kulturen) documenting the coastal area between Sierra Leone and Angola.
  • Science & Society Picture Library, combined picture archive of the London’s Science Museum, the National Railway Museum and the National Media Museum with some interesting pictures on Africa.
  • Some recent exhibitions dealt with African photography, e.g. by Museum Folkwang or the Walther Collection.

Further guides on historical photography

More visual traces are offered by

  • the large image hosting web services (like Flickr e.g. Images FOR Africa).
  • the major search engines (like Google images).
  • the social web hubs (like Facebook e.g. The Nigerian Nostalgia 1960 -1980 Project).
  • the large cultural heritage projects DPLA and Europeana – sometimes these portals give access to unexpected material from Africa.
  • digital collections of books containing illustrations; one example being the British Library releasing over a million images onto Flickr Commons for anyone taken from the pages of 17th, 18th and 19th century books.
  • public history projects, e.g.  History In Progress Uganda collecting and publishing photographs from (private) collections and archives in and about Uganda (strong on the Buganda kingdom and especially on Kabaka Mutesa II).
  • personal weblogs, e.g. of researchers documenting their field work or of photo journalists.

Digitized postcards

Moving images

  • The Colonial Film Database holds detailed information on over 6000 films showing images of life in the British colonies (190 films on Africa). Some are available for viewing online. The project united universities (Birkbeck and University College London) and archives (British Film Institute, Imperial War Museum and the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum) to create a new catalogue of films relating to the British Empire.
  • The African Media Program offers an online, comprehensive database of films, videos, and other audio-visual materials concerning Africa as well as education services about African media. The AMP is a project from Michigan State University’s African Studies Center, a Title VI National Resource Center in African Languages and Area Studies.
  • Further information can be obtained at the film museums and archives like the BFI National Archive, Deutsches Filmmuseum (and further film institutions in Germany).
  • The German colonial cinematography was studied by Wolfgang Fuhrmann. His dissertation has a filmography:
    Propaganda, sciences, and entertainment : German colonial cinematography : a case study in the history of early nonfiction cinema, Proefschrift Universiteit Utrecht, 2003.

Comments, adjustments and additions are most welcome!

Updated at 3rd April 2014

About ilissafrica
This is the blog of the internet library sub-saharan Africa (ilissAfrica).

9 Responses to Guide to historical photographs from Africa on the web

  1. Pingback: Guide to historical photographs from Africa onl...

  2. Pingback: Guide to historical photographs from Africa on the web | African Studies library

  3. ilissafrica says:

    Also useful for “Finding and using public domain photographs”, however, not so much on Africa:

  4. C E Hastings says:

    This is really useful, thank you – there’s a discussion here that might be of use.

  5. ilissafrica says:

    Report about “Preservation of Photography Patrimonial in Africa (3PA): West African Image Lab,” a four-day workshop held at the end of April in Benin, West Africa, 2014: via

  6. ilissafrica says:

    Compare also the paper by Jerri Orme on ‘Africa Through a Lens’ in: Terry Barringer / Marion Wallace (eds.): African Studies in the Digital Age. DisConnects?, Leiden: Brill 2014, pp. 221-234 (

  7. ilissafrica says:

    Three Dutch museums of world cultures (Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, Afrika Museum, Tropen Museum) present their images online, with many on Africa, e.g. Jomo Kenyatta:

  8. ilissafrica says:

    Codelli’s photograph collection from Togo is housed in the Slovene Ethnographic Museum, Ljubljana, see
    Anton Codelli (1875 – 1954) from Ljubljana travelled to the German colony of Togo with the unusual task of constructing a radiotelegraph station for the company Telefunken.
    thx to J. Ellinghaus (

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