Postcards and the representation of labour class in colonial India

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


Following on from an understanding of postcards as ephemeral objects, images and carriers of messages, this paper will develop discussions by exploring them as a form of archive and portable display. Focussing on the representation of labour class in colonial India it will study their purpose in recording, assembling and sharing knowledge of manual workers (men and women). As an archive, the postcards reveal processes of image-making and inscription, attempting to show a set of “social facts” (borrowing from Benjamin and Adorno). As a collective, they prompt the viewers to fill gaps between the images and text, ascribing meanings and creating a web of imagined societal networks for the collector.

I will examine a series of images of manual workers printed as postcards and created using photographic technology or sketched illustrations. Whether depicted in photographic studios, or other places, the spaces inhabited by the people are liminal and non-descript. They are either close to a door, near a building or in an ambiguous space. With the exception of the cook or the fabric stamper, both skilled workers, the lack of depiction of a workspace and but a clear visual reference to work tools, renders the figures as either transient manual labourers or staged actors. The function of the text in relation to the constructed image, however, is to authenticate and fix the occupational roles of these figures.

This paper will draw upon the works of Ann Laura Stoler, Benedict Anderson and Michel Foucault to discuss the ways in which colonial knowledge is constructed, but highlight that the form of the postcard, an ephemeral item, is perpetually tied to the loss of knowledge. While as a record, the postcard attempts to qualify knowledge and re-inscribe its meaning through circulation, this paper will argue that the representations contain ruptures that challenge attempts to fix their roles in the colony.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 14 Sept 2018
EventPostcard Journeys: Image, Text, Media - School of Oriental and African Studies, London, United Kingdom
Duration: 14 Sept 201814 Sept 2018


ConferencePostcard Journeys: Image, Text, Media
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address


  • India
  • postcards
  • Empire
  • visual culture
  • representation
  • Race
  • Archive


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