'What a Picture Can Do': Contests of colonial mastery in photographs of Asian 'houseboys' from Southeast Asia and Northern Australia, 1880s-1920s
The archives of colonial Southeast Asia and northern Australia contain hundreds of photographs of masterly white colonizers and their seemingly devoted Asian 'houseboys'. This article analyses this rich photographic archive, drawing on examples from the Netherlands Indies, Singapore, Hong Kong, the Philippines, and the Northern Territory of Australia. It explores how photographs of 'houseboys' worked as a 'visual culture' of empire that was intended to illustrate and immortalize white colonial power, but that also expressed anxieties about colonial projects. As well as a tool for understanding the assertions and insecurities of white colonizers, the article argues that photographs of servants can be used to illuminate the working lives of these Chinese, Malay, Javanese, and Filipino men. Drawing on a remarkable studio portrait that was commissioned by three Filipino servants and an oral history account from a Chinese servant, I conclude that both masters and servants used the photographic medium to assert their power in the home and the colony.