Willoughby Wallace Hooper: Photographer of Death

A photograph of emaciated people, suffering of starvation during the Madras famine. In this photograph, it's clear that the photographer asked hngry starving people to pose. Photograph by Willoughby Wallace Hooper. Image: Public domain.
At what point does the photographer change roles from a documenter of tragedy to an indifferent bystander?

137 years ago, two Burmese rebels were strung up on a wooden frame in Mandalay. Splay-legged, they face a British firing squad. The one on the left seems to have accepted his fate – but the one on the right is screaming in terror. The order to fire is given in the usual stages: “Ready, present… fire!”


One-75th of a second would have passed, as per colonial protocol.


The execution is stopped. The Provost-Marshall, Willoughby Wallace Hooper, called for a pause. He is not present in his capacity as Provost. He’s there to photograph the moment of death – and he needed a few minutes to set up his camera.

The image you see now was taken after those minutes had passed when Willoughby timed his click to the moment the executer said “Fire!”

Willoughby claimed this was the first execution to be captured by the camera.

Photograph of the Mandalay rebels, seconds before they were shot. Image: Willoughby Wallace Hooper. Public domain

Willoughby’s work in photographing the third Anglo-Burmese war is considered the most visual documentation of a late-19th-century military campaign. His photos; stark, professional and perhaps emotionless depictions of tragedy, were included in the 1887 collection “Burmah: A Series of One Hundred Photographs.” His earlier work, in India, documented the 1876-78 famines with clinical accuracy. People on the verge of death often found themselves in front of his camera. But none of them would have lived to see the resultant photograph.

More than a century since they were taken, Willoughby’s photos continue to challenge our idea around the role of photography. At what point does the photographer change roles from a documenter of tragedy to an indifferent bystander?

Willoughby’s photos are studied today, in an attempt to understand the colonial lens on suffering. They reveal the portrayal of the ‘native’ – dark-skinned, emaciated and impossibly weak against the implied strength of the colonizer on the other side of the photograph.

He is criticized today as he was criticized then. It was The Times of London that first published the expose of his timed-photograph in Burma. Willoughby was met with censure from all levels of the British elite. He was court-marshalled, tried, and found guilty of behaving in a “callous and indecorous” way.

But the trial of Willoughby was not a trial of the firing squad. ‘Rebels’ continued to be executed in batches across the British colonies. Was Willoughby on trial for shedding light on the negative side of British imperialism?

There are no easy answers. Only irrefutable moments in history, all captured by the camera of the Briton from Brixton.

Writer, Soldier, Photographer…fund-raiser?

Between 1853 and 1858, Willoughby was a Writer in the Secretary’s Department of the East India House. In 1858, the year after the Revolt of 1857, he was posted into the 7th Madras Light Cavalry, where he was made Lieutenant in 1859, Captain in 1870, Major in 1878 Lieutenant Colonel in 1884 and Colonel in 1888.

Willoughby was a talented soldier, with a reputation of being a good officer. He was known to risk his life in the pursuance of a photograph – in one narrated incident, a sepoy was mutinied in his camp and started firing on his officers. Rather than rush out of his tent with a gun, Hooper charged out with his camera and attempted to photograph the assailant. Whether this served as a distraction or not is unknown – but the sepoy caught a bullet before he could shoot Hooper down.

What pushed Hooper to photography was a combination of his own interest and that of his commanding officer – the Governor-General of India.

By the time of the Revolt, Lord Canning had built a considerable, informal collection of photos of the subcontinent. He liked soldiers like Willoughby who could wield a camera well and encouraged him to contribute his photographs to Canning’s collection. These were included in “The People of India: A Series of Photographic Illustrations, with Descriptive Letterpress” – a staggering assortment of portraits of Indians in the 19th century. You can view the whole collection here (it includes the works of numerous photographers).

Canning’s intention was to document the Indian people, their ways, trades and lands. It was an undertaking with military value, though it began as an attempt to “fairly represent the different varieties of the Indian Races.”

Willoughby’s work for this endeavour saw him transferred to the 4th Cavalry in Saugor and Secunderabad, where he produced portraits of the people from the Central Provinces. In this period, he is also known to have documented people and tribes from Nagpur – including the “Gonds, Chuwars and Cowers.” His most famous photograph from this period is of an Akali Sikh with an intense expression.

Image of an Akali Sikh by Willoughby Wallace Hooper. Image: Public domain

These portraits have been called the pinnacle of Hooper’s work. And they are striking. But they do not come close to having the same effect as his photos of the Great Famine of 1876-78. They demand a word greater than emaciation, for when the subject’s bones are more visible than the rest of their features.

Emaciated people sitting on a couch, called ‘objects’ by Willoughby Wallace Hooper. Image: Public domain

Hooper’s famine subjects all look on the verge of death. But in some photos, such as one of the victims from Madras, it is clear that he had them pose in a studio style. Why would famine victims arrange themselves naturally on a couch?

Image: Willoughby Wallace Hooper. Wikimedia Commons/Wellcome Library Image Catalogue [Public Domain]
Children under a tree. Photography by Willoughby Wallace Hooper. Image: Public domain.

It is not known whether Hooper ever aided his subjects. Even if they had died, under his watch, their numbers would have been a blip in the landscape of those who died due to flawed colonial policies in India. Around ten million died in the famine, largely as a result of cholera and starvation.

The question of the purpose of photographer comes to play here. Hooper’s intentions were unlikely to have been humanitarian. But his work led to the raising of nearly £700,000 in aid from British territories around the world. His photos were made into postcards, printed in magazines and used as a powerful motivator to donate.

It is apparent that there were not many photographers like Hooper who documented the human face of this famine. Dr William Cornish, the Surgeon General of Madras, who had publicly criticized the government for its inaction, lamented:

Words could only ‘feebly represent the actual facts’, but a photograph would help members of the government to ‘see the living skeletons assembled at feeding houses as I see them’.

A letter published in the Melbourne daily ‘The Argus’ illustrated how people were reacting to Hooper’s images.

Some of them are almost too painful to look upon. They are eloquent in proof of the worst we have yet heard of this dreadful calamity. I do not think, Sir, that the most tenacious money-lover could look upon these indisputable evidences of human suffering without experiencing the impulse to do something in the way of alleviation.

Perhaps, for the first time, the Western world was forced to sit up and look at the effects colonization had on ‘the natives’. Far from the narrative of the subjugated tribes of the Peoples of India, these photographs showed exactly what colonial policies were achieving as part of their ‘colonial mission.’

Willoughby occupies a grey area in the history of photography. His work does not suggest compassion, but it evokes it, nonetheless. A compassion, doused with horror – and self-reflexivity. Such ‘compassion’ is not without its problems. As one editorial at the time of the famine put it – “their wretchedness…is our opportunity.”

Rather than dismantling colonialism, these photographs strengthened the divide between the strong, well-fed European and the starving, ‘wretched’, Indian. They did not (and arguably, could not) prevent the next famine from taking place under Winston Churchill’s watch. But now that the die has been cast, and the shutter string pulled, Willoughby’s photographs are an important study for any student of history, compassion or photography.


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