Profile: Beato and the Roots of Photojournalism

Felice Beato is credited as being one of the founders of photojournalism, yet his approaches are as much a warning as an inspiration. He travelled much of Asia from his late twenties until near his death, and although he left Europe far behind, he took many imperialistic ideals with him.

While reporting on the Second Opium War, he took care to only photograph the Chinese war dead, and not British or French casualties. Meanwhile, in his photographs of the so-called Indian Mutiny, the desolation of the surroundings and still-present skeletons empasise the might of the British forces.

Felice Beato
Interior of Angle of North Fort Immediately after Its Capture
21st August, 1860

Felice Beato
Interior of the Secundra Bagh after the Slaughter of 2,000 Rebels by the 93rd Highlanders and 4th Punjab Regiment. First Attack of Sir Colin Campbell in November 1857, Lucknow.
Printed 1858.

This man, one of the founders of the photojournalistic tradition, was also prone to merciless astheticism. A fellow member of the expedition to China notes Beato’s actions during his reportage of the Second Opium War:

I walked round the ramparts on the West side. They were thickly strewn with dead — in the North-West angle thirteen were lying in one group around a gun. Signor Beato was there in great excitement, characterising the group as ‘beautiful’ and begging that it might not be interfered with until perpetuated by his photographic apparatus, which was done a few minutes afterwards…

Beato’s ruthlessness in searching for a good shot is perhaps forgivable considering the nature of his task as a person who documents war. What is more unsettling is the subtle way in which his photos portrayed an ideologically-motivated image of other peoples.

His Western audience, having little else to go on, could easily create a mental image of Indian and Chinese peoples as fragile and less advanced. Through his photographic choices, Beato supported an Imperial drive for power that is now lamented.

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Reference: Wikipedia

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