‘Fire Brigade’, Benin City, January 1909

'Fire brigade', Benin City, January 1909. Photograph by N. W. Thomas.

Photography played an important part of N. W. Thomas’s work as Government Anthropologist in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone. During the 55 months between 1909 and 1915 that he spent conducting fieldwork, Thomas took approximately 7,000 photographs on quarter plate glass negatives. Although these photographs were made as part of an anthropological survey, today they form a remarkable historical record of the localities in which he worked.

The first surviving photograph from Thomas’s anthropological surveys, made soon after he arrived in Southern Nigeria in January 1909, shows a chain of three men passing pots of water between them to put out a house fire in Benin City. Thomas captions the photograph ‘fire brigade’ in his photographic register. It is one of a sequence of shots of a house fire and its aftermath.

Thomas individually numbered each of his photographs and subsequently categorized them under geographical and thematic headings, such as Topography, Houses, Daily Life, Decorative Art, Technology, Ceremonies and so forth. He also kept a photographic register, in which he – or an assistant – made a brief note about each photograph as they were taken.

Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1912, Anthropological Photographs
Excerpt from the Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1912. This shows a report of the Association’s Committee on Anthropological Photographs, including a catalogue of the photographs from N. W. Thomas’s first tour, classified by location and theme.

Over the course of the [Re:]Entanglements project we will be researching this unique photographic archive alongside Thomas’s sound recordings and artefact collections and will regularly post about our discoveries. Please share these posts and add any comments you may have.

2 thoughts on “‘Fire Brigade’, Benin City, January 1909

  • July 24, 2019 at 11:33 am

    A fascinating account. I’d be most interesting in learning more about the photography of N. W. Thomas. Did he ever formally document his photograph process prior to the photographs being taken? Are there any photographs of him, or any assistants, taking photographs?

    • July 25, 2019 at 1:40 pm

      Thanks for your comments Alan. The analysis of Thomas’s photography is an important strand to the [Re:]Entanglements project and we will continue to post information about this as the project proceeds. Regarding photographs of Thomas taking photographs, the only one we have located to date is discussed in a blog post discussing Thomas use of panoramic cameras and the notion of ‘photographic excess’. Please see https://re-entanglements.net/anthropologists-use-of-panoramic-photography/

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