Early Photography

Pitfalls and bias
an unreliable source

How reliable are old photos?

The thing with old portraits is that in almost all cases they have been staged. Early photographic equipment was heavy and cumbersome: you couldn’t snap a candid picture like we are used to nowadays, the subject had to stay really still. Buildings and landscapes are better at that than people, so these form a large part of early photos.⁠ Besides the limitations of the equipment however, an important aspect of early photography is the point of view from which these photos were taken.

Creating the Orient

Early photography very often served to create an image of ‘the Orient’ to send back home. Of course, this new art was also used in documentation like for example of archaeological sites and monuments, but documenting more often than not switched to creating when contemporary life was photographed. What was photographed had to fit into a specific framework: idyllic scenes in the countryside ‘like it had been in Biblical times’, and studio photography of men and women at their most ‘Oriental’. This included strangely misplaced clothing and sometimes complete nudity, as well as unnatural poses.⁠ Life as it actually happened was rarely photographed.⁠ Old photographs therefore are not neutral sources of information: we always need to be aware of the intent with and purpose for which they were taken. The photograph shown above was taken by Jean Besancenot in Morocco, and is more reliable than for example images from photo studios operating in the main cities.

Modern media

In this digital age, photographs circulate faster and wider than ever before. Social media platforms like Instagram and Pinterest are picture-based entirely and a quick search will get you dozens of image results. The context that goes with these however often does not come along, and as a consequence misinformation and misrepresentations are repeated again and again. With the availability of photography for virtually everyone, paired with the slow disappearance of traditional dress and adornment, we enter a new era of constructed images. Again, mashups of dress and adornment are created, photographed and circulated widely with just one click of a mouse. The photo shown above is an example for such a mashup: the headdress and face veil are not worn together like this, as they belong to two different social groups.

Looking at photographs

Here are some points to consider when looking at photographs. First of all, don’t take them at face value immediately but have a close look at what you actually see. Is it a studio photograph? Is the photographed person (semi-) nude? Is the photo part of a series, recognizable by captions like ‘scènes & types’? These are all indicators for posed and constructed photography. Postcards in particular are notoriously posed and in some cases a far cry from reality. A second point is to look for other work by the same photographer: there is a difference between the well-known photo studios in large towns, and photographers associated with for example archaeological or military expeditions. Thirdly, see what information, if any, you can dig up about the photograph itself. Especially with photographs found online, see what information comes with it: not every ‘Bedouin bride’ or ‘Woman in traditional clothing’ is identified accurately. As mislabeled info is often copied many times over (see more about that here), this may take some searching, but using the search feature for comparable images it may in some cases be possible to find a source with more information. Taking the time to form an opinion about the trustworthiness of a photograph as visual source will help you gain a better understanding of the jewellery and dress you’re researching.

What we can learn

Is there anything we can learn with certainty from early photographs, regarding jewellery? Well, yes: we can observe which jewellery items were in existence at the time of photographing. Even if they are props and used randomly (you’d be surprised to see how many necklaces ended up as headdresses, just because it looks so exotic), logic dictates they were available when the picture was taken. This provides us with a timeframe: ‘this type of jewel existed as early as…’, and to some extent an idea of clothing. These pieces of information can then be used again to contribute to the story of the photographed people as they really were, instead of how the photographer invented them to be.⁠

Never miss a thing on jewellery studies? Join the Jewellery List and find new articles in your inbox each month!


I have written this blog post from a perspective of photography as resource for jewellery studies and not as a discussion of early photography itself. This field is widely explored by scholars from a variety of angles. Here are a few starting points:

Tied in to the inventing and constructing of photographs is the power balance between the (foreign) photographer and the photographed. The Civil Contract of Photography by Ariella Azoulay explores these ethical aspects in depth. The video A Snapshot of Empire: the racist legacy of colonial postcards shows how these pre-staged photographs continue to influence our view today: watching these 8 minutes is highly recommended!

Local photography is discussed in Ritter and Scheiwiller (eds), The Indigenous Lens? Early Photography in the Near and Middle East (Berlin 2018), of which the introductory chapter can be read here.

A selection of sources for historical photographs of the Middle East can be found here and here.

Sigrid van Roode

Sigrid van Roode is an archeologist, ethnographer and jewellery historian. She considers jewellery heritage and a historic source. She has authored several books on jewellery from North Africa and Southwest Asia, and on archaeological jewellery. Sigrid has lectured for the Society of Jewellery Historians, the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden and the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center, among many others. She curates exhibitions and teaches online courses on jewellery from North Africa & Southwest Asia.