Provisional Semantics: Studying Colonial Indian Photographs at the Imperial War Museums

by | Aug 18, 2022 | General, Race, Ethnicity and Equality, Writing Race Two | 0 comments


In this latest post for the RHS ‘Writing Race’ series, Helen Mavin, Head of Photographs for the Imperial War Museums, discusses the challenges of creating national museum, gallery, and archive collections.

In her role as Co-Investigator for the recent AHRC-funded ‘Provisional Semantics’ project, Helen helped to analyse and reinterpret captions for colonial Indian photographs from the Second World War. In doing so, the project sought to deconstruct racially divisive barriers created by these captions, while maintaining historical accuracy. 



I have recently been the Imperial War Museum’s (IWM) Co-Investigator on the AHRC funded project ‘Provisional Semantics: Addressing the challenges of representing multiple perspectives within an evolving digitised national collection’ in collaboration with Tate, National Trust and the Decolonising Arts Institute, University of the Arts London. It was one of eight foundation projects in the ‘Towards a National Collection: Opening UK Heritage to the World’ (TANC) programme, which explored what is needed to create a unified national collection by dissolving barriers between collections. This includes the UK’s museums, archives, galleries, and libraries.

Through ‘Provisional Semantics’, we examined the notions of these barriers, and each participating institution framed their own case study to investigate collections through different methods of collaborative working and co-production to answer the following questions:

  • What methodological, ethical and practical changes do heritage organisations need to make to accommodate the multiple and provisional interpretations necessary for a sustainable digitised national collection, in order to genuinely represent UK Heritage?
  • What methods and approaches that engage intellectually and practically with the ‘decolonial’ agenda can heritage organisations employ to produce search terms/catalogue entries and interpretations fit for purpose for an evolving digitised national collection?


Working on ‘difficult’ histories in the IWM archives

At IWM we commissioned external academics to work with photographs selected from the museum’s archives. The intention was to retain the original wartime captions, generated at the time of production, and collaborate with specialists whose research intersects with the histories of the photographs to produce new meanings. This interpretation would critically engage with content and reveal what was not discussed by the original writers: histories that have been obscured or excluded by the colonial context within which they were produced.

The original captions provide an excellent historic source, revealing colonial attitudes of the time, but also contain language that can cause harm or inequity to modern audiences. IWM has a duty to make these records publicly available but also recognises that prejudiced and discriminatory language is present. This project enabled IWM to test methodologies that could support more equitable readings of a small number of photographs within the collection and evaluate whether this reduced the distress they can cause.

© IWM IND 1259

Understanding colonial recruitment drives in India

The photographs selected for the case study depict the recruitment process for men joining the Indian Army during the Second World War, particularly in 1942. These images were generated through a combined effort by different departments in India and Britain. They retain the traces of the Press and Censorship Bureau of the Ministry of Information – the British Government Department responsible for propaganda and official news at home and abroad – as well as the Bureau of Public Information, which was part of the Government of India. They were produced as part of a wider effort to document the war but also used by the press and as propaganda in India, Britain and across the Allied nations.

To enable the case study 53 photographs were newly digitised. Crucially both the front and the reverse of the wartime prints were reproduced so both the image and the contextual details, such as the captions and stamps on the reverse of the prints that reveal layers of historic interpretation and intervention, remain visible and accessible.

These original captions date from the time of production and reinforce the colonial language and gaze present. Language used by the British Government during its colonisation of India categorised Indian men by ‘castes’ or ethnic group affiliations, homogenising groups by perception of allegiance to Britain or ‘military prowess’ and utilised the language of the racist, pseudo-scientific ‘martial race’ theory. Consequently, the individuality and humanity of the men photographed is lost.

The photographs were presented online with very little context, limiting the museum’s capacity to aid audiences to understand how and why they were taken, by whom, and what they may have been used for at their time of production, and since then.


Who were the researchers?

The external academics commissioned to focus on the selected photographs were Dr Aashique Ahmed Iqbal, Assistant Professor in History at Krea University in India and a historian of South Asia with an interest in aviation, state formation and military history, and Dr Ghee Bowman, a historian based in Exeter in England who published ‘The Indian Contingent: The Forgotten Muslim Soldiers of Dunkirk’ (2020). They collaborated with Dr Diya Gupta, Past & Present Fellow: Race, Ethnicity and Equality in History at the Royal Historical Society and the Institute of Historical Research, a literary and cultural historian interested in the intersections between life-writing, visual and material culture, and literature in response to war. With support of the wider project team – Dr Anjalie Dalal-Clayton and Ananda Rutherford – they developed new caption text for 22 photographs,  engaging with the context and content of the production of these images, and addressing issues of colonial framing, power dynamics and wartime socio-political contexts.

Critical essays exploring wider research themes were produced, and the commissioned academics identified the need for short contextual paragraphs to grapple with central issues. These included the political and military contexts in India in 1942 and the so-called ‘martial race’ theory of categorisation of men constructed on perceived ‘suitability’ for military service largely based on ethnic or religious grounds. The new texts are now presented on the IWM website.

By commissioning new interpretation, creating multi-vocal explorations of the content and critically analysing the context for the photographs’ production, the project aimed to facilitate a deeper understanding of these images. It was essential within this project to author clearly and transparently the texts generated and provide short biographies of the writers to inform audiences how the text had been generated and by whom – transparency that was missing from the original text.

© IWM IND 1300

Assessing the significance of this case study

To assess the impact of the new texts of this project, we conducted some limited evaluation with audiences (IWM staff and members of the War and Conflict Subject Specialists Network). The majority of participants, before engaging with the research, agreed that distress or inequity could be caused by the presentation of the original historical captions online.  There was disagreement as to how far the project’s outputs would help them consider war and conflict from different perspectives or have increased confidence in using IWM collections material. However, there was agreement that the new interpretation took steps to reduce the distress and inequity present, and that the audience’s confidence was increased when the text was clearly authored by specific researchers.


Concluding remarks

The IWM case study in this project stemmed from an awareness that the language accompanying photographs in the IWM archive can be challenging in many ways, inaccessible to contemporary audiences, and include derogatory and often racist terms. This project has challenged me to consider more deeply the language present, but also the contextual positioning of the production of these photographs and their gaze – the harm and inequity present that is often unwritten or enacted through omission – and the structures and hierarchies through which information is generated.

Working in partnership with specialists outside IWM has provided the chosen photographs with more nuanced, multi-vocal and transparent interpretations. However, language is not fixed and there are more perspectives that can be represented, specifically those of non-academic stakeholders, for these collections. The project has fuelled conversation and research approaches at IWM. I continue to have discussions with colleagues at IWM and across the sector to listen, reflect and learn, particularly in relation to perspectives on the interpretation and dissemination of photography.

I would like to extend my thanks to Aashique, Ghee and Diya. This project required their care, attention and knowledge in enriching the narratives of these photographs, and considering the lives of the individuals represented rather than simply viewing them as colonial subjects.

The Provisional Semantics Final report, soon to be available on the IWM website, goes into greater depth regarding the ethical frameworks and challenges in designing and undertaking this research, along with details of the Tate and National Trust case studies. It also makes recommendations for embedding ‘decolonial’ approaches and methodological, ethical and practical changes within institutions in the GLAM sector.




Further Reading


Museums Association ‘Supporting Decolonisation in Museums’ guidance:

Dalal-Clayton, Anjalie and Puri Purini, Ilaria (2022) Doing the Work: Embedding Anti-Racism and Decolonisation in Museum Practice. Contemporary Art Society and UAL Decolonising Arts Institute, London.

Chew, Carissa in collaboration with the National Library of Scotland (2022) Inclusive Terminology Project: Guidance on discriminatory and harmful language for cultural heritage professionals.

Crombie, Jess and Warrington, Siobhan (2017) The People in the Pictures: Vital perspectives on Save the Children’s image making. Save the Children, London.

Provisional Semantics research outputs on the IWM website:

Discussion of Ethics and Practice within the GLAM sector or releasing sensitive photographs online:

TANC Foundation Project reports:




About the Author


Helen Mavin is Head of Photographs at Imperial War Museums. She is responsible for the care and strategic development of a collection which comprises of approximately 11 million items across negative, print and digital formats.

Helen was a Co-Investigator on the AHRC funded project: ‘Provisional Semantics: Addressing the challenges of representing multiple perspectives within an evolving digitised national collection’ and is co-supervising an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award with Cardiff University: ‘Reframing the Malayan “Emergency” (1948-1960): A photographic study exploring the role of colonialism in shaping public narratives of conflict in post-war Britain’. Helen is involved with the AHRC Capability for Collections fund research ‘Shared Digital Futures: partnership and meaning-making in newly digitised collections’ in collaboration with the Delfina Foundation and ‘EYCON: Visual AI and Early Conflict Photography’.

Her exhibition contributions include: ‘Robert Capa: D-Day in 35mm’ and ‘Wim Wenders: Photographing Ground Zero’.




Examples of Old and New Captions


© IWM IND 1302 Original Caption:

An Indian army recruit rejected on medical grounds has his thumb impression taken and is paid a compensation subsistence allowance.’

New Caption (2021):

‘Photos like this one were intended to convey the strength and efficiency of colonial rule in India. The purpose of this photo is to present the rejected recruit as a beneficiary of the Raj’s generosity and a symbol of the high standards of the Indian army. Note also the cross marking the recruit’s rejection drawn on his chest, a good example of the colonial army’s practice of marking men’s progress through the recruitment process on their bodies.

This posed photograph is remarkable in a number of ways. Like many others it conspicuously does not feature any white officers even as it foregrounds Indians in leadership roles. Elite educated Indians from both civil and military backgrounds oversee the process, their status marked by their seating, their ‘Westernised’ clothing and above all their literacy evidenced by a small mountain of papers.

The new recruits, representing the Indian masses meanwhile stand bare-chested, mainly in the background, while turbaned functionaries bring order to the proceedings. It also features Indians from different religious backgrounds, including Sikhs and Muslims, making the case that Indians can work together under the colonial government, at a time when India’s political parties were divided on religious lines.

Key to the photo is the pressing of the illiterate recruit’s thumbprint by a Sikh government officer implying that elite Indians were now a part of the ruling class, and can help govern their less fortunate compatriots’ without a  white man in sight.’  (Dr Aashique Ahmed Iqbal)


© IWM IND 1259Original Caption:

The Recruiting Medical Officer in Bangalore examining an Indian Army candidate’ 

New Caption (2021): 

‘Though this photo is apparently about the examination of an Indian army candidate, the camera’s focus is squarely on the Recruiting Medical Officer and the Non-Commissioned Officer assisting him.

The Indian officer here is filling a role that would a few decades before have been occupied by a white British officer; that of embodying the colonial government. The recruit’s body by contrast is passive and pliable in the hands of the army doctor who is examining his ear. Photos like this one centering Indian officers were deliberately aimed at promoting the view that Indians, particularly ‘Westernized’ and ‘educated’ ones, were increasingly occupying leadership roles in the Indian army.

The original humorous comment accompanying this photograph. ‘Let’s look at this ear’ has also been edited with a view towards presenting a less frivolous picture of the duties of Indian officers.

In the years leading up to the war, the Indianisation controversy had become a major bone of contention between colonial authorities and Indian nationalists. Indian politicians had pressed for the recruitment of more Indian officers but the colonial government was reluctant to transfer military command from British to Indian hands. With the outbreak of the war British propagandists, sensitive to the need to placate American allies as much as Indian subjects, focused increasingly on Indian officers while keeping British officers ‘out of the picture.’

Since the Indian Medical Service was one of the few branches of the Indian army to feature Indian officers in substantial numbers, Indian Medical Officers became popular fixtures in wartime propaganda films and photography. In addition to the Medical Officer, the camera also keenly focuses on the stripes on the Non-Commissioned Officer’s shoulder to emphasise that Indians were rising through the ranks of the Indian army at every level.’  (Dr Aashique Ahmed Iqbal)


© IWM IND 1300Original Caption (1942):

‘Punjabi volunteers crowding round the gates of an Army recruiting office [Picture issued ……..1942]’

New Caption (2021):

‘The gates of an Army recruiting office in Punjab. A soldier or policeman holds back the crowd.

By depicting a large group of men trying to enter the office, this photograph is perhaps intended to show the eagerness of the men to volunteer for the Indian Army.

These men are mostly Muslims. The British called them ‘Punjabi Mussalmans’, and they came from parts of Punjab which are now largely in Pakistan. The British wartime recruitment efforts were built around the so-called ‘martial race’ theory, now widely rejected as unsubstantiated and ideologically driven. Certain religions and groups were deemed to be naturally able soldiers, while other groups were only targeted for recruitment during this war when the need for men increased.’ (Dr Ghee Bowman and the Provisional Semantics Team)

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