Missionaries often find themselves in disparate places all over the world, and even though their primary role is not to be photographers, many have a camera in hand to capture the landscape, people, rituals, homes, costumes, daily activities, ministry activities, staff group shots, and more. Sometimes the images are intended for use in prayer letters or marketing efforts by their agency or sending church. Other times missionaries, like amateur anthropologists, are perhaps among the first to photograph a people group, such as Elisabeth Elliot’s shots of the Waodani people in Ecuador.
As we archivists say to budding researchers, understanding why a document is created (including photographs) is one key to interpreting the document. Knowing the original contexts and the intended use of these photographs helps us understand them more deeply.
The photographs featured this month are a tiny fraction of the many shots held by Buswell Library Archives & Special Collections, most still hard-copy versions on paper, negatives, or slides rather than in digital form. These images rarely come to us as lone items but rather in a scrapbook, or part of a set of slides or in between letters. Part of our work here in the archives is preserving this valuable context for future research or use.
These photographs were taken by Laura Neva Collins, missionary to Kenya with Africa Inland Mission (AIM) from 1907-1952. Laura spent most of her years with AIM in Kenya working among the Kikuyu people. After a year at Kijabe, she moved to the newly founded station at Kinyona, where she remained for the rest of her first term. The images came to the Archives as glass negatives, which she may have used to create lantern slides for presentations during church visits on furloughs. Likely taken between 1907 and 1914, the complete series of 33 images depict the Kikuyu people and aspects of Kenya’s society, customs, economics, geography, and tribal groups, as well as its growing Christian church, the missionary community, and church architecture. All the captions accompanying the images were original to the negatives.
Scrapbooks and photo albums were a popular way for many missionaries to preserve and arrange their photographs. These striking black and white images come from the personal scrapbook (Photo Album – Plymire III) of Assemblies of God missionary Victor Guy Plymire, one of four held by the archives. These images depict two religious gatherings in Tibet, likely during the late 1940s. A gifted amateur photographer, Plymire’s fascination with the Tibetan people and landscape produced many such stunning depictions, which can be found in Collection 341 The Papers of Victor Guy Plymire. Read about Victor Plymire’s life and ministry, as well as see more stunning images, on a previous From the Vault feature, Tibet Through Victor Plymire’s Camera.
While Plymire’s scrapbooks are almost entirely focused on the Tibetan people and environment, many of the other missionary scrapbooks in our collections are an eclectic mix of family album, travelogue, and documentation of missionary work. These three scrapbook pages from Photo Album – AIM III were created by Austin Paul during his first term with Africa Inland Mission (AIM) in the Belgian Congo during the early 1920s. Depicting his travels, family portraits of other AIM missionaries, as well as various Congolese Christians and tribal communities, the images exemplify the variety of missionary photography.
Captions and inscriptions, when available, are invaluable to a fuller understanding of the context or possible intended use of archival images. However, many images arrive at the archives without any such captions, or even certain dates. In these cases, context must be constructed from other available information, including the biography of the missionary and history of the mission or country. These images come from the collection of Helen and Ian Anderson, missionaries in China with Overseas Missionary Fellowship (OMF) from 1934 to 1951. The photographs likely depict Helen’s early years with OMF, including her time at OMF’s language school based in Yangchow, Kiangsu (now Yangzhou, Jiangsu) and her first assignment teaching at Chowkiakow Bible School for Women in Honan (now Zhoukouzhen, Henan).
Although all the photographs featured here are that of individual missionaries, many also form part of the documentation of the larger work of mission organizations. Their context and use should be considered as records of both the personal and organizational. This page of collected photographs features the mission work of Bonifacio Masaoay in the Philippines, but comes from the collection of the mission organization SEND International. Many mission organizations, like SEND International, Africa Inland Mission, Overseas Missionary Fellowship, or the Woman’s Union Missionary Society, used photographs like these from the mission field to illustrate their work in newsletters, periodicals, or other publicly distributed materials.
Our final series of photographs comes Elisabeth Elliot’s extensive slide collection, held in Collection 278: Papers of Elisabeth Elliot. Like many of the missionary scrapbooks and photographs in the archives, her slide collection is a mix of the personal and the missional, from her life as a missionary in Ecuador to her later career as a influential evangelical author and speaker. The selected images mainly depict her time living with the Waodani people from 1958 to 1961, as well her other travels in Ecuador. Elisabeth Elliot’s interest in photography was in part sparked by time spent with photojournalist Cornell Capa, who captured the images for Life’s 1956 feature “Go Ye and Preach the Gospel,” on the death of her husband and four other missionaries during their attempt to make contact with the Waodani. Some of the slides in the collection include images taken by Capa during his three visits to Ecuador.
Many more photographs from missionaries’ private collections can be found in the following collections: CN 110: Ephemera of Donald E. McDowell, CN 136: Records of Mission Aviation Fellowship, CN 215: Records of Overseas Missionary Fellowship, CN 232: Papers of Esther Hess, CN 272: Papers of Jennie Fitzwilliam, CN 379: Records of the Woman’s Union Missionary Society, CN 435: Ephemera of Isobel Kuhn, CN 451: Papers of Bernard Litchman, CN 481: Papers of Laura Barr, CN 534: Papers of Henry and Marguerite Owen.