Open Access Journal

ISSN: 2183-2803

Article | Open Access

Writing Disability into Colonial Histories of Humanitarianism

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Abstract:  In this paper, the relation between humanity and disability is addressed by discussing the agency of people with disabilities in colonial histories of humanitarianism. People with disabilities were often—as indicated by relevant sources—regarded and treated as passive, suffering fellow humans, in particular in the making and distribution of colonial photography. In the context of humanitarianism, is it possible to understand these photographs differently? This paper analyzes one photograph—from the collection of the Tropenmuseum Amsterdam—of people with leprosy in the protestant leprosarium Bethesda, in the Dutch colony Suriname, at the beginning of the twentieth century. It discusses the way the sitters in the photograph have been framed, and how the photograph has been made and used. The photograph makes it difficult to register agency, but easily reaffirms existing colonial categories. Therefore, this paper also uses another strategy of analysis. By following Actor-Network Theory, focusing on non-human actors, the second part of this paper offers a new and more convincing interpretation of the photograph. This strategy (a) understands agency as a phenomenon of interdependence instead of independence, and (b) approaches photographs as both real and performed. Combining the written history of humanitarianism and disability, it allows new histories of people with disabilities to develop, histories that move beyond the categories of colonialism.

Keywords:  actor; Actor-Network Theory; agency; colonialism; disability; humanitarianism; leprosy; photography



© Paul van Trigt, Susan Legêne. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (, which permits any use, distribution, and reproduction of the work without further permission provided the original author(s) and source are credited.