A Seeing That Leads to Action

[person_by] Frank van der Stok

January 2020

1904. The Congo. Nsala, the man in the picture, was photographed by English missionary and early documentary photographer Alice Seeley Harris (1870 - 1970) after he arrived at her mission clutching a parcel that contained the severed foot and hand of his five-year-old daughter. She'd been killed and dismembered as a punishment when his village failed to meet the rubber quotas demanded by the imperial regime.
From 1885, Leopold ran the Congo Free State as his personal money spinner, getting rich off forced labour while fronting that it was a humanitarian project. Leopold was partly exploiting the local population so fiercely to profit from increased rubber demand after the invention of the pneumatic or inflatable tire by John Boyd Dunlop in Belfast in 1887.
In the 23 years (1885-1908) Leopold II ruled the Congo he massacred 10 million Africans by cutting off their hands and genitals, flogging them to death, starving them into forced labour, holding children ransom and burning villages. The ironic part of this story is that Leopold II committed these atrocities by not even setting foot in the Congo. Under Leopold II’s administration, the Congo Free State became one of the greatest international scandals of the early 20th century.
Harris went on to take hundreds of pictures like this, documenting the violence, enslavement and exploitation inflicted on the Congolese people by agents of the Belgian King Leopold II – Queen Victoria's cousin.
After they were made public, these pictures forced people in Europe to face what was really happening and, under public pressure, in 1908 Congo was signed over the the Belgian state. It wouldn't gain independence until 1960. The power of these images added largely to put an end to colonial rule.

Frank van der Stok
Frank van der Stok (b. 1967) is a curator, editor, essayist and intermediary for artists and art institutions. He also works as an editor and producer of artists’ books.


Part of Studies

Thought photographTed Serios1967

Thought photograph, Ted Serios, 1967

Frank van der Stok

In this Post-Truth era, almost every photograph seems to be speculative by nature.


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