Nanina Guyer: Picturing Secrecy: „Secret Societies“ in Historical Photographs from West Africa, 1880‐1930

PhD-thesis, Department of History, University of Basel (2015)

Men’s and women’s “secret societies” were crucial institutions which structured, regulated and maintained the social and political order in traditional West Africa. Secrecy towards the un‐initiated and the prohibition of sight of certain places, masquerades or rituals were key concepts that ensured the functioning of these sodalities. However, from ca. 1880 on, not only a vast amount of text has been produced about these associations but also photographs depicting members, masquerades, places as well as rituals related to these sodalities. This (apparent?!) paradox has never been researched. The examination of the relationship between secrecy, the prohibition of sight and the photographic encounter lies at the core of this research project.

Materials and Methods

Relevant images have been published as illustrations in books, magazines or as
postcards. Unpublished material can be found in national, missionary as well as private archives in Cameroon, Europe and in the US. The reconstruction of the photographic encounter and contextualization of pictures is attempted through looking at photographic series by the same photographer, and consultation of textual sources (captions, fieldnotes, travel reports, etc). Additionally, relevant images were brought back to Cameroon and were discussed with current members of „secret societies”.

Objective and Approach

The aim of this research project is to describe, analyze and interpret the production, dissemination and reception of historical photographs related to “secret societies” which were created between 1880 and 1930 in Cameroon, Sierra Leone and Liberia. By emphasizing that the photographic image is shaped as much by the photographer as by the photographed, Geary’s concept of co‐authorship (In and Out of Focus, 2002) is a valuable tool to avoid the pitfall of too quickly dismissing these images as purely western fantasies of “the Other”. Consequently, special attention is paid to the agency of the photographed, their modes of self‐representation, the local adaption of photography and to historical complexities in which the photographic encounter took place.


The examination of images of “secret societies” offers insights into the history of
photography in remote areas of West Africa, the history of visual representations of “Africa”, the history of “secret societies” as well as further test the value of visual material as sources for African history.


Supervisor: Prof Dr Patrick Harries

Funding: Swiss National Science Foundation, Project Number 135065

Duration: 2011‐2014

Download Poster: Picturing Secrecy(2012)