I’ve just got back from Yangon where I was helping to set up the “Elephants and Empire” exhibition currently running at the Myanmar Deitta photograph gallery. The exhibition shows historical photographs originally taken for Steel Brothers & Co. Ltd, a British firm that operated in the teak industry, and that are now held in the collections of the London Metropolitan Archives. They document the industry from the jungle camps where the trees were logged, to the docks where the timber was exported. Because of the lack of accompanying documents—many of which were destroyed during the Japanese bombing of Yangon during the Second World War—we are not sure why the photographs were taken. But the images themselves are suggestive.
When the photographs were being reprinted, one particular image stood out as strangely familiar to me.
The image is not particularly sharp suggesting movement, either of the photographer or the elephant. It could have been a snapshot of work in Yangon’s timber yards during the interwar years. But the composition suggests that it was not captured by happenstance. It echoed another image, in a different medium.
This was a poster created for the Empire Marketing Board by the celebrated Burmese artist U Ba Nyan. While the pictures are not identical, there are some striking resemblances. The overall arrangement is similar, with the elephants filling the centre of the images, the pile of timber to the left and the shed-like buildings providing a backdrop. The comportment of the figures captured in both pictures are also similar, from the position and shape of the trunk as the elephant pushes the timber into place, to the outstretched leg of the oozie (elephant driver).
The resemblances between these two pictures are suggestive. They could merely indicate that this was a common scene in Yangon’s timber yards, but I think the similarities suggest more than this. Without knowing the precise dates of when the pictures were produced, it is plausible that one might have inspired or been the basis for the other. Since it is likely that Ba Nyan’s poster was more widely publicly visible, his poster may have been the inspiration for the photograph. If this were the case, the elephant may have been posed to recreate the poster.
Whether or not this was what happened, it was this ability to pose the elephant that both images were trying to capture. These are pictures attempting to convey the image of docile animals harmoniously working with their human oozie, all for the benefit of imperial trade. This might have been a reassuring image for an empire beset by challenges to its authority. These are more subtle images of imperial power that deploy animals than those of parading elephants at durbars and exhibitions. Manipulating the bodies of these working animals was one way in which British state and commercial power was exercised and displayed through imperial visual culture.