Association pour l’anthropologie du changement social et du développement
Association for the anthropology of social change and development

Remembering the German ancestor: Colonial photographs as part of Togolese families’ private collective memory

Remembering the German ancestor: Colonial photographs as part of Togolese families’ private collective memory

Auteur(s) : Logossou Ursula ;


Photographs of German colonizers can still be found in postcolonial Togolese families’ private homes. More precisely, the families in question are descendants from German colonizers. As illustrated by several historians, a great number of colonizers in German colonial time had relationships with African women. There existed different forms of relationships ranging from marriages according to local customary law, concubinages, short term relationships, prostitution and forced sexual encounters. Out of these relationships were born children that were denominated as ‘mixed race children’ by the German colonial regime and classified among the ‘autochtonous’ population. In so doing, these children were deprived of German civil rights that were restricted to the white population in German colonial Togo. Although some colonizers lived indeed with their African partners and children, most of the children rarely saw their fathers. By the end of German colonialism, German colonizers left Togo and, in most cases, they interrupted the contact with their African children at the time of their departure.

The current generation, the third or even fourth generation, is still aware of their family’s colonial legacy, the descendance from a German colonizer. Most of the families are easily recognizable by their German name. As already mentioned above, photographs of the colonial ancestor, mostly official portraits, are being kept by the respective families along with other material objects.

Recent postcolonial research already made a link between memory and photography

(c. Helff/Michels, 2018). This communication is based on Britta Schilling’s thesis (Schilling, 2014) that not just oral memory in forms of narratives but also material objects are part of a families’ private collective memory that Schilling refers to as the ‘family archive’.

With reference to Halbwachs, families constitute the smallest unit in which collective memory is passed from one generation to another while at the same time taking into consideration that memory is always a reconstruction from the present situation. In this way, memory can be considered as changing and fragmentary, including ruptures and forgetting.

In this communication, the interest in photographs will be threefold. Firstly, I would like to illustrate in what way the photographs can be regarded as a trigger for family members’ oral memory about the ancestor. What narratives evolve around the photographs?

Secondly, attention will be paid to photographs as being not just images but material objects  (c. Edwards, 2004) and therefore their being part of the families’ private domestic environment. More precisely, the focus will be on their visibility and arrangement in the families’ home. How does their mise en scène refer to the families’ remembering and/or forgetting of the colonial ancestor? How is the colonizer by the arrangement with other photographs integrated into a broader family history?

Thirdly, the photographs will be regarded as part of an entangled history. How is the families’ private collective memory connected to the public collective memory of colonialism in Togo and the world?

Mot-clé : colonial ancestor, entangled history, family, material objects, et memory
Toutes les communications appartenant au même panel :

Voir le panel Circulation et enjeux culturels et politiques des objets ethnographiques, le cas de la photographie coloniale / “Circulation and cultural and political challenges of ethnographic objects, the case of colonial photography”

Voir tous les panels du colloque Apad conference 2020