Pupils and teacher at the Many Peaks School Queensland ca.1910. Image courtesy of the State Library of Queensland.
Pupils and teacher at the Many Peaks School Queensland ca.1910. Image courtesy of the State Library of Queensland.

In my PhD thesis I explore the development of school discipline through Queensland’s history to the present day. One of the most fascinating forms of evidence I have uncovered to date has been school photographs. School photographs are, in some ways, a form of fictional representation. They show school children as they, in collaboration with their teachers, principals, and other authority figures, choose to be seen. What they reveal, then, is the way in which ideal discourses about how children in schools ought to present themselves are written upon the bodies of carefully posed and arranged children.

Photographs also provide evidence of who and what is deemed worthy of recording in this way. This is, of course, tied up with the history of photography itself. The ease with which photography equipment can be accessed and the social purpose of photographs are important determinants of the extent to which the lives of children are documented visually.

With this background in mind, it is possible to use photographs to examine the ways in which prescribed practices relating to discipline and morality have been inscribed on the bodies of children throughout recent history. When I look back upon my own school photographs I am struck by the uniformity of the students. Not only are we wearing identical uniforms, but everything else about our bodies are similarly regulated. Our posture, the positioning of our hands, our smiles. In fifth grade I was caught somewhat off-guard, the school photographer catching my head tilted slightly to the side. In the resulting photograph I stand out: a slight glitch in a uniform pattern.

This intense bodily regulation exists to varying degrees in the photographs I have examined for my thesis. There is a general movement toward increased regulation as time progresses.

Bungeworgaria State School portrait ca. 1926. Image courtesy State Library of Queensland
Bungeworgaria State School portrait ca. 1926. Image courtesy State Library of Queensland

The photograph above, taken at the Bungeworgaria (possibly Bungeworgorai) State School, provides an excellent example of the range of acceptable ways of presenting oneself as a student available to children during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. While the children are arranged to meet the photographer’s eye in a clear order, there is a degree of freedom in the way in which they hold themselves while doing so. There is limited regulation of bodies, with both legs and arms free to rest in a comfortable position. There is no regulation of facial expression. Neither smiling faces nor serious scholarly countenances appear to be required of the children. The range of facial expressions – smiles, frowns, impassive stares and even one gaze at a teacher – indicates that the children were likely given limited or no direction on this aspect of their presentation.

Photographs cannot replace other forms of historical evidence in performing historical sociological analysis. They represent only a brief moment in time, often a moment during which the figures represented are carefully groomed and posed. They can, however, serve to supplement other documentation in that they provide visual evidence of the impact of particular historical circumstances on the idealised presentation of bodies.

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