This essay investigates photographs taken at the Grahamstown Lunatic Asylum
during the superintendence of Dr Thomas Duncan Greenlees, from 1890 to
1907. It examines two specific sets of photographs: first, the photographs taken
for public consumption, and, second, the casebook photographs of the patients. I
argue that the photographs produced for public consumption ascribe to the
broader public image of the asylum. Greenlees constructed a public image of the
asylum being committed to the curative regime of moral therapy while catering
to the tastes, proclivities and activities of white private patients. The photographs
for public consumption also include images of black patients. Yet, in this time of
British colonial rule in South Africa, there was differential treatment for black
patients. Under Greenlees’s superintendence, they were assigned supervised
physical labour tasks under the pretext of them being occupational treatment.
The discourses of cure and recovery in such a “treatment” regimen become signalled
by the black patient’s ability to work. Thus, the curative ideal of the asylum
for black patients, disseminated as its public image, is primarily concerned
with domesticating black bodies into a docile and cooperative labour force.
However, the public image of black patients as being passive before the asylum’s
regimen is problematised through an analysis of the second set of images – the
casebook photographs. These photographs depict patients confronting, refusing
and resisting the asylum administration. Thus, the casebook photographs are
valuable in recuperating active resistance and hold the potential to undermine the
public image of the asylum.