Revelations within Colonial Photographs of Ceylon: “Veins of Influence”

Veins of Influence: Colonial Sri Lanka (Ceylon) in Early Photographs and Collections, by Shalini Amerasinghe Ganendra

 [This book is a pioneering monograph that brings a rich array of early and previously unpublished images of Sri Lanka (Ceylon) into the global discourse of photography, pairing a striking lens of visual appreciation with distinctly humanizing perspectives.


The argument built around a ‘veins of influence’ analysis takes a reconstructive approach to  contextualize and interpret colonial era photographs of Ceylon. This construct examines the dynamics implicit in the image and takes into account historiography, biographies of collectors and the idiosyncrasies of the social context of which are best understood by identifying for whom these photographs were intended. This analytical approach is not new; in assessing other cultural objects, this is best practice. However, recognizing how vital it is to understand these ‘veins’ when studying photographic material and that which John Berger so aptly termed  ‘ways of‘ seeing’, offers fresh methodology. This writing will also place the still unfamiliar early colonial era photography of Ceylon within a broader geographical discourse about world photography.

In these pages, Ganendra surveys more than 450 early photographs of colonial Sri Lanka, from important collections, most of which have never been published or otherwise  come into the public view, until now. Her focus on the collecting dynamic provides novel perspectives that humanize the image through the nature of their collectors and their related journeys.

Images featured are from the: Royal Collection Trust; Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford; Royal Commonwealth Society, Cambridge University Library; Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland; Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; Trustees of the Rothschild Archives. In addition to these UK collections, the publication includes early photographs from important local family collections and period publications and works by Julia Margaret Cameron. The collections are mainly  those of  ‘influencers’ and the writing considers images by both studio photographers and hobbyists, for commercial and non-commercial purposes.


The images explored in ‘Veins of Influence’ testify to the giddy intensity of the British vision of Sri Lanka as a land of extraordinary beauty, inexhaustible natural resources, and unbounded commercial opportunity.

The originality of Ganendra’s  approach is to emphasize the role played by these “influencers” as intermediary shapers and distributors of the emerging imperial vision of the new colony. By telling this fascinating story in a language that will be accessible to general and specialist audiences, ‘Veins of Influence’ promises to open an important new chapter in our understanding of 19th century photography in South Asia and globally.”  ……….. Christopher Phillips, Former Senior Curator, International Center of Photography, New York City

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“This seminal publication is for  specialists (including scholars, collectors, curators) and general audiences.  Ganendra’s unusual analysis of these collections adds another layer of understanding of the viewing and imaging of Ceylon specifically, but also offers a general approach to colonial image. This publication promises a visual journey that not only informs through the beauty of black and white imaging, but also through the dynamics of impression,  considering personal influences that operate on and through these images, including through our own engagement.

Shalini Ganendra has meticulously scoured extant public and private archives in the UK and Sri Lanka to uncover the various manners that Sri Lanka, or colonial Ceylon, was represented through the earliest photographic records in the 19th c. until the mid-20th c. advent of political independence.  As such, she has created a visual documentation of great value for understanding how the country and its evolving cultures were rendered.  It is, thereby, a very constructive historical contribution of lasting significance that enriches our awareness not only of indigenous subjects, but the manners chosen by Westerners to represent the country-at-large.” …….. John Clifford Holt, William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Humanities in Religion and Asian Studies Emeritus, Bowdoin College (USA

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