Visual Propaganda at the Carlisle Indian School
Molly Fraust

A photograph is a meeting place where the interests of the photographer, the photographed, the viewer and those who are using the photographs are often contradictory. These contradictions both hide and increase the natural ambiguity of the photographic image.1

Of all the artifacts associated with the Carlisle Indian School, the photographs made in conjunction with the school are among the most widely distributed and best known. The photographs made from 1879 to 1902, under Superintendent Richard Henry Pratt’s leadership, served two main functions, to document the happenings of the school and to promulgate Pratt’s approach to “civilizing” the Indian students. Pratt used photography as an effective means to promote the success of his educational methods and the continued progress of the Indians. For Pratt, photography was a powerful tool of propaganda that could be used to effectively demonstrate his civilizing mission. In the context of this essay, I understand propaganda to denote any systematic, widespread promotion of ideas or practices to benefit one’s cause. Within this definition the following essay will consider Pratt’s use of photography as a powerful means for garnering support for the Carlisle Indian School and promoting his cause.

Photography, with its basis in science, was regarded in the late nineteenth century as a faithful means to objectively record the visual world. Because photographs were regarded as a credible medium and believed to be a reliable source of visual information, viewers readily accepted them as truth. Pratt, taking full advantage of the newest technologies and innovations, understood how photography could be used to document and illustrate the transformations being made at the Indian school. With the introduction of glass negatives and the albumen print process, photographers could produce sharp, high quality, inexpensive images in large numbers.2 Most of the photographers who worked with Pratt used this process, which explains why nearly all the photographs made for Pratt were of this type.3

Pratt first used photography as propaganda prior to his arrival at Carlisle, when he was in charge of the Indians detained at Fort Marion, in St. Augustine, Florida.4 Photo-graphs of the Indians were circulated to various members of the community who were concerned about the presence of the Indians at the fort. By presenting photographs taken of the Indians upon their arrival with photographs taken months later, Pratt illustrated the degree of transformation and assuaged the fears of the concerned community.

Pratt’s use of “before” and “after” photographs was so effective that Harper’s Weekly published a feature article on the Indians5 and the Smithsonian Institute commissioned plaster casts of the Indians’ faces, to document their appearance in a three dimensional media.6 Genevieve Bell wrote of the situation at Fort Marion, “It was the perfect set-up: Indians in small numbers, in a containable place, at a safe distance, and looking progressively less savage with every passing day.”7 In 1878, Pratt continued and refined his use of “before” and “after” photographs when he brought a number of Indian students from Fort Marion to the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institution.8 Working with Samuel Armstrong, president of the school, the two commissioned “before” and “after” images of the students to demonstrate the positive effect of the school. “Armstrong reasoned that such photographs might come in handy as a means of defusing criticism about the school’s effectiveness,” while serving as legitimate evidence of positive change. Pratt carried this idea with him to the Carlisle Indian School.9 Whether or not Armstrong and Pratt first thought of using photography in this way, “before” and “after” images that showed improvement would have been familiar to both men through commercial advertising, which had already employed it to promote products such as soaps and patent medicines.10

At the Carlisle Indian School, Pratt had “before” photographs made of the students to show the Indians as savage and unsophisticated, making the effects of the “after” images that much more dramatic. Through superficial changes in their physical appearance, Pratt subtly convinces the viewer that the Indian students have changed mentally as well, which is the key to the success of these images. Also, by orchestrating the compositions of the photos, Pratt and Choate fashion a particular atmosphere in each image that enhances the apparent change and influences the way a viewer perceives the images.

Portrait photography is a particularly influential medium because portraits contain visual codes that subtly indicate social status and identity.11 In portraiture, the positioning of the body reflects a socially constructed meaning in relation to public status and self-confidence, which is why posture and stance are particularly important in these photographs.12 Consider the following “before” and “after” photos. The first (fig. 9; cat. 9) shows three young boys in traditional Native American dress, while its counterpart (fig. 10; cat. 10), shows the same three boys, this time dressed in military uniforms. The “before” image suggests that the boys are out of their element; they are awkward and uncomfortable. The students all appear rather frightened and stern, out of place in the scene. Their facial expressions suggest uneasiness, as though they are separated from the familiar. Two of the boys sit on the floor, lowering their status, while the third and smallest of the trio stands in the center of the image, overshadowed by his clothes.

In the “after” image, all three boys appear to have more confidence, or are trying to look as though they do. Their posture is erect and they are positioned in a much more formal pose, making it evident that the three boys have already begun to assume the appearance of sophistication. In addition to the noticeable change in posture, the positioning of their hands is relevant as well. In the “before” photograph, the hands give no visual clues as to the life they represent; there are no signs of identity. They suggest little about the personalities of the individuals photographed, as they lay lifelessly in their respective laps. In the “after” image, the placement of the hands is deliberate. Each hand has been placed in specific gestures to show reform and sophistication. They are sturdily resting on a shoulder, knee, or thigh with a dutiful gesture and newly acquired confidence. This calculated arrangement of the hands is done subtly, yet its implications are clear. The poses and positions conform to established Western portrait conventions that viewers would have been familiar with, and interpret as symbols of refinement.

All three boys have received haircuts, which is further complemented by their military uniforms. Additionally, two of the boys are sitting upright in chairs, which make them appear elevated and dignified. The absence of chairs in the “before” photograph must have been a conscious decision. Rather than having them sit on chairs, Pratt shapes the way the viewers see them by consciously removing the trappings of civilization from the image. Also, the painted background in the “after” suggests the interior room of a Victorian home and further enhances the appearance of civilization and manners.

In another set of images, the same “before” and “after” technique exhibits similar contrasts. The photographs represent Pueblo Indians Sheldon Jackson, Harvey Townsend, and John Shields (cat. 39, 40). With a simple change of costume and venue, they “document” a complete transformation from what Pratt referred to as “blanket Indians” to “civilized men.” The “before” image shows the three Indian boys robbed of their dignity, looking uncomfortable even in their own clothing. Although two of the boys sit on chairs, their posture, gesture, and expression all show discomfort with their surroundings. The students in the “after” photograph express a sense of dignity and refinement, as though something more than their hair and dress have changed.

A third set of “before” and “after” photographs shows further evidence of Pratt’s hand in portraying the Indians (fig. 11, cat. 37; fig. 12, cat. 38). This pair of photographs, showing again three Pueblo Indians, represents a greater difference between the “before and after” images. In the “before” photo, Mary Perry, John Chaves, and Bennie Thomas appear in front of a background that suggests a natural environment, while the “after” photograph portrays them in front of a background that suggests the interior of a Victorian room, which imparts the appearance of civilization and manners. The “before” photograph places them in a setting where the floor is covered with hay, and though they are sitting, there is no indication that they are seated on chairs. In contrast, the “after” photograph represents the students in a formal stance, with one seated on a chair. This change in positioning and setting, in conjunction with their haircuts and military uniforms, heightens the drama of their apparent transformation. In this way, the photographs portray the exact results Pratt was hoping to achieve: assimilation of the Indians into the white man’s ways. Having pairs of photos like this on hand when meeting with important financiers and government officials who were directly responsible for the federal funds to run the school would certainly work to Pratt’s benefit.

While the technique and style of photographs made for the Carlisle Indian School were not unusual for their time, Pratt appears to have used them in an innovative way. By using them as scientific evidence to promote and prove the efficacy of his educational methods, he tapped into the power of the photographic image. As later writers on photography recognized, “pictures themselves are very rarely propaganda. It is the use that is made of the pictures that makes them propaganda.”13 Since Pratt was largely responsible for the reproduction and distribution of the images for the Indian School, he was equally responsible for their content as well. In this light, it is worth noting Allen Sekula’s comments:

Photography is not an independent or autonomous language system, but depends on larger discursive conditions, invariably including those established by the system of verbal written language. Photographic meaning is always a hybrid construction, the outcome of interplay of iconic, graphic and narrative conventions. The photograph is invariably accompanied by and situated within an overt or covert text.14

In the images produced at the Carlisle Indian School there is certainly evidence of an overt, constructed meaning. They are not objective results of a scientific experiment, they are evidence that has been manufactured to support a foregone conclusion. While the photographs capture the actual moment, they have been designed to suggest specific ideas about Indians. They do not capture the Indians solely for the purpose of documentation; they subtly reinforce Pratt’s agenda.

Modern photographic theory addresses many of the ideas that Pratt was using well before they became the object of scholarly inquiry. David Levi Strauss has noted: “The medium of photography has had to struggle with the question of ‘objectivity’ since Niépce and Daguerre first uncovered the process that ‘gives nature the power to reproduce herself.’”15 Strauss also considers the many decisions a photographer makes when constructing an image and how such decisions greatly influence the end result of the photograph and its “deceptive illusion of objectivity.”16 The power and the danger of photography is perhaps best characterized by John Berger, who writes:

The way photography is used today both derives from and confirms the suppression of the social function of subjectivity. Photographs, it is said, tell the truth. From this simplification, which reduces the truth to the instantaneous, it follows that what a photograph tells about a door or a volcano belongs to the same order of truth as what it tells about a man weeping or a woman’s body….If no theoretical distinction has been made between the photograph as scientific evidence and the photograph as a means of communication, this has been not so much an oversight as a proposal.17

Looking at the many images produced in conjunction with the Carlisle Indian School, the ease with which one is able to control the context of the photographic image is quite apparent. Berger continues:

A photograph is a meeting place where the interests of the photographer, the photographed, the viewer and those who are using the photographs are often contradictory. These contradictions both hide and increase the natural ambiguity of the photographic image.18

Pratt’s use of photographs as propaganda was a technique he frequently utilized when it came to gaining support. In his book, Battlefield and Classroom, he devotes an entire chapter to propaganda and what resources he utilized in order to take full advantage of every opportunity presented to him for the school. Pratt felt strongly that his Indian students needed the same advantages white students had in order to thrive, which is why he believed so strongly in their assimilation. Pratt said that it was “irrational to keep them reservated in their aboriginal environment, away from and outside our civilization, and expect success promoting their Americanization.”19 Despite mounting opposition, Pratt firmly believed in illustrating the progress of his Indians by demonstrating their abilities. All these “success stories” fell under the chapter he titled “Propaganda,” as they served not only his purposes, but also provided examples of why his system worked. In his writings on propaganda, he makes numerous references in letters to various benefactors of enclosed photographs, which he used to promote the success of the school. Though the specific images he used cannot be ascertained, one might assume that the images were similar to those he was said to carry around with him. They included various “before” and “after” photographs of students, as well as images of daily life on campus, and scenes of Indian students assimilating into white culture—all to show the positive changes made by these so-called “savages.” In one letter to T. C. Pound, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Pratt writes,

I send you today a few photographs of the Indian youth here. You will note that they came mostly as blanket Indians. A very large proportion of them had never been inside of a schoolroom. I am gratified to report that they have yielded gracefully to discipline and that our school rooms, in good order, eagerness to learn, actual progress, etc., are, to our minds, quite up to the average of those of our own race. Isolated as these Indian youth are from the savage surroundings of their homes, they lose their tenacity to savage life, which is so much of an obstacle to Agency efforts, and give themselves up to learning all they can in the time they expect to remain here.20

In another letter of similar content addressed to President Hayes, Pratt mentions photographs of the buildings on the Carlisle campus and several photographs of Sioux Indian children that were included with an earlier letter.21 His understanding of the power of photographic evidence shows his mastery of the art of communication while demonstrating the need for proof in order to support his mission. By including the photographs of the Indians hard at work during their transformation, Pratt was able to show immediate and satisfactory results to those who may have doubted his cause.

Pratt’s photographs also appeared in the Indian School’s publications The Red Man and The Indian Helper. These volumes were “especially designed for informing the general public as well as the administrative, legislative, and agency authorities.”22 Additionally, they were all most likely sent to congressional members, Indian Agencies, Pennsylvania officials, and distinguished newspapers. Through such wide circulation, Pratt’s articles and photographs perpetuated his assimilationist message.

Administrators of the Indian Boarding Schools took pride in creating “before” and “after” photographs that showed their power to suppress traditional Native American clothing and culture. Pratt, in particular, was deeply devoted to his mission and used propaganda to promote it. The photographs of students taken at the Carlisle Indian School help to endorse Pratt’s crusade to assimilate the Indians while revealing the power and influence of the photograph.



1 John Berger and Jean Mohr, Another Way of Telling (New York: Pantheon, 1982), 7.

2 Robert Hirsch, Seizing the Light: A History of Photography (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2000), 78.

3 Hirsch, Seizing the Light, 78. For Choate’s photography at the Carlisle Indian School, see Laura Turner, “John Nicholas Choate and the Production of Photography at the Carlisle Indian School,” in this volume: 14-18.

4 Lonna M. Malmsheimer, “‘Imitation White Man’: Images of Transformation at the Carlisle Indian School,” Studies in Visual Communication 11, no. 4 (Fall 1985): 54-74.

5 Louis Morton, “How the Indians Came to Carlisle,” Pennsylvania History 29 (1962): 53-63.

6 Genevieve Bell, “Telling Stories Out of School: Remembering the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, 1879-1918” (Ph.D. diss., Stanford University, 1978), 55.

7 Bell, Telling Stories, 55.

8 In the fall of 1877, several young Kiowa and Apache men were taken to the Agricultural Institute in Hampton, Virginia, which had been established as a Freedman Bureau school in 1868. James D. Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988).

9 Bell, Telling Stories, 56.

10 Advertisers had used “before” and “after” images to demonstrate the efficacy of their products; however, such ads usually employed drawings to illustrate the point. By using photographs, Armstrong and Pratt tapped into the convincing power of this new media, which was much more persuasive because it appeared faithful and reliable.

11 Graham Clarke, The Portrait in Photography (London: Reaktion Books, 1992), 74.

12 Clarke, The Portrait in Photography, 78.

13 Beaumont Newhall, Photography: Essays & Images (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1980), 269.

14 As quoted in Hirsch, Seizing the Light.

15 David Levi Strauss, Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics (New York: Aperture, 2003), 14.

16 Strauss, Between the Eyes, 15.

17 Berger and Mohr, Another Way of Telling, 100.

18 Berger and Mohr, Another Way of Telling, 7.

19 Richard Henry Pratt, Battlefield and Classroom, Robert M. Utley, ed. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1964), 248.

20 Pratt, Battlefield and Classroom, 248.

21 Pratt, Battlefield and Classroom, 249.

22 Beth Haller, “Cultural Voices or Pure Propaganda? Publications of the Carlisle Indian School,” American Journalism 19 (2002): 65-68.