Alice Seeley Harris

A proud legacy

Photographer Alice Seeley Harris's great granddaughter Rebecca visited the exhibition on the day it opened. In this video she talks about her inspirational great grandmother.  Please note:  this video includes a photograph that some people may find distressing. Parental guidance is advised.

Read a transcript of this video

Imaging the Congo

Alice Seeley was born in 1870 in Somerset. In 1898 she married John Harris before they left to work as missionaries in the Congo Free State. They soon became active campaigners after witnessing first hand the atrocities carried out in the name of King Leopold II.  

old group portrait photo of a woman with lots of children around her

Alice Seeley Harris, missionary, photographer and campaigner with large group of Congolese children, early 1900s. The Harris Lantern Slide Show © Anti-Slavery International/ Autograph ABP

In 1904 two men arrived at their mission from a village attacked by 'sentries' of the Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company (ABIR) after failing to provide the required rubber quota.  One of the men, Nsala, was holding a small bundle of leaves which when opened revealed the severed hand and foot of a child. Sentries had killed and mutilated Nsala's wife and daughter. Appalled, Alice persuaded Nsala to pose with his child's remains on the veranda of her home for a picture that would be one of the most shocking in the Seeley Harris' collection.

Alice Seeley Harris' photographs revealed to the world the shocking truth of exploitation, murder and slavery in the Congo. The campaign gained public and political attention through the Harris Lantern Slide Show that toured Europe and the US. These shows were accompanied with powerful narrations which attempted to stir the audiences' sense of duty and responsibility, and can be seen as a significant milestone in shifting public perceptions on the impact of colonial rule in the Congo.  

Seeley Harris used one of the world’s first portable cameras, a Kodak Brownie, to take images of both Congolese life as well as 'atrocity photographs' used in one if the first human rights campaigns. In 1905, Mark Twain published King Leopold's Soliloquy, an imagined set of musings in which Leopold cited the "incorruptible Kodak" camera as the only witness he had encountered in his long career that he could not bribe. 

"Alice Seeley Harris, before becoming a director of the Anti-Slavery Society, later Anti-Slavery International, authored the first ever photographic human rights campaign that was a primary reason slavery in the Belgian Congo was abolished.

Unfortunately the scourge of slavery still exists today and modern anti-slavery campaigners should look for inspiration in her groundbreaking work and belief that in spite of all odds a positive change can be achieved."

Aidan McQuade, Director of Anti-Slavery International

  Video transcript

My name is Rebecca Seeley Harris, I am Alice's great granddaughter. Alice Seeley Harris was a missionary in the Belgian Congo and she was a photographer. She went out to the Belgian Congo to photograph the atrocities. This exhibition, which is amazing, is to, I believe, give Alice a bit of recognition because so far she hasn't had any. 

I've been looking at Alice for quite some time. I think in the family actually the focus was on John, her husband, but I started looking at Alice when I read Mark Twain's 'King Leopold's soliloquy'. There was a quote in 'King Leopold's soliloquy' that it was the Kodak camera that King Leopold hadn't been able to bribe. It was the one witness to the atrocities that he hadn't been able to bribe. I looked at that and started realising that Alice had made quite a significant impact in bringing the human rights atrocities to the public consciousness. 

So I started looking further into that and realising that actually Alice was an amazing woman. She would have been only 27 when she went out there, I believe she was also pregnant, but was determined and used the camera as an evidential tool I think really, rather than being a photographer per se if you like. She was setting up pictures to show the mutilations and the atrocities at their worst so that she could bring them back to the UK and Europe and America to show people. 

Well my parents have always said that I've got a little bit of Alice in me because I'm quite rebellious in a way [laughs] and I don't like following the usual path. I myself actually do quite a lot of charity work and I'm immensely proud of Alice as my great grandmother and as a woman as well, because of the work she's done. I think for me, especially coming to see these exhibitions, which is overwhelming actually from my point of view because I'm so proud to have somebody, recognised or not, who did what she did at that time, that would have been an extremely dangerous thing to do. I hope a little bit of her spirit has ended up in me, or so my parents tell me [laughs], which makes me very proud.