Visions of Modernity in French Indochina

I recently discovered that the French Archives nationales de outré-mer has digitized a treasure trove of historical photographs from France’s former colonial possessions and has made those images available online for public viewing.


For people who are familiar with photographs from French Indochina, some of the photographs that the Archives nationales de outré-mer has digitized will be familiar from their previous appearance in publications.


However, there are many many many others in this online archive that, as far as I know, have never been made public before.


Just to give an example, here are some photographs of what we might call “visions of modernity,” that is, photographs that were either directly meant to highlight the modern developments that were taking place in the colonies, or which, through things like the clothing that we see people wearing, we can tell that society was “modernizing.”


There are many other images in this archive about historical places, and there are a very large number of photographs of people from different ethnic groups.


It is easy to search through the collection by going here, selecting a “territoire,” clicking “lancer la recherche,” and then clicking “afficher.” In the upper-right-hand corner of the page you can then select 20 under “Résultats par page” for easier viewing.


For French Indochina one can find photographs under the following “territoires”: Annam, Cambodge, Cochinchine, Indochine, Laos, Siam (2 pictures of Thai pilots landing in Vietnam) Tonkin and Vietnam. With some effort, one can probably related pictures under other “territoires,” such as the picture above of a structure being built to house Vietnamese exiles in French Guiana.


The Archives nationales de outré-mer has done a great service by making these images available for public viewing.


The past is fascinating and these images make that fact amazingly clear.

2 thoughts on “Visions of Modernity in French Indochina

  1. One of things such photographs shows is that there were a sizable number of Vietnamese who were apparently comfortable with taking on new ways of living that aspired to French / western ways of living. I’ve met elderly Vietnamese living abroad who were very happy to live under the French colonial system. It presented them with both a livelihood and a lively, interesting way of living. People such as these were frequently targets of revolutionaries, and anyone believed to be “thân Pháp” were considered to be “Việt gian” and were considered fair game. But being “thân Pháp,” did not preclude them from having a strong Vietnamese national identity.

    The other related thing that these photographs point out, is that all of the accoutrements of modernity were introduced by the French. So while the mission civilisatrice may have been sometimes been bogus, the Vietnamese nonetheless also benefited in many ways.

    • I had the very same thought (about the introduction of the accoutrements of modernity during the colonial period). And in fact, if you look at the many photographs of the “non modern” topics/subject/scenes in this archive this point comes through even more strongly. That said, it’s of course more complex, but that also relates back to your first point. There is an article that I really like by Erich DeWald – “Taking to the Waves: Vietnamese Society around the Radio in the 1930s” – which clearly shows that the promotion of the radio was something that Vietnamese and French people both participated in. While the colonizers and colonized were not “equal,” certainly by the late colonial period there was a shared world that had emerged (and I think this applies to all colonies), at least at the elite level.

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