The Unseen Archive of Idi Amin

Hybrid event: Please RSVP below for videocall details.

Over the course of his eight years as president of Uganda, Idi Amin was the subject of hundreds of thousands of photographs. A dedicated and talented team of photographers under the Ministry of Information followed Amin, taking pictures of the many occasions when he appeared before a public. It was a perilous job. At least one government photographer—Jimmy Parmar—was executed by Amin’s men as punishment for his pursuit of unapproved photographic subjects. For decades it was thought that the photographs taken by the men of the Ministry had been lost to posterity, destroyed during the tumult of the early 1980s or misplaced during subsequent relocations of the Ministry’s archives. However, in 2015, Richard Vokes, working with Winston Agaba and Malachi Kabaale at the Uganda Broadcasting Corporation in Kampala, uncovered a filing cabinet full of thousands of photographic negatives. Each envelope was carefully labelled with information about the date and subject of the photograph. With Derek Peterson (University of Michigan) we later established that there are in fact: 85,000 negatives. Moreover, a majority of these negatives had never been used to make prints. This was, literally, an unseen archive. In 2018, the UBC launched a project to digitize the archive, in partnership with the University of Western Australia and the University of Michigan, and to date, the project team has scanned around 50,000 of the images. In May 2019, the first major exhibition of the images opened at the national Uganda Museum. ‘The Unseen Archive of Idi Amin’ consists of 200 photographs drawn from the much larger collection held by the U.B.C.

In this seminar, Richard Vokes will narrate the social biography of the archive, and explore what it reveals about Idi Amin the man, about the nature of his regime, and about everyday life in Amin’s Uganda. It will argue that although the archive has provided extraordinary new insights into the Amin years, so too its discovery and exhibition have raised complicated questions regarding the politics of memory in post-colonial Uganda. The lecture will describe how the project team have sought to engage with public discussions on this subject, in partnership with our many Ugandan collaborators – who include survivors of Amin’s torture chambers, and the relatives of his many victims.

The lecture is dedicated to the memory of the up to 300,000 people who were killed by the Idi Amin regime.

Richard Vokes is Professor of Anthropology and International Development at the University of Western Australia. His research focuses primarily on the African Great Lakes region, especially on the societies of South-western Uganda, where he has been conducting ethnographic fieldwork and archival research since 2000.