100 years of Kenyan Photographic History

Joshua Doble
School of History
University of Leeds



I had been conducting overseas PhD fieldwork in Kenya and Zambia for eight months (generously supported by WRoCAH) before I heard about the opportunity to work with the Woodley family and their photographic collection. It was a happy coincidence that a local historian in Nanyuki whom I had befriended knew the Woodleys and had seen some of the collection. When I heard about its contents I shelved my plans for a Researcher Employability Scheme (REP) in London and met with the Woodleys to discuss if I could be involved with cataloguing, archiving and digitizing the photo collection amassed by their father.

The archiving cottage in Naro Moru, Central Kenya

We put together the project and after confirmation from WRoCAH I was fortunate enough to spend one-month last July/August in Naro Moru, Central Kenya, on-site with the collection. Naro Moru is a small town 170km north of Nairobi nestled under the western edge of Mt Kenya. The Woodley Collection is based here as the family home is situated between the Mt Kenya and   Aberdare National Parks, a testament to Bill Woodley’s senior standing within both Parks up to his death in 1995. Naro Moru and the Woodley home proved an evocative place to be cataloguing 100 years of Kenyan photographic history.

Mt Kenya c.1970

The project started with Danny Woodley and I identifying which collections to digitize and how to catalogue them. With a high spec photo scanner generously purchased by the African Environmental Film Foundation I set to work cataloguing, digitizing and both physically and electronically archiving the photos, slides and negatives. This was, at times, a laborious task due to the sheer quantity of photos, however it was made enjoyable by the breadth and diversity of the collection.

This remarkable collection has over 5,000 photos dating from the early 1900s to the early 2000s. It represents an invaluable historical source, with photographs covering three generations of the Woodley family in Kenya, from the first decades of colonization to recent developments in wildlife management. These photos trace not only a family history but the history of hunting, conservation and ecological change in Kenya. They are a valuable resource to the social, cultural and environmental historian, offering a decade by decade glimpse of the changing landscapes of Tsavo, Mt Kenya and the Aberdares, as well as snapshots of the less well documented areas of Northern Kenya around Isiolo and Marsabit.

White hunters in Kenya (1950s)

Raising orphan elephants in Aberdare National Park c.1960

Elephants inspecting ivory in early Tsavo National Park (1950s)

The changing demographics of Kenya’s big game, especially elephant and rhino, is also evident, alongside the striking shrinking of elephants’ tusk sizes. However, this is not a collection which plays to the narrative of environmental devastation and poaching in postcolonial Africa so often promoted by Western NGOs. There is a complexity to the photographic record here which traces the initial colonial obsession with hunting African wildlife through to the postcolonial position of white ex-colonials as protectors of the wildlife so rapaciously hunted by their forefathers. Equally the increasingly international, political and inter-racial nature of conservation in Kenya since Independence in 1963 is also documented.

Anti-poaching team in Tsavo National Park (late 1990s)

Although the REP was confined to one month, the on-going aim of the project is to make all of the digitized photos available online for researchers and the public to use. Material from the collection, which was digitized during this project, will shortly be featured in a film and book produced by the African Environmental Film Foundation on the history of Tsavo National Park. My thanks to WRoCAH for their generous support of this project and facilitating my work with The Woodley Collection.