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A Life of Rebellion

Photograph by: Augustus Washington Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

What does the word freedom imply? What does it mean to be free? To be an African American in the 19th century was akin to being owned by a white master. Despite the dire circumstances there were several former slaves or children of former slaves who stepped forward and tried to assimilate themselves in spaces where they weren’t welcomed. Photography was one such space, and Augustus Washington was one such individual who left an indelible mark. Washington was the son of a former slave. He attended Dartmouth College, and it was during this time that he learned to create daguerreotypes. But due to financial constraints he quit college and went on to open his own studio, a few years later, in Hartford, Connecticut. Daguerreotypes were still new and there were several takers. The portraits were roughly priced at about a dollar or three, which by today’s approximation would amount to about a hundred dollars—a more than decent amount for the time.

Amongst his sitters was John Brown (the image above), the militant abolitionist, who at the time wasn’t as well known as he became after his demise during one of his anti-slavery coups. The image was never published then, and is said to be his earliest portrait (1847). However, Brown’s steadfast demeanour continues to reverberate his undying commitment to his cause; Washington made sure of it, as he did with all his sitters.

However, Washington grew increasingly pessimistic about the future of African Americans in the United States, and was drawn to the idea of relocating himself and his family to Liberia, to live a life of dignity and freedom. Washington thrived in Liberia, having found success as a merchant, landlord, photographer and even served in the Liberian legislature. It was also where he ultimately passed away, in 1875.

What’s remarkable and astonishing is that there isn’t a single photograph of Augustus Washington, the man who immortalised so many with his camera. But his legacy continues owing to the conviction with which he led his life—which was a life of rebellion.

This article originally appeared in the July 2020 issue of Better Photography.


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