Articles, Issue 25, Past Issues, Special Double Issue 25 & 26
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Intimacy and Annihilation: Approaching the Enforcement of U.S. Colonial Rule in the Southern Philippines through a Private Photograph Collection

By Silvan Niedermeier

A blurred grey-tone photograph. Probably taken from a boat. We see lightly rippled water, a landline with several mountain peaks, and billowed clouds in the sky. Whiteness emanates from a point behind the clouds in the upper midst of the picture indicating the position of the sun vis-à-vis the photographer and viewer. At first glance, one might guess that the photographer took this picture to capture the sublime scenery in front of him or her. Yet, why did she or he keep this photograph despite its apparent visual deficits? Maybe, the photographer wanted to remember the situation in which she or he took the picture or keep it as a memorabilia of the very view depicted. Or else, the taker of the image attached a certain aesthetic value to the picture as such.

Fig. 1 Photograph from Edgar A. Stirmyer Collection, Courtesy of U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center

Our guessing continues until we view the backside of the slightly curled photograph. Suddenly, while reading the handwritten words, the image on the front side makes more sense; that is, its connotations begin to unfold, start to pierce and disturb us and lastingly affect our reading of it. Jotted down with a pencil, we can decipher the following words and numbers:

“Island of Jolo.
Mt Dajo in center of the picture
where the big fight
March 6-7-8-9th
600 Moros killed
20 Americans – killed
81 wounded.” 1

The photograph stems from the photograph collection of U.S. Army Captain Edgar Alexander Stirmyer today preserved in the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Little information exists about Stirmyer’s life and military career. After graduating from the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York, in 1897, he was assigned to the U.S. Army Cavalry Branch and was eventually deployed to the Philippines from 1905 to 1907, where he resided in Zamboanga, Mindanao, with his wife Julia H. Moore and their son Edgar.2

Apparently, Stirmyer shot the above photograph during his participation in the so-called “Bud Dajo Campaign,” one of the most brutal and controversial operations during U.S. military rule in the southern Philippines from 1903 to 1914. This might explain why Stirmyer preserved this image despite its blurred outline. Most likely, he captured the sight during his unit’s journey to or departure from the island of Jolo and kept it as a souvenir of his participation in a military operation that led to the killing of several hundred Filipino men, women and children in the crater of the extinct volcano Mount Dajo on Jolo Island in March 1906.
Another image included in the collection, shows a seemingly different, yet, as I will argue, nonetheless related scene. It depicts the Stirmyers’ living quarters in Zamboanga, Mindanao.


Fig. 2 Photograph from Edgar A. Stirmyer Collection, Courtesy of U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center

The backside of the photographs bears the caption “Our house – Julia, baby & nurse on the porch. Observe the artistically thatched roof!” Apparently written by Edgar Stirmyer himself, the caption mentions the three people depicted on the photograph: Stirmyer’s wife Julia, with their son Edgar in her arms, and, left to them, Edgar’s Filipino nurse. Furthermore, the caption assigns the photographs with further connotations. By titling the photograph “Our house”, Stirmyer tinges the view with notions of domesticity and belonging. His addition “Observe the artistically thatched roof!” in turn, ironically marks the exoticism of the view, thus anticipating the expectations and guiding the reactions of relatives and friends who would get to see the image.

In Stirmyer’s collection, images of colonial family life and leisure in Zamboanga are stored back to front with pictures of his military engagement in the Bud Dajo expedition. The juxtaposition of pictures of intimacy and annihilation suggest a close yet unresolved connection between the private and emotionally charged realm of colonial domesticity and the application of annihilating violence in the enforcement of American colonial rule in the southern Philippines. Following this insinuation, my paper seeks to describe and analyze the linkages between private photographs and the discourse of military securitization in the enforcement of U.S military rule in the Philippine south between 1903 and 1906. I argue that Edgar A. Stirmyer’s photo collection offers a unique entrance point for an analysis of the discourse and practice of U.S. colonial rule in the southern Philippines. By adopting a close reading of private photographic records, my paper also calls for an image-based approach to issues of violence and security and their interrelations.

1. U. S. Colonialism in the Philippine South and the Discourse of Military Securitization

From the beginning of Spanish colonization of the Philippines in the 16th century, the southern Philippine islands retained a status of de facto independence from Spanish colonial rule. The different Muslim groups in the Philippine south persistently resisted against the colonialists’ attempts to gain control of the main islands of Mindanao and Sulu. Although the Spanish at times succeeded in establishing military forts in Zamboanga, Mindanao, they fell short in maintaining and expanding their military presence. At the same time, the emerging sultanates in Mindanao and Sulu developed close economic and political ties with the wider Muslim world of Southeast Asia. The exploitation of slaves, common people who were forced spent portions of their lives in servitude due to the conviction of a crime, indebtedness, or through raids, secured the power of the sultanates and generated most of their wealth, as slaves maintained the sultanates’ armed forces, collected the taxes from allied datus3 ,and secured its economic foundation.4 These economic structures upheld the Philippine south’s spiritual and political independence from Spain, making it “a space inside the territory, claimed by the Spanish that was outside the control of the state.”5

After the U.S. took control of the Philippine Islands following the Spanish-American War of 1898, it at first continued the Spanish policy of non-interference into local customs in the Philippine south whose inhabitants had been termed “Moros” by the Spanish colonizers6 American colonialists took over this generalizing designation although the southern Philippines population at the time consisted of a more than thirteen linguistic groups “unified to some degree by a common Islamic identity.”7 While the U.S. army engaged in a bloody colonial war against the Philippine independence movement on the island of Luzon and other Philippine islands, the U.S. government decided to keep the southern political and religious leaders out of the war by signing an agreement with the Sultan of Sulu, Jamalul Kiram II. The so-called Bates Treaty guaranteed monthly payments to the Sultan and his datus as well as non-interference with local laws and customs, in exchange for U.S. sovereignty in the region. In 1903, however, the U.S. government decided to suspend the treaty and bring the local population under direct control.8

To achieve this goal, the Second Philippine Commission created the so-called “Moro Province” and placed it under the command of a Major General (or: military governor), who held both military and civil authority. Until 1914, a succession of military governors (Leonard Wood, Tasker Bliss, and John J. Pershing) attempted to establish U.S. colonial rule by a double-sided approach. On the one hand, they supported the economic development of the region by improving roads, strengthening local industries, founding schools and supporting local trade. On the other hand, they imposed colonial rule by mandating severe military campaigns against individual datus, who openly opposed or ignored U.S. authority in the region.9

Government and military officials in the Moro Province repeatedly referred to the need of establishing order by force in order to protect American expats, Christian Filipinos and those Muslim Filipinos who were deemed to “respect” U.S. colonial rule. Clothing the production of colonial authority in a language of order, security, and civilization, their statements provided the foil for an overtly aggressive approach towards any form of resistance to U.S. colonial rule.

In his Annual Report to the U.S. government of 1903, the acting Governor-General of the Philippines and later U.S. President William Howard Taft justified the abrogation of the Bates Treaty and establishment of military rule in the Philippine south with the insubordinate and martial character of the (male) Filipino Muslim as such. “The Moro is himself a soldier and recognizes with reluctance any other authority than that which is clothed with immediate control with armed forces.”10

The statement reveals a recurring trope in U.S. military officials’ assessment of the state of affairs in the “Moro Province:” the need to resort to force in the submission of resisting Moro groups as a precondition of order and civilization. As Taft, too, argued in his 1903 report, only harsh and direct force would lead to the desired results:

“[T]hey are easily whipped, and though the whippings have to be repeated once or twice, its effect ultimately is very salutary. Force seem to be the only method in reaching them in the first instance, and it is the only preparation for the beginning of civilized restraints among them.”11

Similar statements of U.S. military and government officials of the time show that Taft’s assessment was widely shared. In his diary, Major General Leonard Wood concluded that the use of harsh disciplinary methods was the only option to establish order and security in the region:

“There is only one way to deal with these people, and that is to be absolutely just and firm. […] The Moros […] are as a class a treacherous unreliable lot of slave hunters and land pirates. […] Firmness and the prompt application of disciplinary measures will maintain order, prevent loss of life and property and permit good government and prosperity among these people. Dilatory tactics, indecision and lack of firmness will result in a carnival of crime and an absolute contempt for all authority in this region.”12

Wood’s account can be read as an exemplary securitization13 argument. It not only directly linked the application of force with the obligation of the American colonizers to “maintain order” and to “prevent” the “loss of life and property”. It also pronounced and outlined a racialized and biologistic conception of this project of military securitization. Wood’s description of the “Moro” as generally “treacherous” and “unreliable” unmistakably seized upon racial stereotypes that Europeans and European Americans had used for centuries to characterize Africans, Asians and Native Americans.

The trope of the “treacherous Moro” resonated particularly with established racial classification of Native Americans, especially of those Nations, who had persistently resisted Euro-American colonialism in the American mid-West. In fact, many reports of U.S. army officials invoked more of less favorable comparisons between the “Moro” and the Apache, Sioux, and other Native American Nations.14 As in the case of Native Americans, U.S. military officials labeled the Muslim Filipino as inherently deceitful and untrustworthy and took this racial-biologism as a rational for the application of extreme force15 The widespread acceptance of this notion was not surprising. In fact, most of the senior military officials who participated in the Philippine-American War and the military campaigns in the Philippine south had served in the so-called “Indian Wars” of the late 19th century. Leonard Wood, for example, had participated in the pursuit of Apache leader Geronimo in 1886, while John J. Pershing took part in the suppression of the last uprising of the Lakota Sioux in 1890, which eventually led to the Massacre of Wounded Knee.16

In addition to racial stereotypes, religious otherness provided a further rationale for a heavy-handed policy of military securitization. As American observers repeatedly argued, the defiant traits of the “Moro” had its origins in the adherence to Muslim faith and traditions, which accounted in their opinion for a general contempt for Christians, religious fanaticism, and the upholding of archaic customs such as polygamy and slavery.

The most frightening symbol and figure of religious otherness and disposition was the so-called juramentado. The term was coined by Spanish colonists during the colonial period, and referred to Filipino Muslim swordsmen, who, after religious instruction and ritual preparation, engaged in suicide attacks against colonial troops and civilians, before meeting the aspired death of a martyr.17 As Leonard Wood claimed in a 1903 report to William H. Taft, juramentados were an “oft-repeated offense” in the town of Jolo on the same-named island. Although no official documentation on the numbers of suicide killings in Jolo and other parts of the Moro Province exists, military official repeatedly invoked the figure of the frantic juramentado in their reports on the local conditions in the Philippine south. In a report from October 1903, the Governor of the Sulu District, Major Hugh L. Scott, pointed out that the repeated suicide attacks has led to a serious condition in Jolo. Even after four years of occupation, “Americans can not be permitted to go out of the gate of the walled city of Jolo without arms.”18

Scott asserted that juramentados were a persistent and unnerving threat to the American colonizers living in Jolo. To underscore this observation, he described a recent suicide attack in the town of Jolo:

“[A] Moro […] broke through the gate of the walled city, ran though the barracks yard, cutting a soldier across the back with his barong, and was killed at the main plaza of Jolo, where the ladies and the children of the garrison usually congregate to listen to the music at guard mount, at the time the band had already formed for this purpose.”19

By way of his capacity to enter the innermost and most protected area of the American colonial state in the Philippines—the colonial districts where the wives and children of American officers resided and collectively enjoyed leisure time—, the juramentado represented the most direct and most symbolic threat to the colonial order imaginable. Consequently, those attacks received great attention by U.S. military officials and U.S. newspapers, although there is no evidence that they occurred in a regular manner and were capable of challenging U.S. colonial power in the region.20

In their assessment of the general condition in the newly established Moro Province, U.S. military officials conflated tropes of racial and religious otherness with a scenario of lawlessness and disorder that threatened the lives and well being of peaceful Muslim and Christian Filipinos, as well as American colonialists. The swift and harsh use of force was repeatedly termed as the only way to reach the minds of the Muslim population and establish order and security. Consequently, U.S. military officers framed the use of annihilating military force as a disciplinary measure that would prohibit greater evil and contribute to the well being of the society as a whole.

The rhetoric of military securitization and its implication for resistant Muslim leaders and their followers, became evident in the first major war campaign in the Moro Province under the command of Captain John J. Pershing, who later lead the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I. It would be followed by over a hundred military engagements with resisting Muslim groups during Major General Wood’s three-year tenure until 1906.21 In March 1903, Wood ordered Pershing to lead an expedition into the territory controlled by the Sultan of Bacolod, whom the U.S. military officials perceived as one of the most hostile Muslim leaders in the region. The official goal of the expedition was to demonstrate and assert U.S. authority in the Lake Lanao territory in west-central Mindanao. On April 6, 1903, 500 U.S. infantry soldiers attacked the Bacalod cotta (fort) with mountain guns and field mortars, before engaging in hand-to-hand combat. The attack ended with approximately 160 Moros killed. Most of them fell victim to the artillery bombardments. In contrast, fourteen American soldiers were wounded in the attack. One U.S. soldier was killed in an ambush after the engagement.22

American newspapers reported in detail on the so-called Battle of Bacalod praising the bravery of the participating U.S. soldiers under the command of Captain Pershing. As one paper euphorically predicted, the successful attack would result in “all the Moros acknowledging American sovereignty.”23 In his report to U.S. Secretary of War Elihu Root, Pershing reflected on the salutary effect of the attack on the Muslim population as a whole:

“This had been a severe lesson for the Moros, but maybe they now realize that our purpose is to be as humane as they will permit us. I cannot help to feel that we have accomplished the assigned mission and believe that this battle is the largest single achievement that our forces have made in this island.” 24

Pershing’s notion of killing as basic education of “the Moros” as a whole pointedly reflects the exterminist racist-biologistic foundation of U.S. military rule in the southern Philippines that had its most drastic revelation in the before-mentioned Bud Dajo campaign in spring 1906.

2. The Bud Dajo Massacre in word and image

In 1905, hundreds of Muslim families settled in the crater of the extinct volcano Bud Dajo on the island of Jolo to resist the imposition of the cedula or registration tax, an annual tax of one peso from every male person between the ages of 18 and 55.25Although the Sultan of Sulu and many prominent datus rescinded from resistance to the tax, many of their followers refused its imposition. Together with several opposing datus (who in part also defied the newly imposed American anti-slavery law), and their followers, they organized as a group of up to 1,000 men, women, and children and retreated to Bud Dajo (also Mount Dajo or Dajo Mountain) near the town of Jolo. Arranging for a long-term stay and preparing for military attacks by the American troops, they built forts in the crater and fortified the mountaintop.26

Attempts of Governor Scott to convince the settlers to leave the volcano and acknowledge American colonial rule fell short. According to military reports, the Bud Dajo settlers started to raid villages. In addition, the Sultan of Sulu and other principal datus supported military action against the Bud Dajo settlers as they perceived them as defying their traditional authority.27

U.S. military officials repeatedly referred to the settlers at Bud Dajo as “outlaws” and threat to the safety of Americans and Christian Filipinos on Jolo.28 The general argument in favor of an attack was, however, that the defiant settlers on Bud Dajo severely impaired U.S. military authority. As Captain John White, one of the participants in the following military campaign remembered, U.S. military officials concluded, “that […] further delay in dealing strongly with the outlaws might be interpreted by other Moros as weakness and result in general uprising.”29

In early March 1906, Leonard Wood ordered a contingent of 790 U.S. Army and Philippine Constabulary soldiers to Bud Dajo. After the settlers rejected a renewed request for surrender, the U.S. army attacked the settlement with infantry and dismounted cavalry soldiers supported by constabulary forces and artillery battery. During the attack, U.S. artillerists with mountain guns stationed at the rim of the crater bombarded the Moro settlements inside the crater supported by several machine guns operated by infantry and navy soldiers, before U.S. regulars and constabulary forces engaged in hand-to-hand combat killing almost all inhabitants of the settlement. Besides with some rifles and cannons, the settlers used krises (traditional Southeast Asian daggers) and spears to defend their positions. After two days the fighting ended with at least 600 Filipino men, women and children killed. Other estimates claim that up to 1,000 people fell victim to the U.S. troops.30 On the American side, 21 soldiers were killed and 73 wounded.31

U.S. newspapers reported in great detail on the events at Bud Dajo and the enfolding public debate. After U.S.-President Theodore Roosevelt received a cable from General Wood detailing the outcome of the battle, he officially congratulated Wood and the partaking officers on the “brilliant feat of arms wherein you and they so well upheld the honor of the American flag.”32 Roosevelt’s unequivocal appraisal became the fodder of harsh criticism and ridicules by parts of the American public and activists of the American Anti-Imperial League. After Howard Taft, then U.S. Secretary of War, send a telegraph to Governor Wood inquiring as to whether “there was wanton slaughter [of] Moros, men, women, and children,” Wood answered, that the killing of women and children had been unavoidable in the fierce hand-to-hand fighting. He added that “Moro women wore trousers and were dressed and armed much like the men, and charged with them,” and “[c]hildren were in some cases, used by the men as shields while charging troops.” While the “incidents” are to be regretted, “it must be understood that the Moros one and all were fighting, not only as enemies, but religious fanatics believing paradise to be their immediate reward if killed in action with Christians.”33

Wood’s statement turned around the charge of “wanton slaughter” by blaming the women’s ‘unwomanly’ demeanor in the fight and the alleged religious fanaticism of the defenders for the deadly result of the battle. His argument reemployed several of the tropes of military securitization discussed before: Like the juramentado, the inherently aggressive and war-minded “Moros” at Bud Dajo allegedly knew no better than fight their American adversaries until death. Consequently, there could be no other reaction on part of the U.S. troops than resort to annihilating force.34 U.S. Army officials, interviewed by the New York Times, offered concurring explanations in their responses to the public criticism:

“The Moros killed in Fort Dajo were members of predatory bands that had been robbing and pillaging their own people on the Islands of Jolo for a long time, and the ordinary police forces had been unable to constrain them. In order to maintain peaceful conditions it became necessary to administer a severe lesson.”35

Eleven months later, the Pennsylvania-based Johnstown Weekly Democrat published a cropped version of a photograph taken after the events at Bud Dajo.36 It showed American soldiers posing next to a trench filled with dead corpses. Most of the soldiers had their eyes turned towards the camera while standing, sitting, or kneeling alone or in groups next to the dead, some of them presenting their rifles. One soldier took on a prominent position in the middle of the picture: He kneels on his right knee with his right hand resting at his rifle’s muzzle while looking determinedly into the camera. To the left of him, one can recognize a woman and a child in civilian clothing, probably two of the few Muslim Filipino settlers spared in the battle. Above them stand a somewhat darker skinned man in uniform, who might be one of the Philippine Constabulary soldiers deployed by the U.S. army in the attack on Bud Dajo. The dead lie in disorder, some of their bodies are half-naked, showing wounds and bayonet gashes. Dead women and children are among them. The destroyed remnants of a bamboo-thatched house figures in the right upper corner of the picture.


Fig. 3 Photograph of Bud Dajo massacre, National Archives and Record Adminstration, College Park, MD. Please note: The image is intentionally hidden due to its distressing content and ethical considerations. If you decide viewing the image click on black rectangle.

Immediately after its publication by the Weekly Democrat, the Anti-Imperial League reprinted and mailed out 3,000 copies of this photograph under the title “A brave feat of arms”—an unveiled sarcastic reference to Roosevelt’s “brilliant feat of arms.” In the context of the Anti-Imperialists’ campaign, the image served as a visual indictment of the American colonial project in the Philippines. This may also explain the unverified report that Leonard Wood unsuccessfully attempted to destroy the original glass plate negative of this image.37 At the same time, however, one has to read the glass plate photograph as a literal crystallization of the tropes and discourses of military securitization discussed above. Different to their victims, the depicted U.S. soldiers show no visible physical traces of the battle. Posing with a self-determined look next to a trench of mutilated corpses, the men display both a sense of virility and heroic manliness and a self-understanding as civilized and cultural superior selves. This becomes most evident in the two soldiers on the far left who are both posing with a spear in front of the camera. One soldier bases himself on a short spear in his left hand. The other soldier holds a long spear in his right hand, the spearhead resting on the thick trunk lying across the trench. By visually appropriating a traditional weapon of their opponents, the two soldiers appear to both stage their own martial masculinities and signify their claim of racial and cultural superiority towards their allegedly “primitive” and “savage” enemy, whose fierce, irrational and religiously deluded resistance had to be quelled with the utmost force and determination. Read against the background of the discourse of military securitization, the picture presented the extermination of hundreds of people as a heroic undertaking and necessary means of pacification. In addition, the imagery of white men posing next to mutilated “others” extended visual tropes that characterized both the photographs of the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890 and the widely circulating lynching photographs in the U.S. American south to a global imperial arena.38 The open posing of white men/soldiers vis-à-vis mutilated non-white Muslim Filipinos performed and visually captured racist notions of white racial superiority and the alleged inferiority and sub-humanity of racial “others.”

Obviously, the picture taken by an unknown photographer in the crater of Bud Dajo constitutes a so-called ‘trophy picture,’ taken in the attempt to document and celebrate the “conquest of others.”39 As Jay Prosser has argued, this type of photographs constitute a “‘genre’ in atrocity photography,” that goes back to the photographs of lynched African Americans in the early twentieth century American south and the above-mentioned photographs of the Wounded Knee massacre. Prosser also suggests, that such photographs are complicit with the atrocity perpetrated on the pictures, becoming, as he argues, “part of atrocity.”40 At the same time, they can become the source and backbone of a political critique of atrocity. The infamous Bud Dajo photograph too shows, that the very photograph which turned the use of annihilating force against men, women, and children at Bud Dajo into a celebratory event was also utilized by U.S. Anti-Imperialists to attack U.S. colonial atrocities abroad.41

At the same time, like other atrocity photographs, the picture of Bud Dajo poses an ongoing challenge for us as today’s viewers. While we may acknowledge the need to make past acts of atrocity visible and use pictures of them to understand and learn from such events, they still fill us with indisposition, anger or even horror. Jay Prosser argues that “the haunting quality” of such pictures is at least in part due to an “imbalance in bodily exposure” between the photographic subject– in this case: the dead and exposed human beings in the trench–and us viewers, which might remind us of looking at representations of other acts of domination, such as in pornography. The photo of an atrocity, Prosser points out, “can lure us in at the same time it repels us and makes us turn away.42

In addition, we are irritated by the apparent moral indifference of the soldiers on the picture towards the dead corpses because we seem to repeat their behavior and feel guilty. As Jay Prosser astutely observes, it is “the failure of witnessing and a failure to respond to the atrocity” which disturbs us, as we do not want to “replicate this failure of witnessing.”43

Moreover, and this might be related to this feeling of guilt, I, as creator of this article, am unsure if I violate the dignity of the victims of the Bud Dajo massacre by exposing them again to the views of today’s’ onlookers. Am I thus perpetuating their victimization by showing this image? Or, do I rather serve their cause by exposing the boastful pose of the perpetrators? And, to rephrase an argument mentioned above, isn’t sharing the visual evidence of their violent denigration as human being an important precondition for understanding and criticizing this violence?44 I admit that I cannot give a final answer to these questions. To highlight my uncertainness, I have decided to add a black title card to this picture and a similar distressing image in Edgar A. Stirmyers collection. At the same time, I want to emphasize that there is a need to address the function of atrocity images for historical actors and to ask why perpetrators or bystanders of atrocities such as Edgar Alexander Stirmyer collected such images or captured them with their own cameras.

3. Pictures of Intimacy and Annihilation: The Private Photographs of Edgar A. Stirmyer

The private photo collection of Captain Edgar A. Stirmyer provides us with cryptic but allusive answers of this question. All of the 79 grey-tone photographs in his collection are of 3¼×5½ inch postcard format. Most of the prints have a white rectangular frame. Captions on sixteen of the photographs show that professional photographers made them and Stirmyer added them to his collection. The remaining 63 images appear to be photographs taken by Stirmyer himself. Their format indicates that he took them with a folding pocket camera with a roll film; such as the Kodak 3A with a type 122 roll film for four, six, or ten exposures. Kodak introduced the 3A in 1903.45

Most of the images bear short handwritten notes on their back, written by at least four different persons. The information given shows that Edgar A. Stirmyer and his wife wrote most of them. Some characteristic differences in their handwriting indicate which captions Edgar wrote and which his wife. These notes not only provide information on the person, place, and event depicted, but they also tell us something about how the commentator attempted to frame their reading. In some cases, the notes directly address an anonymous viewer by the injunction “observe,” as in the photograph of the Stirmyers’ house in Zamboanga discussed above (Fig. 2).

From the informal tone of the note, it appears that the author imagined a member of the closer social environment of the Stirmyer family as viewer of the image. It is therefore most likely that Stirmyer’s photo collection was initially a “homely object”46

used within the private situation of family gatherings before someone donated it to the archive and made it part of the public realm.

Why, one might ask, are these images valuable as a historical source, given that someone produced them for private purposes? My answer to this question is: It is precisely their private nature that makes them promising and valuable objects of historical research. Following the seminal work of Ann Stoler, scholars of colonialism have shown that the private lives of the colonizers can serve as a most valuable entrance point for an analysis of the inner working of colonialism, since it constituted the arena where the dangers of colonial anarchy, sexual transgression, and moral degeneration resonated and unfolded. 47 Analyzing private photographs of Dutch colonialists in Java and Batavia, Ann Stoler and Karen Strassler termed colonial family photographs “photographic tableaux vivants”, which “captured and preserved […] familiar colonial stories about racial hierarchies, prescribed comportments, and control.”48

Similar to this observation, I argue, that the assemblage of different motives and visual tropes in Stirmyers photograph collection can provide us with insights in the conception and justification of racial hierarchies and colonial atrocities.

One of the most prominent motives in the collection of Edgar A. Stirmyer is colonial family life. Thirteen pictures show scenes in and around the Stirmyers’ house in Zamboanga. Most prevalent are images of Stirmyer’s son Edgar together with his Filipino nurse, Catalina. The following picture shows Catalina and Edgar on the shoreline, looking at the camera. Catalina kneels next to a basket. Edgar stands close to her and holds a rectangular object in his left hand, possibly a children’s book. According to the note on the back, the photographer took the image “from the front porch” of the Stirmyers’ house (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4 Photograph from Edgar A. Stirmyer Collection, Courtesy of U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center

Another image depicts Edgar Jr. with Catalina and his mother at the same spot (Fig. 5). Both Edgar Jr. and Catalina turn their backs to the photographer. While Catalina seems to look towards the sea, Edgar kneels and appears to study the ground before him. Only his mother on the left of picture seems to be aware of the photographer. She is dressed in a white gown and appears to laugh either in direction to the photographer or her son. To the right of the scene stands the above-mentioned basket with a child’s drum on top.

Fig. 5 Photograph from Edgar A. Stirmyer Collection, Courtesy of U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center

Similar to pictures taken in European colonial settings in Asia, these images provide a glimpse insight into the racial hierarchies and gender roles that characterized the domestic everyday life of American colonialist in the Philippines.49 While “offering testimony to the ease of colonial life made possible by servants”50, the two pictures of are indicative of the racialized and gendered divisions of household labor in the American colony. At the same time, the pictures present the Stirmyer’s colonial life in Zamboanga as orderly, joyful, and idyllic.

The visual construction of colonial domesticity in Stirmyer’s collection becomes most palpable in a picture entitled “Edgar’s Xmas Tree 1905” (Fig. 6). It shows an unidentifiable plant on a wooden table decorated with Christmas tree balls, Chinese lanterns, lametta, glass pendants and candleholders. Children toys such as a toy dog, a drum, toy blocks, and a soldier figurine lie and stand on the table below the tree and a second lower table in front. Depicting the transmission of a classical symbol of Christianity and family togetherness into the Stirmyers’ house in Zamboanga, the photograph appears to visually reassure its viewers of the normalcy of the colonial.51 “Edgar’s Christmas tree” seems to symbolize the ability of the American colonizers to preserve holiday rituals and domestic family routines in the allegedly exotic and foreign surrounding of the Philippines.52

Fig. 6 Photograph from Edgar A. Stirmyer, Courtesy of U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center

Besides pictures of family life and domesticity, travel photographs constitute a second major motif in Stirmyer’s photograph collection. Stirmyer apparently took these images during a trip though the Philippines together with his wife, who is present in several images. The captions indicate that they travelled by ship to and back from Luzon, the Philippine largest island in the north, where they visited Manila and its surrounding provinces. Stirmyer’s images taken on this trip include snapshots of Philippine villages, river scenes, harbor cities, and several pictures of his wife, Julia H. Moore, which were most likely taken during their stay in Manila. One of the latter shows Stirmyer’s wife in a white dress, leaning against a stone balustrade, in front of what appears to be a historic city gate and wall, probably of Intramuros, the oldest district of Manila and historical seat of the Spanish colonial government (Fig. 7).

Julia smiles at the camera, her left hand rests on the balustrade, while her right hand holds her hat. Her pose indicates ease and confidence in her appeal to the photographer and future viewers of the images.

Fig. 7 Photograph from Edgar A. Stirmyer Collection, Courtesy of U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center

Similar to Stirmyer’s family photographs, his travel photographs of Julia foreground the peaceful, idyllic, and picturesque. In fact, one could argue, that it is precisely the absence of any sign of threat, disturbance, or disorder, which dominates the photographic mise en scène in both groups of photographs.

Their visual language appears to stand in stark contrast to a third group of photographs included in Stirmyer collection, depicting the preparations for the U.S. Army’s attack on Bud Dajo and the battle itself. In Stirmyer’s seemingly randomly arranged collection, an image of his son Edgar in a white dress standing with his toy dog on the sunlit veranda of the Stirmyers’ house in Zamboanga is followed by a photograph of a military steam ship lying with smoking funnel at a wooden dock (Fig. 8).

Fig. 8 Photograph from Edgar A. Stirmyer Collection, Courtesy of U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center

Trees, houses, and the two mountain silhouettes can be seen on the coastline. The caption on the back says “U.S.A. J. Knight – Jolo. Mt. Dajo in sight” (Fig. 9). The picture shows many similarities to Stirmyer’s photograph of the blurred sight of Bud Dajo presented at the beginning of this paper (Fig. 1). It seems likely that he took both pictures during his unit’s transport to Jolo or return to Zamboanga.

Stirmyer collections also contains several images of the U.S. army’s military operations in the attack on the Muslim dwellers in the crater of Mount Dajo, including pictures of the devastation caused by the operation. One of these pictures shows the view on a tree valley clouded by white smoke emanating from below (Fig. 11). One sees several cut tree trunks and branches, one trunk reaches into view from the right. The caption “Mountain gun in action –top of Mt. Dajo” on the backside of the photograph indicates that this image depicts the U.S. Army’s bombardment of the Muslim settlements from the crater rim.

Fig. 9 Photograph from Edgar A. Stirmyer Collection, Courtesy of U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center

Moreover, Stirmyer’s collection also includes an image of the results of the bombardment and subsequent engagement between American forces and the Muslim dwellers on the base of the crater (Fig. 12).

The picture shows a most symbolic scene of defeat and devastation. At least a dozen corpses lie scattered on the ground. Several tree stubs and cut tree trunks strewn on the ground also attest to the severe effects of the bombardment by the U.S. artillery guns. The horizon is clouded by mist or white smoke. Towering the scene stands an American soldier in the back. He has his right arm akimbo and seems to look down at the scene of death and destruction. The caption on the back notes: “After a bolo rush – on Lawton’s column”, referring to the column of soldiers from different regiments commanded by Captain Edward P. Lawton, which attacked the Bud Dajo settlement from the mountain’s east trail.53 Similar to the notorious image of Bud Dajon described above, the dead Filipinos in this image serve as a backdrop for the glorification of white masculine virility and racial superiority embodied by the triumphant white soldier figure posing above mutilated non-white dead bodies.

Fig. 10 Photograph from Edgar A. Stirmyer Collection, Courtesy of U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center. Please note: The image is intentionally hidden due to its distressing content and ethical considerations. If you decide viewing the image click on black rectangle.

The inscription “COPYRIGHT 1906 BY H. WRIGHT” reveals that it wasn’t Edgar A. Stirmyer who took this photograph. In fact, thirteen of his pictures of the Bud Dajo campaign bear the copyright sign of a photographer named H. Wright, who, according to some of the captions, had his place of business in San Francisco. Most likely, Stirmyer bought these images after his return to the U.S. and added them to his collection of self-made images. The fact that he also added captions on the backsides of these images indicates that he perceived of them as an integral part of his photograph collection.

Yet, how can we explain that Stirmyer kept these images alongside with his pictures of colonial family life and travel? How can we make sense of this disturbing proximity of such seemingly highly contrasting motives?

While the juxtaposition of pictures of intimacy and annihilation appears surprising and grotesque to today’s viewers, they might be indicative of a historically specific conception of violence. Rather than interpreting them as antithetical, we have to read them as part of the very same discourse of military securitization and racial exterminism outlined above. The coexistence of colonial domesticity and colonial excess in Stirmyer’s collection are indicative of the normalcy and acceptability of genocidal force within the discursive order of the time.54 In fact, in many photo collections of U.S. soldiers and U.S. colonial officials created during the Philippine-American War and the following period of American colonization, pictures of violence and domesticity alternate without apparent disruption.55 A prominent example is the album of William Cameron Forbes who from 1904 to 1908 served as Commissioner of Commerce and Police in the Philippines. The album consists largely of family photographs showing Forbes’ family and friends in their quarters or travelling through the Philippine Islands. Other images depict Forbes’ appearances as U.S. representative at official events such as schools inaugurations. His album, however, also includes the notorious photograph of Bud Dajo (see Fig. 3) placed seemingly randomly between images of American family life and “colonial progress” in the Philippines.56

Such an interpretation of the Edgar A. Stirmyer’s photograph collection, also allows us to re-read the blurred picture of Bud Dajo discussed at the beginning of the paper. As Stirmyer took this image from one of the ships that transported U.S. Army soldiers from Zamboanga to Jolo and back, it may not only be interpreted as a visual reminder of the “battle”/massacre of Bud Dajo and Stirmyer’s personal participation in it. Beyond that, the image links the sphere of colonial domesticity with the sphere of colonial violence used against human beings in the attempt to uphold and secure the colonial order of the time by freezing the moment when Stirmyer had to leave the domestic sphere of the colonial household to participate in the genocidal attack on Bud Dajo.


My reading of Edgar A. Stirmyer’s photo collection sought to demonstrate the analytical potentials of an image-centered approach to the analysis of U.S. military rule in the southern Philippines in the early 20th century and beyond. As I suggested, a close reading of Stirmyer’s images that takes into account both their visual content and the assemblage of different motives enables us to gain a closer understanding of the perception and justification of colonial rule and colonial violence by its protagonists.

As U.S. military officers and politicians framed the Muslim Filipino population in the Philippine south as “treacherous” and racially inferior, they provided the precondition for the use of excessive and genocidal force in the attempt to secure colonial order. Edgar A. Stirmyer’s photographs let us retrace how historical actors appropriated and acted upon these notions. Documenting the proximity and interrelation of visual motives of domesticity and racist extermination, Stirmyer’s photo collection enables us to further our understanding of how historical actors legitimized and rationalized the use of genocidal force in colonial settings. Furthermore, it shows us how historical actors used scenes of colonial atrocities to shape and accentuate notions of whiteness and racial superiority that would continue to haunt the (post-) colonial world.



  1.  Handwritten caption on backside of photograph. In Edgar A. Stirmyer Collection, U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center (USAHEC), Carlisle, PA.
  2.  U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center, Collection of Edgar A. Stirmyer (Catalog Entry). Accessed January 10, 2017.
  3.  The so-called Datus, local Muslim chieftains, were a centerpiece of social order in the Southern Philippines. A datu was perceived as man of achievement and charisma, who received a tribute by his followers, and their manpower for conducting warfare and maintaining the infrastructure of his territory. In return he was expected to govern, settle disputes and protect his followers. P. N. Abinales and Donna J. Amoroso. State and Society in the Philippines. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005, 22-34.
  4.  Ibid., 30-31, 69-70.
  5.  Ibid., 70.
  6.  Today, most southern Filipinos with Muslim faith embrace the term “Moro” as it came to signal a shared Muslim identity in distinction to Christian Filipinos. See Lanfranco Blanchetti-Revelli, “Moro, Muslim, or Filipino? Cultural Citizenship as Practice and Process.” In Cultural Citizenship in Island Southeast Asia: Nation and Belonging in the Hinterlands, edited by Renato Rosaldo, 44-75. Berkeley, CL: University of California Press, 2003. Regarding the long term effects of U.S. colonial rule in the Philippine south and its role in strengthening a shared identity among the different ethnic groups in the region which persists until today in the activities of different separatist movements see Thomas McKenna, Muslim Rulers and Rebels: Everyday Politics and Armed Separatism in the Southern Philippines. University of California Press, 1998.
  7.  Jeffrey L. Thomas, Scapegoating Islam: Intolerance, Security, and the American Muslim. Santa Barbara, CL: Praeger, 2015, 8.
  8.  Paul A. Kramer, The Blood of Government: Race, Empire, the United States, & the Philippines. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006, 217.
  9.  Peter G. Gowing, Mandate in Moroland: The American Government of Muslim Filipinos, 1899-1920. Quezon City: Philippine Center for Advanced Studies, University of the Philippines System, 1977.
  10.  Report of the Civil Governor of the Philippine Islands, William Howard Taft. In Bureau of Insular Affairs. Fourth Annual Report of the Philippine Commission. 1903. Washington: Government Printing Office, 79.
  11. Ibid., 81
  12.  Cit. after Hermann Hagedorn, Leonard Wood. A Biography. Volume II. New York; London: Harper & Brothers, 1931, 44.
  13.  Securitization, defined in a shorter version, can be understood as “a set of interrelated practices, and the process of their production, diffusion, and reception/translation that bring threats into being“ Thierry Balzac, “Preface.” In Understanding Securitisation Theory: How Security Problems Emerge and Dissolve. Edited by Thierry Balzac, xiii-xiv, London: Routledge, 2011, xiii.
  14.  Michael Hawkins, Making Moros: Imperial Historicism and American Military Rule in the Philippines Muslim South. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2013, 19-20.
  15.  See Richard Drinnon, Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire-Building. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997.
  16.  See Hawkins, Making Moros, 18; Frank E. Vandiver, Black Jack: The Life and Times of John J. Pershing. Volume I. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1977, 82-104.
  17.  Hawkins, Making Moros, 117-119.
  18.  Report of Major H.L. Scott, Government of the Sulu District of the Moro Province. In Bureau of Insular Affairs. Fourth Annual Report of the Philippine Commission. 1903. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1904, 491.
  19.  Ibid.
  20.  Hawkins, Making Moros, 117-119.
  21.  Gowing, Mandate in Moroland, 151-166.
  22.  See James R. Arnold, The Moro War: How America Battled a Muslim Insurgency in the Philippine Jungle, 1902-1913, New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2011, 61-75.
  23.  “Fierce Fight with Moros Pershing’s Men Kill 100 Natives,” The Montgomery Advertiser, April 11, 1903, 1.
  24.  Report of Cpt. John J. Pershing to U.S. Secretary of War Elihu Root, cited in A. B. Feuer. America at War: The Philippines, 1898-1913. Westport: Praeger, 2002, 218-219.
  25.  Gowing, Mandate in Moroland, 123.
  26.  Ibid., 160.
  27.  John R. White, Bullets and Bolos. Fifteen Years in the Philippine Islands. New York, London: Century Co., 1928, 300.
  28.  See Jack C. Lane, Armed Progressive: General Leonard Wood. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009, 128.
  29.  John R. White, Bullets and Bolos. Fifteen Years in the Philippine Islands. New York, London: Century Co., 1928, 300.
  30.  Kramer, The Blood of Government, 218.
  31.  Gowing, Mandate in Moroland, 161.
  32.  See “President Roosevelt to-day sent the following cablegram to Major Gen. Wood at Manila,” New York Times, March 11, 1906, 1.
  33.  “No Wanton Slaughter of Moros, Wood Cables,” New York Times, March 15, 2006, 1.
  34.  See also Joshua Gedacht, “‘Mohammedan religion made it necessary to fire’: Massacres on the American Imperial Frontier from South Dakota to the Southern Philippines. In Colonial Crucible: Empire in the Making of the Modern American State, edited by Alfred McCoy and Francisco Scarano, 397-409. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009.
  35.  “Fine, Cables Johnston, Answering Roosevelt,” New York Times, March 12, 1906, 1.
  36.  Robert A. Fulton, Moroland, 1899-1906: America’s First Attempt to Transform an Islamic Society. Bend: Tumalo Creek Press, 2007, 365.
  37.  Fulton, Moroland, 365.
  38.  See also Mick Gidley, “Visible and Invisible Scars of Wounded Knee.” In Picturing Atrocity: Photography in Crisis, edited by Geoffrey Batchen and Jay Prosser, 25-38. London: Reaktion Books, 2012.
  39.  See Jay Prosser, “Introduction.” In Picturing Atrocity: Photography in Crisis, edited by Geoffrey Batchen and Jay Prosser, 7-13. London: Reaktion Books, 2012, 9.
  40.  Ibid.,
  41.  Ibid. Mark Twain, who from 1901 to 1910 served as a vice-president of the Anti-Imperial League, wrote a scathing comment on the Bud Dajo masscare, yet deemed his text as “not usable yet” for publication. See Mark Twain, “Comments on the Moro Massacre,” In Mark Twain’s Weapons of Satire. Anti-Imperialist Writings on the Philippine-American War, edited by Jim Zwick, 168-178. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1992. The critical re-appropriation of atrocity photographs can also be observed to the field of lynching photographs, which, from early 20th century on, were used by American civil rights activists to attack the claim of racial superiority they ought to convey. See Amy Louise Wood, Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009, 185-199.
  42.  Prosser, “Introduction,” 9.
  43.  Ibid., 10.
  44.  See also Susan Sontag’s reflections on the ethical implications of showing atrocity photographs and Judith Butler’s reassessment of Sontag’ arguments in her essay on the torture photographs of Abu Ghraib. Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003, 88-94; Judith Butler, Frames of War. When is Life Grievable? London/New York: Verso, 2009, 63-100.
  45.  Eastman Kodak Company, “History of KODAK Cameras.” Accessed January 10, 2017:
  46.  Martha Langford, Suspended Conversations: The Afterlife of Memory in Photographic Albums. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001, 7.
  47. See Ann Laura Stoler, “Tense and Tender Ties: The Politics of Comparison in North American History and (Post) Colonial Studies.” Journal of American History 88, no. 3 (2001): 829-6; Ann Laura Stoler, “Intimidations of Empire: Predicaments of the Tactile and Unseen.” In Haunted by Empire: Geographies of Intimacy in North American History, edited by Ann Laura Stoler, 1-22. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006; Claudia Kraft, Alf Lüdtke, and Jürgen Martschukat, “Einleitung: Kolonialgeschichten—Regionale Perspektiven auf ein globales Phänomen.” In Kolonialgeschichten—Regionale Perspektiven auf ein globales Phänomen, edited by Claudia Kraft, Alf Lüdtke and Jürgen Martschukat, 9-25. Frankfurt; New York: Campus, 2010.

  48.  Ann Laura Stoler (with Karen Strassler), “Memory-Work in Java. A Cautionary Tale.” In Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule, edited by Ann Laura Stoler, 163-204. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
  49.  See Ibid.; Vicente L. Rafael, White Love: And Other Events in Filipino History. Durham: Duke University Press, 2000, 52-75.
  50.  See Stoler (with Strassler), “Memory-Work in Java,” 188.
  51.  Regarding the symbolism of the Christmas tree in German culture see Joe Perry, Christmas in Germany: A Cultural History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010, 31-34.
  52.  See the photograph bearing the backside caption “The Duffs Xmas Tree” In Edgar A. Stirmyer Collection. USAHEC.
  53.  Fulton, Moroland, 318.
  54.  I thank Lisa Patt and Christian Methfessel for sharing their thoughts on this argument with me.
  55.  See also Silvan Niedermeier, “Imperial Narratives: Reading Us Soldiers’ Photo Albums of the Philippine–American War.” Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice 18, no. 1 (2013): 28-49.
  56.  See the Album of William C. Forbes, In William C. Forbes Collection. American Historical Collection. Rizal Library Special Collection. Ateneo de Manila University, Manila.

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