SOAS Research Online

A Free Database of the Latest Research by SOAS Academics and PhD Students

[skip to content]

Nolan, Maeve Sisi Silvia Mulligan (2022) Early Silk Road Photography: An Analysis of Dr. Maynard Owen Williams’ Photographs taken during the Citroën-Haardt Trans-Asiatic Expedition (1931-1932). PhD thesis. SOAS University of London. DOI:

Text - Submitted Version
Available under License Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).

Download (67MB) | Preview


This thesis provides the first overview of the genre of Early Silk Road Photography and the first in-depth study of a key figure who contributed to it, Maynard Owen Williams. It analyses Williams’ photographs taken during the Citroën-Haardt Trans-Asiatic Expedition of 1931-32. The expedition sought to retrace and document the route taken by Marco Polo, whose travels are synonymous with the Silk Road. Williams’ photographs taken during the expedition were published in the US-based National Geographic Magazine (NGM), which was a pioneer in the field of photojournalism. Williams was the Head of NGM’s International Division at the time of the expedition. Research for the dissertation was undertaken at the Citroën archives in France, the NGM archives in Washington D.C. and at the Kalamazoo College archives in Michigan. The first part of the thesis analyses the factors that shaped Williams’ decisions about what objects and people to photograph on the expedition, and how he chose to photograph them. These involve influences that were common to the whole genre of Early Silk Road Photography (ch.1), including pre-photographic visual imagery, literary output relating to the Silk Road, perceptions of the Silk Road in popular culture, the impact of mass circulation magazines using photographs, the emergence of the ‘science’ of ethnography, and the growth of the ‘salvage’ concept in representations of the non-Western world. They also involve influences that were specific to Williams and his photographs on the Citroën-Haardt Expedition, including Williams’ relationship with his employer, the NGM and the objectives that the parties involved had for the expedition (ch. 2). Moreover, they involve his own and the NGM’s interactions with the interests and objectives of Citroën, as well as Williams’ relationship with the members of the expedition (ch. 3). The factors examined in chs.1-3 combined to shape the photo-journalistic outcome of the expedition and thus the NGM’s presentation of Asia and the Silk Road to its audience. They provide the analytical framework for the detailed examination undertaken in the second part of the dissertation of Williams’ photographs taken during the Citroën-Haardt Expedition. The photographs are examined around a set of themes: iconic images of the Silk Road, including means of transport, landscapes and commercial activity (ch,4); photographs that emphasise the difference between ‘them and us’, including photographs of religion and festivities, different “ethnic types” and the closely-related subject of their clothing and headdress (ch. 5); and photographs concerning the difficult subjects of opium and childhood (ch.6). This dissertation provides the first in depth examination of Early Silk Road Photography. It contributes to a deeper understanding of Western conceptions and photographic representations of the Silk Road and the West’s relationship with the region. Early Silk Road Photography helped to perpetuate and promote to a wide audience notions of Asia which had been created in previous centuries through non-photographic imagery. Unlike other visual media, photographs could be replicated on an infinite scale and distributed to a mass audience through numerous channels. Very few late 19th and early 20th century Westerners had travelled along the Silk Road. The wide availability of photographic material helped to shape Western perceptions of the Silk Road long after the era of Early Silk Road Photography ended in the 1940s

Item Type: Theses (PhD)
SOAS Departments & Centres: SOAS Research Theses
Supervisors Name: Shane McCausland, Crispin Branfoot and Charles Gore
DOI (Digital Object Identifier):
Date Deposited: 09 Nov 2022 16:34

Altmetric Data


Download activity - last 12 monthsShow export options
Downloads since deposit
6 month trend
6 month trend
Accesses by country - last 12 monthsShow export options
Accesses by referrer - last 12 monthsShow export options

Repository staff only

Edit Item Edit Item