Photography as Policing Infrastructure During the Late Ottoman Empire

By İlkay Yilmaz

In the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire attempted to construct new technologies of transportation and communication in its territories. These were not only new technologies for the empire, they were also new to the rest of the world. Their use in administrative structures changed governing practices both in the empire and globally.

One of these new technologies was photography. Analysing how photography was used as an infrastructure of policing – no less than railroads or telegraph lines – enables us to understand institutional relations and concentrations of control at a time when the empire was dealing with increasing political unrest and revolutionary activity.

Frederic Goupil Fesquet took photographs during his trip in the Ottoman Empire in 1839 and photography was initially used to create touristic images of the landscapes, architecture and historical monuments of the Orient by European travel photographers during the 1840s. In the 1860s, photography, and especially carte de visite (small size) photographs, became tools for self-representation used by the Ottoman sultan and the higher bureaucracy.[1] This was not limited to the personal photographs of the ruling elite, but included images of the geographies of the empire for foreign audiences.

The turn in Ottoman photography, from its use as an artistic and consumable good to a tool for state control, was notable in the last quarter of the 19th century. The desire to extend the reach of the centre to every province, to create control over populations, and to re-establish authority triggered attempts to use photography as part of state documentation. Photography became an administrative tool, and part of the infrastructure of policing and punishment. In particular, it was used for policing and punishing political crimes, crimes against the state.

Photographs came to be used as policing infrastructure in multiple ways. For instance, photographs were used to document the identity of ‘criminals’, although their use by police forces was limited until the 1890s. Thereafter, their use was limited to a filing system categorising photographs according to the type of crime, and was aimed at keeping a record of criminals who had committing a specific type of offense. During the last decade of the 19th century, the Ottoman government used a variety of styles of police photography and created prison albums, although it was always trying to keep up with the latest identification techniques.[2]

Photo 1. Istanbul University Rare Works Library, Visual Collection, Photograph Albums of Abdulhamid II, no: NEKYA779-22/8.

One example of unstandardised prison photography is a photo of Armenian revolutionaries (photo 1) currently held in the Istanbul University Photograph Archives.[3] This is a group photo, which gives information on the people in it, and was filed in an album including their crimes and punishments. The group photo was taken after young Agop, from Bahçecik, tried to shoot Archbishop Sukias of the Armenian Patriarchate Church, whom revolutionaries at the time accused of favouring the Ottoman government over the Armenian people. Agop missed his target and was caught. The police investigation into the failed assassination resulted in the arrests of a small circle of Armenian revolutionaries from different places and occupations. I read the archival documents about this affair years ago in the Ottoman Archives[4] while writing my dissertation, but it was only a couple of weeks ago that I found the photograph of the suspects I had read about.

Probably the most internationally acclaimed method of identification was a form of anthropometry developed by Alphonse Bertillon (1853–1914) in Paris in 1879. Bertillon proposed a way of standardising photographs along with anthropometric measurements, and making them part of a file-based communication network between administrative units. His method made it possible to establish an international standard for police photographs according to the scientific norms of the time.[5] The Ottoman government adopted the method and joined a European network for police collaboration against ‘anarchists’. The tools needed for the Bertillon system were imported to the empire and, later, the head of the Investigation Commission of the Police Department (Polis Heyet-i Teftişiye Reisi) Yusuf Cemil Efendi learned the method and taught it to police officers in Istanbul.[6] This marked a transition to an era in which photography acquired a pivotal role in identification methods.

Photo 2. B.O.A., EUM. KADL., 11/1, 15.Ra.1329 (16.03.1911) (Presidential Ottoman Archives, hereafter B.O.A.)

The circulation of photographs of political suspects became increasingly common, especially towards the end of the century. As the 20th century began, the Ottoman government started to collect photographs of political criminals and suspects. Mugshots started to circulate as part of international police collaboration. One example is that of Casimir Luigi Tavella (photo 2), an Italian from Verona who was filed as an anarchist and was the subject of correspondence between the Ottoman and German governments. After he was deported from Saxony by the Leipzig police in 1911, his file was sent to the Ottoman authorities by the Berlin Police Directorate.

Photo 3. B.O.A., HR.SFR.04..221/18, 20.02.1903.

The photographs of Ottoman political suspects were diverse in terms of style. Although the Ottoman authorities were inclined to use Bertillon’s portrait parlé method (anthropometry), it was difficult to implement, especially in rural areas in the late 19th century. When bandits in the Balkans were found to have connections to the proscribed Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation, or to certain revolutionaries, Ottoman officials circulated postcard-sized full-length photographs of gang members if they were available (photo 3), or any other photograph they could find. This could even include images from newspapers. These photographs were distributed to the local authorities and were inscribed with the suspects’ names to facilitate identification, pursuit and arrest.

Photography also created an alternative visual culture for revolutionaries’ own claims to legitimacy. While the government used the photographs to pursue revolutionaries, revolutionaries circulated photos of individual revolutionaries or group photos of armed groups to create a culture of revolutionary heroism and romanticise armed struggle against the state.[7]

A third way of using photographs as part of the policing infrastructure was to document the tools of violence. Across Europe, the late 19th and early 20th centuries were marked by the use of ‘propaganda by the deed’ by revolutionaries. This was predicated on the idea that only through action can the population can be stirred up and its awareness raised, because mass meetings, newspapers and declarations have only limited effects and are subject to manipulation by the bourgeoisie. It was claimed that political oppression, and the ignored and derided demands of the lower classes, justified acts of violence. Propaganda by the deed mostly comprised violent acts, such as assassination attempts aimed at royalty, high-level bureaucrats and well-known members of the bourgeoisie, and attacks on central places with explosives.

The Ottoman Empire was not spared such actions. Revolutionary circles had different operational techniques, diverse agendas and mixed ideologies; some also used different forms of political violence, from guerrilla warfare to assassination. During the reign of Abdülhamid II (1876–1909), acts of violence within the boundaries of the empire were primarily motivated by ethnic conflict and state suppression. Most of these were directly connected to either the Armenian or the Macedonian question. The Ottoman government, especially during the Hamidian era, was marked with oppressive policies towards all revolutionaries and state violence was a common measure against political problems. 

Technological innovations in hard infrastructures, such as roads, railways, and telegraph lines, were not only used by the Ottoman authorities to strengthen the presence of the state in the provinces, create legitimacy or perform surveillance, they were also used by revolutionaries to produce competing political legitimacies, alternative narratives and new belongings by attacks on railways and public buildings.

Crime scene photographs[8] of propaganda by deed mainly showed the destruction caused by explosives but, more interestingly, the police also photographed the bombs, dynamite and rifles used. This genre of police photography, of explosives and arms, was used to create state narratives about violent attacks, and examples can be found in the investigation files for certain violent events.

Photo 4. BOA.,Y.EE.d, 1082, 1323.Ca.22/1323.Ş.26. (24.08.1905/24.12.1905)

The most extensive example is the investigation file for a failed assassination attempt on Abdülhamid II in 1905 (photo 4). This attempt was sparked by the Armenian massacres of 1894–96 and Abdülhamid’s policy of suppression towards Armenians, and was organised by a network of Armenian and Bulgarian revolutionaries. In the investigation file, the explosives, arms and other tools were put in a certain order, which, interestingly, is not dissimilar to how ‘tools of sedition’ or ‘tools of terror’ are today exhibited by the Turkish police.

Photo 5. A photo of Bab-i Ali after an attack with explosives in 1895. Istanbul University Rare Works Library, Visual Collection, Photograph Albums of Abdulhamid II,no: NEKYA90514/1.

A fourth type of photograph comprised images of damaged buildings after violent acts (photo 5). Places used as meeting points by political suspects were also included in this type of police photograph in the investigation files. These were employed to create a narrative on acts of violence, stop the spread of revolutionary political demands among the public, and to label these acts as sedition.

Another striking use of photography was images of killed revolutionaries or bandits, which may also be considered as a fifth category of police photography. It was not exceptional to take photographs of the dead, especially in the Balkans during the 19th century, however, it is interesting that these included photographs of killed suspects with the Ottoman gendarmerie or police posing next to the bodies. Although the information about the attached photographs was written in the investigation files, unfortunately most of those photographs are missing from the archives or are filed elsewhere. One such photograph is of the brigands of Yalova (photo 6). After kidnapping two French women, Madame Baranezva and Mademoiselle Peragamian, the brigands, Bold Hüseyin the Albanian, Pabermed Kazalı Abdul and Captain Yorgi the Greek, were killed by Ottoman soldiers in Gültepe.[9] Although the correspondence about the investigation of Yalova incident is kept in the Ottoman State Archives, the photograph itself is in the album collection of Abdülhamid II. These photographs served as proof of the ‘captured dead’, and their circulation was a visual expression of state power and the use of violence.

Photo 6. Istanbul University Rare Works Library, Visual Collection, Photograph Albums of Abdulhamid II, no: NEKYA779-22/30.

Alongside crimes, documentation of Armenian emigration also entered the photographic records of the police. In the 1890s, because of the intense violence directed against them and for economic reasons, thousands of Armenians left the Ottoman empire. In order to prevent any subsequent attempts to return, their identity documents were seized by Ottoman authorities, and a note was inscribed on their passports: “henceforth, not to return to the Ottoman Empire”.[10] In addition, their photographs were filed. These photographs were one of the first attempts to use photography for policing borders in the late 19th century. Some of the filed photographs were taken from family albums, others were taken by photographers appointed to the Ottoman authorities. One such Armenian family from Bitlis aimed to migrate to America, and their photograph was filed in this manner (photo 7).

Photo 7. BOA., FTG.f. 345.

The final type of photography used by the state was of wounded state officers in hospital beds. These were not kept in police files but in hospital albums. These photographs included notes on the incidents through which the injuries occurred and the condition of the patient. Here could be found, for example, the photograph of Rıza bin Mehmed from the First Army, who injured his left femur in an explosion, and a military student, Kenan Efendi, whose right hand was injured by two Armenians (photo 8). Although these are not police photographs, this genre was also entered the state narrative against revolutionary groups and their actions.

Photo 8. Istanbul University Rare Works Library, Visual Collection, Photograph Albums of Abdulhamid II, no: NEKYA779-71/23.

Ottoman police and prison photography offers us new insights both on policing techniques and the Ottoman penal system, but its use as an infrastructure of policing and as a tool for constructing state narratives remains relatively unexplored. Yet, as this blog post shows, photography became an integral part of the Ottoman administrative network – which included its administrative offices and bureaucrats, but also, in a very real sense, its files, records and correspondence on documenting, registration and labelling – and the part it played in establishing the state narrative on political violence.

This article is part of the TRAFO series Infrastructures and Society in (Post-)Ottoman Geographies.


[1] Wendy Shaw, Possessors and Possessed: Museums, Archaeology, and the Visualization of History in the Late Ottoman Empire, (California: University of California Press, 2003): 131-149.

[2] İlkay Yılmaz, ‘The Ottoman State, Police Photographs and Anthropometry’, Photoresearcher-European Society for History of Photography, 31, 2019, 90-100.


[4] BOA.,Y. EE., 97/52.

[5] Martine Kaluszkynski, ‘Republican Identity: Bertillonage as Government Technique’, in: Jane Kaplan and John Torpey (eds.), Documenting Individual Identity, Princeton 2001, 139-183. Anne M. Joseph, ‘Anthropometry, the Police Expert, and the Deptford Murders: The Contested Introduction of Fingerprinting for the Identification of Criminals in Late Victorian and Edwardian Britain’, in: Documenting Individual Identity, 164-183.

[6] See Yılmaz, ‘The Ottoman State, Police Photographs and Anthropometry’, 96.

[7] Yeşim Yosmaoğlu, Blood Ties: Religion, Violence, and the Politics of Nationhood in Ottoman Macedonia, 1878–1908, (Ithaca, London: Cornell University Press, 2014): 209-288.

[8] For Ottoman crime scene photography see, Nurçin İleri, ‘Between the Real and the Imaginary: Late Ottoman Istanbul as a Crime Scene’, Journal of the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Association, 4/1, 2017, 108-115.

[9] For their capture see, BOA., BEO., 846/63421, 25.04.1314 (H).

[10] BOA., DH.TMIK.M., 75/ 63, 20 Ca 1317 (26.09.1899). For more information on Ottoman passport policies towards Armenians see, İlkay Yılmaz, ‘Governing the Armenian Question Through Passports in The Late Ottoman Empire (1876-1908)’, Journal of Historical Sociology, 32, 2019.

İlkay Yılmaz is Einstein guest researcher at the Friedrich-Meinecke-Institut at the Freie Universität, Berlin, and a research fellow at Europe in the Middle East – The Middle East in Europe at the Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien, 2020–2021. She was a research fellow at the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin, 2014–2015 and 2017–2019. Until 2017, she was an assistant professor at Istanbul University. She has published on passport history, inter-imperial collaboration on policing, public order, state formation and security in Journal of Historical Sociology, Journal of the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Association, PhotoResearcher. In 2014, she published a book in Turkish: Serseri, Anarşist ve Fesadın Peşinde: II. Abdülhamid Döneminde Güvenlik Politikaları, Mürur Tezkereleri, Pasaportlar ve Otel Kayıtları (Istanbul: Tarih Vakfı Yurt Yayınları, 2014).

Further articles in the Infrastructures and Society in (Post-)Ottoman Geographies series on TRAFO:

İlkay Yilmaz, Infrastructures and Society in (Post-)Ottoman Geographies: Call for Contributions to the Series, 25 February 2021.

Citation: İlkay Yılmaz, Photography as Policing Infrastructure During the Late Ottoman Empire, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 11.03.2021,

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Forum Transregionale Studien (2021, 11. März). Photography as Policing Infrastructure During the Late Ottoman Empire. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 25. Juni 2024, von

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