Images & Missions

Visit of German missionary and ethnologist Paul Shebasta
Visit of German missionary and ethnologist Paul Shebasta
to his French confrere René Cardon in Malaysia in 1935.

A bank of images on the history of the missions

Up to now, the memory of the missions has primarily been kept alive through literary and textual sources. In recent decades Christian missions have become the subject of controversy but undoubtedly, 19th century European missionary activities were a major cultural and religious phenomenon. Missions have changed the world. The work of white missionaries has been documented and preserved in photos and films. They are a treasure of the Church and a legacy for all humanity.

A new image bank has been designed to locate, identify and present many of these documents in order to preserve them and make them accessible to the public. Several Catholic and Protestant agencies have joined in this ecumenical project. The image bank aims to serve missionaries, the young churches, historical research and the religious and secular press.

The partners are:

SIGNIS, the World Catholic Association for Communication (Brussels):
Adveniat, German Catholic Agency for Latin America (Essen):
Missio, the International Catholic Mission Agency (Aachen and Munich):
Kindermissionswerk, German Catholic Relief Agency for Children (Aachen):
Aid to the Church in Need (Königstein / Frankfurt):
Evangelisches Missionswerk (Hamburg): and regional Protestant mission agencies in Germany

A Spiritan missionary treats children in Bagamoyo mission
A Spiritan missionary treats children in Bagamoyo mission in East Africa around 1875.

Owing to a lack of sufficient financial resources and properly trained personnel many visual materials found in missionary archives are often neglected and sometimes in a pitiful state. Often the collections are dispersed. There is a lack of catalogues or inventories, which would allow these materials to be located, accessed and used.

The value of this venture seems clear: market demand for access to primary historical documents is growing steadily. The churches are now able to offer exceptional documents through an image bank. This is primarily a service not an image agency. All documents submitted remain the property of the agency or the congregation which has made them available to the bank. All potential users will have to deal directly with the owners to acquire usage or dissemination rights.

The documents published here are the result of extensive research in many archives. Although the choice of photos is limited, they are representative of each selected archive.

A large number of original photos (paper negatives, glass lantern slides, etc.) and especially films (nitrate films, 35mm, 16mm, 8mm, etc.) have been digitized and transferred to modern formats in order to prevent their loss through the rapid deterioration of the originals. The digitized collection of photos and films is in the custody of KADOC, the Documentation and Research Centre for Religion, Culture and Society of the Catholic University (KU) of Leuven, in Belgium ( KADOC ensures the preservation of the documents and is making the entire Images & Missions collection available for research purposes.

Sisters of Marie Auxiliatrice
Sisters of Marie Auxiliatrice before their departure into the forest in the Peruvian Amazon in 1890.


1. Around 1730, Protestant missionaries were beginning to explore those territories which had been newly opened up to Europeans. It took almost a century to see the arrival of Catholic missionaries. Missionaries from Europe opened a new chapter in the history of humanity.

2. Europe learned about the world through the eyes and witness of its missionaries. This approach is still reflected in our perception of the world. Conversely, distant cultures and peoples had contact with the techniques, ideas and values through foreign missionaries. Missionaries established contacts and built bridges between cultures that were ignorant of each other. Thus, they laid the foundations of modern globalization.

3. Through their missionary efforts, the churches have attempted to respond to answer the call of their founder. The missions were also a major expression of the cultural spirit of Europe in the 19th century. They were a work of wide-ranging enthusiasm touching all social and cultural aspects of Christianity. They are part of Europe's cultural heritage.

4. To evangelize distant populations, missionaries first had to study the cultures and religions they were encountering. Out of these studies were born interest, knowledge and sometimes profound sympathy. The visual documents left by the missionaries are now valuable sources of knowledge which people can draw on in search of their identity and their roots.

5. The missionaries established Christian communities who gave birth to local churches. In modern Christianity these churches are now the majority. The visual documents record and trace this upheaval.


For purposes of documentation and seeking funds, missionaries were required to send their superiors in Europe and North America, reports of their missionary activities. Progressively, written reports were supplemented by visual ones. From the late 19th century, "propagandists" sent by missionary congregations or agencies used parishes and Christian schools to project slideshows: prints first, then photographs, and from the 1920s, films as well.

1. Before the invention of photography and until the advances in printing in the late 19th century, engravings were used for illustrations in the emerging missionary press. Though one can discover masterpieces of the genre, for economic reasons prints have not been the subject of ongoing research.

2. From the birth of photography around 1850, there are studio pictures of departing missionaries and from 1870 there are photos of missionaries in the field. As the missionaries were often the first to enter and to reach some parts of the world before they were settled by colonists, these are often of exceptional interest. Because of the variety and the large number of documents listed, the image bank is limited to presenting only a selection of the documents.

3. The oldest missionary films date from the post-war period (1914-1918). At first these are isolated documents but film quickly becomes a missionary genre, first used for educational and religious purposes. Soon fiction films appeared, sometimes of high-quality, aimed at the general public and which can compete with the commercial productions of the time. They are distinguished by their historical accuracy and attention to detail.

1883: 4th expedition of the White Fathers
1883: 4th expedition of the White Fathers before their departure for the Great Lakes region.