Preserved for Generations

Photography is the art of preserving what we do not want to forget. Through photography we can see the world both as it is, and discover new interpretations of that same reality.

Back in the days, when photos didn’t lie – when retouching and editing photos was non-existing – photography was something very special. People went to photostudios to have their pictures taken, put their precious photos in beautiful albums and sent copies of the best ones to friends and family.

Photography was also a new possibility for women to express themselves. My great grandmother Olga was one of those who took photography to her heart. I don’t think she reflected much upon it herself, but her photos are an amazing documentary record of what life was like at the time – in China.

She is certainly not your average holiday photographer. Of course, she takes the mandatory dressed-up photos with missionaries surrounded by students of the faith, prayer meetings, funerals and weddings.

A mandatory picture of Olgas husband Nils together with his Chinese mission workers at the station in Pucheng, in 1931.

But she also – and this I find important – takes those pictures that explain something about the reality of everyday life in this far-away-country.

Carriages ready to leave the village.

She photographs means of transportation in China, people who are sick and people who are addicted to opium. She photographs Chinese boys who bring flowers in exchange for canned foods. She photographs people when they don’t know they’re being photographed.


I think she is kind of special in the way she sees the world – and perhaps in the way she wants to tell us about her world. She is a documentary photographer in the beginning of the 20th Century and she happens to be in a country where a lot is going on at the time. It’s a period of extreme turmoil and poverty is widely spread – especially in the regions where the missionaries are placed.

Her photos give me a sense of her as a person – that she was someone who genuinely cared for the people she met – in whatever shape or form. Her photos are taken with the gaze of someone who cares and not from an exotifying position. When she sends pictures to the mission’s magazine, she explains the ways they try to help the hard-working rural population with everything from food to clothes and medical care. And the work never ceases. The need for help is immense.

There are no doctors in the country side. Olga’s medical training in Scotland turned out to be the most valuable asset she brought to her work in China. And curing people from illness, helping them with food, clothes and education was an effective way to promote Christianity as well – of course…

I hope you enjoy the photos as much as I do ❤

Chinese boys bringing flowers in exchange for canned food.
Poor man in the street.
Railwaystation, missionaries waiting to board the train that never arrives…

8 thoughts on “Preserved for Generations

Add yours

  1. These are so interesting, Thérèse. Olga was truly a documentary photographer. It sounds like her letters to the mission magazine could even be called journalistic, since they described the local conditions in detail, for readers who had few sources of information about rural China.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you! I think so too 🙂 And you’re right – her letters do hold journalistic qualities in that respect. That said, she did of course see everything in the light of religion, and thus her records are colored by that particular way of percieving events. But underneath that, there is so much to learn and understand about the way life was lived during her years in China – and it’s very interesting that she is a woman who in her context is given a voice by the power of God, and that is accepted by the men in the mission as well. In fact, working as a female missionary was a way to become emancipated and this is what she experienced and was empowered by, it seems.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Elsewhere in your blog, you’ve talked about the excitement you felt while living abroad. I’ve felt that way, too. I think it’s partly because the constraints and expectations of your native culture are suddenly lifted, while the expectations of the local culture are applied to you leniently, because you’re a foreigner. It can be very liberating. I wonder if Olga felt that way in China.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Very true! All of a sudden it’s like all the opportunities are right in front of you. The world is wide open. You just have to decide what you want to go for. And, like you point out, it’s not about the country you’re in, it’s about you not knowing the limitations. It’s very liberating not knowing what society expects of you!
          I do wish Olga felt this too – at least I think she was freed from the expectations she lived by as a house maid in Stockholm. She did get a lift – status wise, and I hope she was able to reinvent herself as a missionary. It’s something we should all be able to do – reinvent ourselves. But most of us do live our lives with obligations to lots of other people – who expect us to be like we’ve “always” been.
          Have you been able to keep the feeling of “everything is possible” after coming back home?

          Of course, after some time abroad, the intense feeling of freedom wears of a bit, but for me it’s still something I can long for 😊

          (Ps, thanks for reading some of my previous posts (though not on the same subject) – very nice to have this dialogue!)

          Liked by 2 people

      2. After living abroad for five years in my twenties, I found it hard to adjust to being back in America. I felt somewhat lost and disoriented for several years afterward.

        I enjoyed reading your earlier posts. It was a very pleasant way to spend a rainy afternoon. 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

  2. I wonder if there are other documentary-type photographs of China during this time period? I think Olga’s photographs could be an important part of the historical record. What strikes me about the ones you’ve posted is the difference between the photographs Olga brought back and the photos my great-great grandmother brought back from the world tour she and my great-great grandfather went on: posing in rickshaws and sitting on elephants in full late-Victorian dress looking smugly American.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I know many missionaries took photos and sent home, to show the benefactors how important their monetary help was. There were also several travellers who did what your grandparents did – and what many first-time visitors to a country do – take those ”tourist” pics. It would be interesting to put Olga’s photos next to others from the same period and see what it tells us about different aspects of China at the time. I find the ”tourist” pics interesting as well – as they surely convey how people saw themselves and ”the other.” How lovely that you have those pictures of your great-grandparents, Liz!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: