Anthropology and Photography 2014 (1)

British Museum, Clore Centre, 29-31 May 2014


Photography in/of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan: historical and contemporary perspectives

Location Studio
Date and Start Time 29 May, 2014 at 11:00


Shireen Walton (University of Oxford)  email
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Short Abstract

Photography and photographic representation has played an instrumental role in shaping social and cultural transformations in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan over the past hundred years. This panel explores the historic and contemporary salience of photography in these regions.

Long Abstract

Making, viewing and experiencing photography in and in relation to Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan has a salient history and notable contemporary presence. It has taken a variety of vernacular / non - vernacular forms in a multitude of places, both physical and experiential, at amateur and professional levels. From late nineteenth century analogue uses to present - day digital collections and academic ethno - photography / photo - ethnography, the significance of photography in visual understandings of cultures in these regions warrants timely anthropological enquiry and reflection.

What does photography in and of the cultures of these countries tell us of ideologically constructed visual tropes, processes of nation - building, modernisation and cultural heritage as well as the local / global politics of representation? How do subjective photographic praxes continue to shape and reflect evolving epistemologies and ontologies?

This panel considers these questions in light of the historical relationship between 'local' photographic practices and 'global' (plat)forms of societal engagement, reflection and transformation. It looks at the production of photographs at amateur and professional levels in a variety of spaces where photographs are shown, viewed, circulated and experienced by members of a given culture and or the anthropologist/artist. The papers relay ethnographic understandings of how social, political and religious imaginaries are constructed, contested and or captured in different exhibitionary and representational contexts. Their discussions move between the tangible and the experiential in relation to photographic collections, digital archives, subjective field - work encounters and social media.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Making Observed. Photographic Documentation of Border Domains in Persia, 1880s-1890s.

Author: Elahe Helbig (Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz - Max-Planck-Institut) email

Short Abstract

By referring to unpublished photographs researched in the photographic archive of the Golestan Palce in Tehran, this paper explores the twofold intention of photographic expeditions in Persia from 1880s to 1890s in order to investigate remote territories and simultaneously observe them.

Long Abstract

The photographic archive of the Golestan Palace in Tehran (known as house of albums), constituted during the long-term reign of the Persian king Naser ad-Din Shah Qajar (r. 1848 to 1896), preserves a considerable number of photographic albums, which were commissioned by the ruler himself to investigate certain regions, their administrations and population as well as local characteristics by photographic means. In my paper, I mainly focus on compiled albums that result from photographic expeditions continuously undertaken between 1883 and 1896 by the court photographer Abdullah Mirza Qajar (1849-1908) intended to address, I argue, a twofold objective: The obvious purpose was to receive multifaceted geographical imaginations of barely accessible areas by virtue of photographs carefully furnished with detailed descriptions to be comprehensively informed. To this effect, the photographic content varied significantly, covering, among others, local institutions and personalities, military facilities and base camps, water and irrigation systems, telegraphy buildings and factories, as well as wondrous phenomena. Simultaneously the photographer was endowed with warrants acting as sovereignly legate to manifest the royal authority by unveiled observing and thus attempting to bind even unsafe territories. By making use of this tremendous, largely unknown source I further intend to illustrate how these photographs apparently differ concerning their reflection of vernacular realities as well as their creation of a specific aesthetic language from those taken by Europeans occupying various roles at the Persian court or being on their way in Persia in the second half of 19th century.

Afghanistan's Photographic Heritage: The Khalilullah Enayat Seraj Collection and Transcending the Visual Limits of a National Imaginary

Author: Shah Mahmoud Hanifi (James Madison University) email

Short Abstract

This paper considers the visual heritage of Afghanistan using photos displaying the everyday life of the modernizing King Amanullah (r. 1919-1929) and his court. The analysis treats this archive’s value for the historical imaginary of Afghans, and its limits as a source of national inspiration.

Long Abstract

The Khalilullah Enayat Seraj (KES) is a rich and unique collection of photographs of Afghanistan held at Williams College (Massachusetts, USA) under the stewardship of the Anthropology Professor David B. Edwards (see KES is a cornerstone of Afghanistan's national visual heritage. This digital archive of 1,261 images provides a wealth of data about the material conditions (clothing, food, transportation), architectural environment (domestic and public spaces), and social life (official and personal interactions) of the country's ruling elite during the reign of King Amanullah (1919-1929). Amanullah is typically celebrated as a progressive liberal reformer who operated in an inhospitable tribal tradition-bound environment. His reign generated a sharp increase in foreign travel from and international access to Afghanistan, as well as a series of political, economic and social reforms including the formation of a representative assembly, the establishment of private banks and trading companies, and legislation relating to the unveiling and schooling of women. The dramatic reforms undertaken by the modernizing urbane king are normatively narrated as giving rise to a rural tribal rebellion that resulted in Amanullah's abdication, flight from the country, and a reversal of some but not all of his initiatives. Today in Afghanistan modernist ideologies and teleologies are once again losing traction. The KES images of Amanullah, his family, confidantes, associates, and various groups of locals and foreigners in public and private settings provide abundant and timely opportunities to re-envision an important period of Afghan national history in light of epistemologies and ontologies critical of modernity.

Metonomies of centers and borders: artist, index, and recipient in a photographic interpretation of intellectual gestures in Pakistani Sufism

Author: Lukas Werth (Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)) email

Short Abstract

The paper explores the photographic creation of metonymic presences and subjectivity, also using alternative processes, and shows the interaction between artist, indexed experience, and recipient by investigating Pakistani Sufi identities and spaces, noting a shift from sharing to drawing borders.

Long Abstract

The paper uses a photographic approach to Sufism in Pakistan in order to argue that photography not only can be, but necessarily is subjective, and that any objective quality comes after this basic quality. Photography is - not surprisingly - founded on metonymy, giving rise also to metaphorical representation. At the heart of the metonymy lies a material, indexical immediacy, an experience which is nevertheless expressed by the photographer's frozen view, and this placing of the photographic trope constitutes an interaction between the photographer/artist, the experience which is indexed, and the recipient (Alfred Gell), all positions allowing for a creative influence, resulting in a positioning of presences. This will be demonstrated with a pictorial essay about contexts of Punjabi and Sindhi Sufism which explores expressions of identities, authority, and sacred spaces, exposing an intellectual gesture of sharing identities and of defining concepts and spaces from the center outwards, which today is counterpoised particularly in the urban Punjab counterpoised by a gesture of exercising power through drawing borders and confronting exclusive entities. The paper argues that this shift is due to a changing discourse on religion and norms which makes deep inroads into Sufi contexts, and this is stated through photographic metonymies whose subjective quality is further enhanced through the use of alternative photographic processes which allow to go beyond conventional choices between black&white and color. It is discussed how the artist, the index (persons and other features), and the recipients all enter into the creation of the tropes.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.