Anthropology and Photography 2014 (1)

British Museum, Clore Centre, 29-31 May 2014


Appropriating Photography: Global Technologies and Local Politics of Self-Representation

Location Sackler B
Date and Start Time 29 May, 2014 at 15:30


Caitlin Robinson (Culture Stories)  email
Giulia Zoccatelli (School of Oriental and African Studies)  email
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Short Abstract

Exploring how photography as a global technology takes on specific meanings when used and appropriated locally, this panel provides a glimpse into the associated dynamics of power, agency, and self-representation by considering the tensions that emerge during ethnographic engagements in the field.

Long Abstract

The roots of the anthropological discipline are firmly embedded in theoretical concerns and methodological practices that have historically relied upon the systematic and regular observation of 'the Other'. Although site-mapping exercises and character illustrations are still crucial elements in the ethnographer's toolkit, the methodological use of photography in the field has created a wealth of new opportunities. Because these technologies were initially controlled exclusively by the ethnographer, the depiction of subjects captured by the photographic gaze was previously rather one-directional. However, due to the emerging global popularity and accessibility of photographic technologies, those who were once resigned to the position of photographic subject, or perhaps object, are now becoming comfortable behind the lens. As a response to this increasingly democratic access to photographic technologies, a new methodological practice has emerged: observing how our interlocutors see and represent themselves through their own self-reflective photographic engagements. Accordingly, this panel considers the social dynamics at play in the appropriation of photographic technologies, techniques, and practices by the people anthropologists seek to 'study' during fieldwork. Focusing especially on instances of ethnographic difficulty and disjuncture resulting from local interests and agendas, this panel provides a glimpse into the associated dynamics of power, agency, and self-representation. Moving from a general reflection over the methodological changes brought forward by grassroots photographic practices - ranging from the use of participatory photography in development settings to forms of self-representation in social media- this panel questions the new politics and agencies aligned with photography as a means of self-representation.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Erasure and Disclosure: Historic photographs and local politics in Hungary

Author: László Kürti (University of Miskolc) email

Short Abstract

With their own vicissitudes and difficulties, historic photographs have their own contradictions that often simulate history. They do not simply capture an orderly community, they manage to hide as well as represent contrasting images of ambiguous emotions about identity, progress and insecurities.

Long Abstract

As an ideological invention historic photography has brought new reproductive possibilities, new consciousness producing new modes of transmission of historical knowledge. They offer important challenges for media and visual specialists developing a critical analysis of intertextuality and visual narratives. In this presentation, I discuss how visual studies of historic photography can be expanded and nuanced by considering how cultural logics and ideological contexts determine the practice of photographing that which seems out of the ordinary. I examine community photographs in Hungary, and argue that despite all the professionalism that went into making (and unmaking) cultic events, the historical 'others', and sites of purported past greatness or suffering memorable, historic photographs reveal not only awe to the inquiring eye but ambiguity, contradiction and disorderliness as well.

Stereotyped Sikh Images in Diaspora: Public Portrayals and Citizenry Identity Politics

Author: Gurbachan Jandu email

Short Abstract

Sikhs have since the early 19th century attracted photographers whose work has suggested a simplified Sikh identity-a turbaned, hirsute male. In the internet age this image has become the Sikh diaspora's own political vehicle that for less-informed parties may lead to fatal mistaken identities

Long Abstract

In August 2012 the fatal shootings of the faithful at a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, USA created a moment to reflect on the perception of Sikhs outside of India. An anthropological examination of public media photography amongst the commentariat during that time and in longer-term literature found that Sikhs are portrayed using very specific images that are not entirely representative of the community's "super-diversity". In locating this typesetting, it was found that colonial Orientalism may have lent historical origins to this image through a Victorian public attracted to the exotic in empire. As misleading and polemic as this representation may be, it has now been adopted by those on the other side of the camera i.e. parts of the Sikh community itself. Mass print-publishing and the internet has now become a proxy global platform for vying interests within the community seeking authority through this self-reflective image alignment. Literature linking publicly circulated images to identity in non-dominant groups suggests that this may have the dynamic of determining the actions of less informed or extreme groups such as white supremacists or newer members of the community such as Sikh youth. This in-situ researcher also considers whether this 'self-profiling' erroneously narrows the perception of the Sikh community by other, thereby affecting the equal appreciation of Sikhs as citizenry in diaspora.

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Intergenerational self-representation in post-unification East Germany. Ethnographic research and representation through teen cell phones and historical material leads to collaborative curation.

Author: Emily Smith (Freie Universität, Berlin) email

Short Abstract

In a post-unification east German village, teen cell-phone and village archival material facilitate cross-generational and cross cultural discourse around demographic shifts, material culture, and lived experience. This audiovisual exchange assists participatory processes in cultural (re)narration.

Long Abstract

Not far from Berlin, Lunow sits on the edge of a familiar past and an uncertain future. Residents stand tall in the face of steady depopulation, rising unemployment and an aging trend. The ethnographic and participatory project focuses on two generations: retired volunteers from the village museum who collect and document local material heritage, while the teen club, born after the Wall fell, are entering adulthood with bravado while facing limited prospects.

Both generations hold tightly to their roles yet are connected in unexpected ways. From Simson mopeds to group portraiture, both generations are building up living archives of their cultural heritage. Photography plays a large role in this process. Hundreds of teen cell-phone images overlap and contrast the folders of collected historical photography. The space between the two collections is temporal, cultural and political, sparking rich exchanges between each other and with the researcher.

At the end of the year-long project, educator and artist Ms. Smith, together with Lunower, co-conceived a multimedia exhibition in Spring 2013. The multi-sited exhibition features images from teen cell phones and the museum archive as well as new images.

As a process, self-generated photography facilitates a more meaningful discussion around lived experience and the exhibition articulates these realities from a local perspective. As research, this participation sheds light on how the community wishes to be represented. On a global scale, such ethnographic and participatory methodologies challenge larger narratives around re-unification, creating space for locals to take back authorship of cultural representation.

Choose Your Own Apocalypse: Urban Exploration, Squatting and Photography

Author: Alex Casper Cline (Anglia Ruskin University) email

Short Abstract

This paper explores the use of digital photography by squatting and urban exploration communities in London, arguing that underlying political motivations explain differing modes of exhibition.

Long Abstract

This paper looks at the use of photography by self-described urban explorers and squatters to document the spaces which they explore, explain and inhabit. While previous anthropological work has involved ethnographic work such as oral history projects or study of informal publications, the proliferation and increasing availability of digital camera technology has meant that photography is more accessible and that resultant content can be more easily shared. A number of websites have emerged allowing people to document their exploration of hidden urban spaces: 28 Days Later and Silent UK. Squatters appear more reluctant to share material online, for understandable reasons, but London has hosted a number of exhibitions of photography documenting squatted spaces: the ongoing Temporary Autonomous Arts Exhibition and the Made Possible By Squatting. The fact that these exhibitions are mostly self-organised suggests that there is not so much a reluctance to display material, but rather a different underlying political motivation.

We construct two opposed narratives emerging from the photographic and curatorial work. The motivation of squatter photography is to bring people together; both squatters from different areas of the city, and sympathetic members of the public. Associated material is politicised, highlighting the impending chaos to be brought about by increasing housing prices, gentrification and unemployment. By creating public exhibition spaces, the intention appears to be to encourage assembly and action. In opposition, the purpose of urban exploration appears to encourage individual reflection. The processes of decay are inherent to contemporary society and their effects are already manifest.

Young South Africans, disposable cameras and "My Future": Ethical evaluations and photographic research

Author: Oliver Pattenden (Rhodes University) email

Short Abstract

Young South Africans used disposable cameras as part of a collaborative project entitled “My Future”, which focused upon representations of moral stances and ethical evaluations. The paper details the project in the context of relations of power and trust between the researcher and collaborators.

Long Abstract

My doctoral research considers historical and ongoing ethical contestation relating to education and schooling in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. The majority of my fieldwork has been conducted in and around a 'special school' that is registered to cater for learners adjudged to have 'extrinsic barriers to learning'. Broadly speaking, these barriers relate to moral evaluations of socioeconomic deprivation, sexual and domestic violence, parental death and detachment, and drug and alcohol use. As part of a collaborative project entitled "My Future", approximately sixty of my young collaborators used disposable cameras to produce representations of their own moral stances and ethical evaluations. Additionally, I viewed and discussed each resultant image with its creator. Having briefly explained the methods employed, this paper considers three interrelated areas of concern.

Firstly, how the photos and accompanying explanations provide insight to learners' moral stances and ethical evaluations. Secondly, how the images and discussions are intelligible within the context of the ethnographic research more broadly. Thirdly, how my involvement in the photographic project and my own enthusiasm for certain themes of inquiry influenced the kinds of representations found in the images and descriptions. In the concluding remarks, I consider how relations of power and trust between the researcher and his collaborators were central to the practices of self-representation.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.