Anthropology and Photography 2014 (1)

British Museum, Clore Centre, 29-31 May 2014


Constructing and Contesting Imaginaries: Anthropology, Photography, and the Histories of Durable Visual Tropes

Location Sackler B
Date and Start Time 31 May, 2014 at 13:00


Aubrey Graham (Emory University)  email
Sydney Silverstein (Emory University)  email
 Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

This panel examines the relationship of anthropology and photography in the creation, mobilization, and contestation of durable, globally circulated representations of peoples and places with attention to historical, economic, political connections and implications of particular visual tropes.

Long Abstract

Particular representations often become lingering tropes. Through repeated visual and written depictions, peoples and cultures have become knowable to global audiences. Imagined from the outside, such images have formed facets of circulating global imaginaries, often connecting unexpected places (such as Peru and the Democratic Republic of the Congo) through a shared set of photographic and analytic practices. Images served, and still serve, as gatekeepers to the constructed 'others' - creating economies of conjuring, seeing, and discursively engaging geographies and peoples.

Historically significant sets of moral and economic issues frame the choices made by image-makers and anthropologists responsible for both early and current formations of cultural and regional imaginaries. Yet, as the circulation of images and image creators increased with the productive and reproductive visual technologies, imaginaries constructed from without have been reconceptualized, played into, shaped, and reformed from within.

This panel welcomes papers addressing the intertwining roles of photography and anthropology in creating durable tropes and imaginaries and reproducing them on a global scale. Papers may address, but are not limited to analyses of varied geographic, historical, and political visual arenas in response to:

- How anthropology and photography have contributed to enduring (regional or topical) visual imaginaries.

- How local interpretations of constructed tropes have reshaped and alternatively engaged global / cliché visual imaginaries.

- How visual representations of a place or people have changed over time, responding to global, economic, and political factors, and the roles of anthropological research in producing or preventing these changes.

Discussant: Amanda Ravetz

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Women carrying babies: colonial postcards to Flickr

Author: Nancy Ukai Russell email

Short Abstract

Photographs of women carrying babies on the body, carefully posed as objects of anthropological interest, was a popular subject of colonial-era postcards. A century later, this visual trope persists in digital form, a maternal and material world reimagined, ethnographic research notwithstanding.

Long Abstract

From the early 1900s, during the golden age of postcards, the inexpensive photo postcard enabled particular, clichéd images of "native women" carrying infants on their backs, hips or chests, using cloths, netbags or animal skins, to circulate rapidly, inexpensively and globally. Such images on colonial postcards provided an exotic visual contrast to the Edwardian practice in Western metropoles of women pushing babies away from the body in wheeled carriages.

Photographs of babycarrying were used by colonial publishers, missionaries and in ethnographic spaces to highlight difference, assert cultural superiority and entertain distant populations. Often shown in profile, such images of women were visual shorthand for anthropological theories that cast the carrier as a beast of burden at a lower stage of evolutionary development.

A century later, the contemporary practice of "babywearing," or using a cloth or soft device to tie a baby on the body, has become a popular, medically-sanctioned and culturally-borrowed method of childcare advocated in societies that once disparaged it. Digital images of babywearing by film stars, politicians and in mothers' smart phone "selfies" now circulate digitally, along with the familiar trope of indigenous carrying, on social media sites such as Flickr, Pinterest and websites.

Despite ethnographic research on the embodied aspects and cultural meanings of infant carrying, modernist views of baby carrying continue to be culturally bound and tied to the production and consumption of aestheticized visions of motherhood. Colonial criticism has turned to admiration of "native" practices thought to exemplify methods of natural parenting.

Women and children first: age and gender in the photographs of the "Desert Conquest" in Northpatagonia, Argentina, by the end of the 19th Century.

Author: Ana Butto (University of Buenos Aires) email

Short Abstract

The aim of this work is to analyze the representations of age and gender of the militars and natives photographed during the “Desert Conquest” in Northern Patagonia, Argentina, by the end of the 19th Century with the end of discussing some demographic and socioeconomic issues revealed by these data.

Long Abstract

In this presentation we propose to examine and analyze the corpus of photographs produced during the "Desert Conquest" in Northern Patagonia by the end of the 19th Century with the aim of tracking down the representations of age and gender of the photographed subjetcs: soldiers that were part of the military campaigns and indigenous peoples of Pampa and Patagonia.

We consider the photographs as indexes that kept and still keep a direct relationship with the represented referent, in this case the military and indigenous people, wich allows us to gain access to a biased representation of part of the past reality, which allows to assess the interests and aims of the photographers and to record evidence of the represented subjects.

In order to do this, we analyzed a corpus of 235 images found in the 2 official albums that visually record the "Desert Conquest" and examined the age and gender of the 1395 photographed subjects. The comparison of these data to the etnographically known age and gender pyramid of the indigenous people and the western society at that time allows us to demonstrate how these representations have been biased and to discuss the purposes of such biases, in the context of the conformation and cruel territorial expansion of the Argentinean state by the end of 19th Century.

Pierre Verger and the construction of Candomblé Nagô's "purity"

Author: Heather Shirey (University of St. Thomas) email

Short Abstract

The Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé was repressed in the early 20th century; a shift occurred in the 1940s, when scholars and Candomblé leaders emphasized connections to West African traditions. Pierre Verger’s photographs participated in the construction an image of Candomblé as a “pure” African religion.

Long Abstract

Following his arrival in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil in 1946, Pierre Verger produced thousands of photographs relating to Candomblé, including intimate portraits, seemingly spontaneous photographs of key ritual moments, and images of the religion's material culture. Two years after his arrival in Bahia, Verger embarked on a series of trips to West Africa, intending to capture evidence of enduring links between the two continents. In the resulting publications, Verger juxtaposed photographs from West Africa and Bahia as evidence of formal connections between Yoruba traditions and the particular 'nation' of Candomblé known as Nagô.

Today, scholars from across the disciplines examine the transformation of Candomblé Nagô: while it was marginalized and even repressed in the early twentieth century, it has evolved into a recognized religion believed to have maintained strong connections to West Africa over space and time. A growing body of scholarship examines the pivotal role of scholars (Bastide, Carneiro, Landes, Herskovits) and leaders of the elite Candomblé communities in the construction of of Candomblé Nagô. Complementing this literature with a critical analysis of Verger's photographs and methods, I argue that Verger created a canonical visual representation of Candomblé Nagô, codifying a persistent image of its relationship to Yoruba traditions.

Constructing an Iconology of the Whitened Face as a Visual Gap

Author: Wiebke Leister (London College of Communication, University of the Arts London) email

Short Abstract

This theory-practice project seeks to hypothetically develop an interdisciplinary iconology of whitened faces from different backgrounds by performatively cross-referencing their diverse cultural histories in form of a fluid genealogy of reoccurring visual tropes.

Long Abstract

White face-masks and white face-paint have been used in many cultural contexts long before the increasingly racial discourses of positivism and colonialism started mapping people into anthropometric categories. My presentation examines the use of whitened faces by constructing a visual narrative from these character tropes, thus suggesting an impossible intertextual iconology of the Whitened Face.

Rooted in photography's relationship to mental images, my research experiments with conjuring up phantoms of our latent visual memory by imaginatively connecting them with images of symbolic figures that emerge out of all cultures that equally turn the face of the performer into a white screen. Accordingly, this theory-practice project seeks to hypothetically develop an interdisciplinary iconology of Whitened Faces by performatively cross-referencing their diverse cultural histories in form of a fluid genealogy of reoccurring visual tropes, evoking many variations and incantations echoing across time and space. I see my exploration of the ubiquitous history of these white face personas as a form of sighting, archiving and re-disseminating figures that are in many ways 'haunted' by themselves, thus proposing an anthropological paradigm.

Theoretically speaking, I encounter these photographs as living entities rather than death masks. The research addresses the facial canvas of both the face of the image and the face in the image, thus investigating the gap between imaginary reading, photographic mark-making and visual ghosting by interweaving a number of intercultural rituals - turning the emptiness of Whitened Faces into projection screens for the viewer's imagination.

How photography constructs an imaginary of Rio de Janeiro in the late 1940's in the Brazilian magazine "O Cruzeiro"

Authors: Bruno Oliveira Alves (Universidade Tecnológica Federal do Paraná) email
Luciana Martha Silveira email

Short Abstract

Through the lens of cultural studies, we analyzed a series of reportages about Copacabana, in Rio de Janeiro. We discussed how, through Rio's photographs, the magazine O Cruzeiro uses photography as document and contributes to an imaginary about Rio de Janeiro in the late 1940's (and beyond that).

Long Abstract

Influenced by international magazines, as Match and Life, the illustrated magazine O Cruzeiro (1928-75) changed Brazilian's photojournalism when adopted the model of photographic reportage in 1940's. With large variety of themes ("taming" Brazil's interior, cinema's stars or cities' lives) and a massive presence of images, their reportages "documented" how were the landscapes and lives of people in various places of the world.

Photography is rich for depicture things, therefore it's helpful in research about some culture or society, although, we shouldn't take it as "transparent", a reflection of the reality. Photograph also refracts the reality, because the photographers' choices aren't marked only by technical possibilities, but also by a "way of seeing", an interpretation about the world, which is crossed by social, historical and cultural factors that will be materialized in images during the photographic act. Simultaneously, the photographic production over a theme also contributes to construct a common imaginary inside a culture and, thus, influences the way how people perceive/understand determined subject.

Through the lens of cultural studies, we analyzed a series of reportages from 1949 about the neighborhood of Copacabana, in Rio de Janeiro. We discussed how, through Rio's staged or instantaneous photographs, the magazine O Cruzeiro appropriated the concept of photography as document and contributed to an imaginary about Rio de Janeiro in the late 1940's (and beyond that) -which may have influenced the construction of cariocas' own identities and how other people conceive them.

PDF Download PDF of paper

Picturing Iquitos: Circulating Images and Shifting Imaginaries

Author: Sydney Silverstein (Emory University) email

Short Abstract

The paper examines the shifting manners in which the Amazonian city of Iquitos has been pictured—in archival and contemporary photographs, postcards, and travel accounts—as well as the changing political, economic, intellectual, and affective circumstances of those doing the picturing.

Long Abstract

Iquitos is the largest city in the world that cannot be reached by road. Sitting some 2000 miles up the Amazon River from the Atlantic Ocean, Iquitos is the capital of Peru's Amazonian department of Loreto, physically the largest but among the least-populated departments in the country. Despite its seemingly remote locale, Iquitos has been a global city formed out of transcontinental flows of people and resources since its inception as a steamship port linking Europe with the Amazon during the rubber boom of the late 19th century. When the global demand for Amazonian rubber subsided, however, Iquitos remained characterized by the comings and goings of people and goods from far-off places. What changed was who was coming, and why. The shifts in flows of goods, people, and capital also produced shifts in the representations of Iquitos in the form of images (touristic and artistic) and descriptive literature. Once a city hailed for the cosmopolitan nature of its inhabitants, European-style architecture, and its role as an urban oasis in the midst of the "green hell" of the Amazon jungle, today Iquitos is pictured in a dramatically different fashion. The paper examines the shifting manners in which the Amazonian city of Iquitos, its inhabitants, and the surrounding forest have been pictured—in archival and contemporary photographs, postcards, and travel accounts—as well as the changing political, economic, intellectual, and affective circumstances of those doing the picturing, with the intent of interrogating the desires and fantasies animating the constructions of place-based imaginaries.

Photography and Anthropology in the Yucatan: divergent routes in portraying Mayan people?

Author: Francisco Fernandez-Repetto (Universidad Autonoma de Yucatan) email

Short Abstract

In this paper I explore the continuities and discontinuities of the approaches taken by professional Photographers and Anthropologists --or professional Photographers working for Anthropologists-- when photographing and portraying Mayan population.

Long Abstract

Around the last quarter of the 19th century, photography in Yucatan played an important role when recording the political, economic, and socio-cultural environment of the state, mainly that of the capital city of Merida and its vicinity. Images included, buildings, political gatherings, industrial processes, fashion, as well as other social and cultural events. People were part of the photographic settings, thus studios became increasingly important. This was the case with the upper classes, but quickly started to include other social classes, the Mayans and foreign workers who arrived to work in the henequen plantations. This phenomenon grew in the first decade of the 20th century; coincidentally this was the time in which professional Anthropology started its development in the Yucatan with the seminal Robert Redfield's research. Due to the interest of anthropological research in the Yucatan focusing on the Mayan population, most of the photographs taken by Anthropologists, local and foreign, were devoted to represent Mayan people in their socio-cultural environment, whether performing some activities typically associated as "Maya" or simply posing for the Anthropologist. Here I would like to explore the continuities and discontinuities of the approaches taken by professional Photographers and Anthropologists --or professional Photographers working for Anthropologists-- when photographing and portraying Mayan population.

A Humanitarian Imaginary: Photography, Imagination, and Aid in the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo

Author: Aubrey Graham (Emory University) email

Short Abstract

Local perception of aid photography in the DRC reflects a history of durable tropes and local means of imagining exactly what constitutes a humanitarian image. This paper examines the historical continuity of such imagined photographic topics in contrast to current goals of aid agency photography.

Long Abstract

In Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo there appears to be a shift in exactly what a 'desired' aid agency photograph looks like. Tropes of starving children, suffering women, dirty spaces, and disorganization have given way to the desired photograph that shows both 'need' and 'dignity'. Despite aid agency photographer's insistences on these new visual priorities, for the population of the provincial capital of Goma humanitarian aid images have changed little over the years. The genre of the 'humanitarian aid image' has been locally learned to include extreme victimization, dirty children, burned houses, and massacres. Yet, one is sometimes hard pressed to find such images represented in the Congo by resident aid agencies. This paper investigates the disconnection between the actual image policy and practice in humanitarian agencies in Goma, and the Gomatricien's belief of what constitutes such photographs. In so doing, I investigate the historical roots of the Congolese 'humanitarian imaginary' tracking back to the atrocity images of missing limbs of the early 20th century. Equally, I highlight the current loophole in aid agency communications bureaucracy, where journalists and visitors are able to perpetuate the negative imaginary, while aid agency staff photographers work shed a new positive visual light on the situations. Overall, the paper examines the continuities and disconnections that contribute to a vibrant local imagination of what humanitarians take pictures of, and what that means for the interactions between the Goma-based population and the camera-toting expatriates that they encounter.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.