Anthropology and Photography 2014 (1)

British Museum, Clore Centre, 29-31 May 2014


Afterimages: Putting ethnography into the family album

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


Gary Seaman (University of Southern California)  email
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Short Abstract

Many people in many parts of the world have photographic albums that provide a key component of the narratives that define and connect family members and kin. This panel will provide some examples how images collected by anthropologists can be repurposed for family reconnections and reconstructions.

Long Abstract

The panel will consist of examples of work that integrate photographic images generated by professional anthropologists into the narrative and memorializing projects of the people and families among whom they lived. Many anthropologists before the era of cheap imaging technology were in the position of photographing people and places of whose identities they had only the haziest notion. This problem can, it has long been recognized, be somewhat improved by collaborative work between natives and anthropologists, and in the age of digital interactive media, there are many potential projects that would benefit from timely contextualization before living memory fades even before the archived images themselves. This panel invites those who are interested in such projects to provide us with some examples that we all can emulate.

Discussant: Michael MacDonald

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Revealing "unseen" information. On the potential of reinterpreting ethnographic photography with 'informed eyes'

Author: Anja Soldat (Museum Rietberg Zürich) email

Short Abstract

On the basis of photographs taken by anthropologist Dr. Hans Himmelheber on his 1936-37 expedition to the Yup’ik-Eskimo in Alaska, this paper seeks to illustrate the high potential of reinterpretation, even revelation, of hitherto “unseen” information on ethnographic photography.

Long Abstract

A selection of photographs taken by anthropologist Dr. Hans Himmelheber on his 1936-37 expedition to Alaska has been published in the year 2000 by cultural anthropologist Ann Fienup-Riordan. In the book, produced as anthology and enhancement of Himmelheber's Alaska publications, most of the photos were reproduced for the first time, accompanied by (re-)interpretations of Yup'ik-Eskimo expert Fienup-Riordan. It seems likely that Himmelheber himself hadn't always been fully aware of what he was framing, given that it was his first and only expedition to the Yup'ik peoples. To him, these pictures might have served the mere purpose of proof and illustration of his expedition and he published only a handful of them during his career. Almost 70 years later, Fienup-Riordan was able to identify numerous objects on the photos, often in the background of the picture and nearly "invisible" to uninformed observers.

This process of revealing hitherto "unseen" information on photographs is possible only with what I call 'informed eyes'. And the photographer, when acting as mere registrar, seems to have little control over what might have "seeped into" the picture. People with insider knowledge about the depicted events and sceneries (experts or community members) have a chance here to reinterpret archived photos for their own purposes. The paper seeks to analyze this potential of 'informed eyes' and the possibilities of bringing back ethnographic photography to the community, for example via online collections.

The album as a total social fact

Author: David Zeitlyn (University of Oxford) email

Short Abstract

How can we think anthropologically about albums and other photographic ensembles? What measures are possible which can embrace both old style albums and online collections such as Flickr?

Long Abstract

How can we think anthropologically about albums and other photographic ensembles? What measures are possible which can embrace both old style albums and online collections such as Flickr? In the spirit of Durkheim an album can be seen as a total social fact, and we can contrast (even perhaps measure) those reflecting high levels of social involvement with those who are parts of less dense social networks. Since so many photographs are and were in circulation it may be that approaches such as this are what are needed. This also would allow us to compare albums containing images from anthropologists to those without such contributions, so allowing us to evaluate the contribution anthropologists' photographs have made to social networks of people on the ground.

Finding family in the black and white landscape prints of Timothy Asch

Author: Gary Seaman (University of Southern California) email

Short Abstract

Before commencing his career in ethnographic film, Timothy Asch apprenticed with, among others, Edward Weston and trained to become a classic black and white landscape photographer a la Life Magazine.

Long Abstract

In the summer of 1952, Tim made a trip to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, where he was taken in as a guest/farm hand for a few weeks by the MacDonald family near Mabou Mines. Inspired by the rural sociologist John Collier’s project of documenting community life, he decided to photograph people as well as landscapes, so he took black and white photographs of his host family and life on their farmstead as well as the seascapes that he had earlier trained to produce. Our presentation will include an interactive version of a short b/w film made by Asch on a return visit in 1960 entitled One Day of Many. The film will be linked to still photos by Asch in 1950, to contextualizing narrative and additional family photographs by Michael MacDonald.

Performing Modernity: The Greek Cypriot Family Album

Author: Nicos Philippou (University of Nicosia) email

Short Abstract

The paper discusses the discrepancy between the vision of Cypriotness as constructed through a process of ‘looking down’ to a cultural and class ‘Other’ where Cypriot claims to modernity are denied with that of representations of the self where Cypriots are shown embracing modernity, instead.

Long Abstract

The paper briefly discusses a travelogue on colonial Cyprus produced by writer - photographer M.O. Williams in the July 1928 edition of the National Geographic Magazine titled Unspoiled Cyprus/ The Traditional Island Birthplace of Venus is One of the Least Sophisticated of Mediterranean Lands. The story constructs an image of Cyprus, which is defined by aesthetic and thematic parameters that highlight tradition and pureness. Manifestations of an emerging dynamic Cypriot modernity are avoided. The paper engages with the product of a prominent local romantic school of photography (1950's-1970's) which is, also, defined by a purist aesthetic and content which can be seen as a visual 'fulfilment' of a fantasy of a Cypriot rural heaven in the collective imagination of the local middle classes. It then discusses the parallel development of a Cypriot photographic vernacular, which aesthetically and semantically departs from these established traditions. It presents numerous examples collected from family albums (late 1920's-1970's). While this material chronologically overlaps with the period that saw the visit by Williams and the advent of the local romantic photographic photographers it tells the story of a society that perceives itself and wants to be seen as modern and urban rather than as traditional and pastoral. It is argued that this visual construction of modern identities is not the product of mere mimitism. Instead it is the symbolic manifestation of real social and material changes that were reshaping Cypriot society at the time and had given birth to urbanity, individualism and emerging emancipation movements.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.