Anthropology and Photography 2014 (1)

British Museum, Clore Centre, 29-31 May 2014


Revisiting the gaze and reinterpreting images across space and time: Photography, subjects, and viewers

Location Studio
Date and Start Time 30 May, 2014 at 14:00


Louise De La Gorgendiere (Carleton University)  email
Judith Okely (Oxford University/University of Hull)  email
 Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

Photography's past role in the study of 'cultural others' is ethically controversial. Challenging taken for granted framing of archival images contributes to informed reinterpretation. Using fieldwork and archival images, this panel revisits photography, subjects, and viewers, across time and space.

Long Abstract

Ethics underpin both the anthropological and photographic endeavour. Photography's original role in the study of 'cultural others' was ambiguous and controversial. Early images, seen as objective scientific records and classification of human typologies, were subsequently associated with racialised profiling and discredited evolutionary theories. Initially, cameras were in the hands of privileged outsiders, including anthropologists, but ensuing photographs could serve as gifts, not merely as evidence of voyeuristic gaze and dominant intrusion. Recently, anthropologists have explored images constructed by non-western photographers (e.g., Pinney, composite prints in India). Photographs have potential for reinterpretation (Edwards). Alternative analyses are emerging of controversial but overlooked images lingering in official archives and newspaper files. Decades old images may re-animate isolated individuals, presenting key testimony, or reviving in elderly people lost memories for oral and ethnographic history. Old photographs also offer creative potential for descendants, with their insider knowledge, to reinterpret and/or reinforce the historical record. Additionally, roving professional photographers, skilled in aesthetics but with outsider perspectives and minimum grounded knowledge, may be crucially ignorant of what they choose to frame. Here, with insights from long-term fieldwork, the anthropologist can challenge such taken for granted framing of images, and contribute informed re-interpretation. The conveners will present images from fieldwork with Ghanaians, and Gypsies as photographed by journalists. We invite presentations and discussions of photographs hitherto confined to archives or other files. Here, there is the potential for a full range of interpretations, depending on the photographer, subject, viewer, time, and place.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Outsider Images of Gypsies Reinterpreted

Author: Judith Okely (Oxford University/University of Hull) email

Short Abstract

The outsider/journalist may record technically perfect images without understanding cultural context. Using photographs of Gypsies, ethnographic knowledge reveals alternative interpretations.

Long Abstract

The outsider photo/journalist may record technically perfect images without understanding the cultural content or meaning. Ethnographic knowledge can make new or alternative sense of such images constructed often with an ethnocentric eye. Grounded knowledge brings counter sense.

Here I pursue multiple meanings in photographs associated with the Gypsies, mainly from newspapers in my fieldwork locality. These were taken by local journalists, some by national photographers. Seemingly, the photojournalists encountered the Gypsies in limited encounters. The images have aesthetic framing, some with universalist or exoticised agenda. Others portray disorder and sedentarist values. Little is known about the context. But there is much to be retrieved. The anthropologist brings ethnographic knowledge to such photographs. Newspaper subeditors add the captions without grounded awareness of cultural specificities.

There is a difference between the panoptican gaze and the engaged act of seeing. Distinguish 'looking' from 'seeing'. The ethnographer's alternative interpretation rests on long-term interaction with subjects sometimes objectified by the outsider gaze. Images may be variously interpreted. Indigenous subjects have unique, detailed interpretations. The anthropologist, if not indigenous member, is intermediary.

The images here were assembled after fieldwork when the sites where the anthropologist had lived, and its occupants had been dispersed. They are primarily of Gypsy children, the occasional trailer interior, funerals, campsites, and public events with outsider access. Additional images were taken by the anthropologist- one rejected by her publisher as 'meaningless'. Thus there are contrasting cultural interpretations according to the viewer's specificity, whether outsider journalist, publisher 'expert', subject or insider anthropologist.

Photography that Revisits: Participatory influences in post-colonial, auto-ethnographic visual anthropology practices

Author: Shawn Sobers (University of the West of England) email

Short Abstract

This paper will talk though some of my experiments in visual anthropology and fine art photography, which employs archive imagery as stimuli to find the blurred lines between discourses and presenting the visual anthropology as the art work, and the art work as the anthropology.

Long Abstract

My current creative practice - of a photographic discourse which revisits and moves closer into the subject after the shutter has been pressed - brings together three distinct but (for me) related areas in my educational background; BA in film & photography, MA in Anthropology of Media, and a PhD in Participatory & Community Media. Challenging the accepted practices of contemporary fine art photography as a medium which is largely self-contained, and that of visual anthropology where the images usually points towards a larger body of background research - my practice is a fusion of the two, with experiments to find the blurred lines and presenting the visual anthropology as the art work, and the art work as the anthropology.

This paper will talk through some of my projects in this area, which draw on archive images, historical documents and other pre-produced stimuli to re-imagine, re-interpret and re-visit ideas with an auto-ethnographic African diaspora post-colonial sensibility. As a practitioner/researcher who also happens to be Rastafarian, I am fully aware of the complexities of embracing anthropology, which is a discipline not without its critics in afro-centric discourses, and this is a tension I bring to my work as a visual anthropologist.

Art Photography and Anthropology: An Indian Story

Author: Dolores (Lola) MacDougall Lescano (Universitat Pompeu Fabra Barcelona) email

Short Abstract

Birth Series, a photo essay shot in 2005 by the Indian photographer Gauri Gill with a fine art approach is an example of blurring of photographic genres that characterizes the photographer’s oeuvre. This paper proposes an anthropological reading of the series.

Long Abstract

Birth Series is a photo essay shot in 2005 by the Indian photographer Gauri Gill in which an elderly midwife assists in the delivery of her own grandchild on a sandy floor of a desert hut in Rajasthan. Shot with a predominantly fine art approach, it offers alternative readings when reinterpreted from an anthropologic perspective.

Gill's oeuvre is characterized by a deliberate blurring of genres, and often the realistic, documentary and romantic modes (Edwards, 1992) are simultaneously present. Margaret Mead thought it inappropriate to demand that behaviour filmed by anthropologists have the earmarks of a work of art. Conversely, can the endeavour of the artist not be claimed by visual anthropology? Gill's series was exhibited in 2010 in a dimly lit room of a New Delhi art gallery, which privileged the "romantic" interpretative mode. I propose to examine the framing of this series from an anthropological perspective, especially since it concerns birth, a quintessential rite of passage.

The series also raises important ethical questions: were the terms of the civil contract of photography (Azoulay, 2008) entirely familiar to the sitters? Was their consent sufficiently informed? Is the fact that the photographer is herself not a complete social outsider to the reality she has chosen to depict sufficient to dismiss any characterization of her gaze as being voyeuristic?

In addition to the above, I further propose to develop the following hypothesis: that gender has played a fundamental role in enabling the photographer to record a private moment.

Intimate visions: Claude and Dina Lévi-Strauss in Brazil

Author: Luciana Martins (Birkbeck, University of London) email

Short Abstract

Based on published and archival materials held by Brazilian and French institutions, this paper brings to light Dina Lévi-Strauss' contribution to Claude Lévi-Strauss' visual archive of Brazil. It explores questions of authorship, self-image and intimacy in the making of anthropological knowledge.

Long Abstract

In 1935 Claude Lévi-Strauss went to Brazil as part of a group of French academics in order to help establish the University of São Paulo. Over the summer holidays, Claude travelled to Mato Grosso accompanied by his wife Dina (née Dreyfus), undertaking ethnographic fieldwork. In addition to collecting artefacts for the Musée de l'Homme, the couple took photographs and filmed local peoples. Three years later, they were back in the interior of Brazil, this time travelling to the Amazon region. Having contracted a serious eye infection after little more than a week of fieldwork among the Nambikwara, Dina was forced to return to São Paulo, leaving for Paris soon afterwards. In the spring of 1939, Claude separated from Dina. While Claude was to become a renowned anthropologist, Dina's career followed a less stellar trajectory; she later worked as a philosophy teacher in a Lycée, followed by a university post, eventually becoming an inspecteur général in the French education system. Throughout her career she maintained an interest in the relationship between philosophy and pedagogy, and was one of the pioneers of popular philosophy in television broadcasting. Claude meanwhile turned to a more popular audience only in retirement, notably within the publication of his Saudades do Brasil: A Photographic Memoir, in 1994. The book was followed by Saudades de São Paulo, published in Brazil in 1996. Focusing on these nostalgic publications and a much larger visual archive, this paper explores Dina's role in the making and presentation of Claude's fieldwork in Brazil.

Developing contexts: Revisiting ethnographic images from research with Ghanaians at home and abroad

Author: Louise De La Gorgendiere (Carleton University) email

Short Abstract

Using the anthropologist's own photographic archive from fieldwork with Ghanaians at home and abroad, this paper addresses the importance of the varied contexts within which ethnographic images are produced and analysed over time and space.

Long Abstract

Re-examining photographs from a specific period and location provides the opportunity to re-focus the anthropological lens. This allows the anthropologist to propose different analyses and interpretations within the context of new insights and changing theoretical perspectives. The initial focus of my research with Ghanaians was on 'development' in Ghana in the late 1980s to the mid-1990s. This focus was more recently extended to investigate experiences of members of the Ghanaian diaspora and the extent of their involvement in development processes back 'home'. In revisiting images from fieldwork with Ghanaians, conducted over a period of years and in different locations, this paper highlights critical aspects of the positioning of the anthropologist as researcher-photographer in relation to the people involved and the images produced. Images in the original research project may have served to record, witness, and salvage a rural-urban ethnographic moment - unlike recent photographs of quite dispersed Ghanaian diaspora. The photographic images produced in these two research contexts reflect the social, economic, and political exigencies affecting Ghanaians at home and abroad. They also reveal the differences in the circumstances of fieldwork. With their vastly different temporal and spatial backdrops, these developing contexts demand that the anthropologist 'make meaningful links between different research experiences and materials such as photography ...' (Pink 2007). Long-forgotten photographs in anthropologists' personal archives can take on a new significance and work to re-position the anthropologist and research participants in relational terms - socially, politically, intellectually - within an ethically informed visual anthropology endeavour.

Not the last: Photographs of Tasmanian Aborigines at Oyster Cove c.1858

Author: Sandra Bowdler (University of Western Australia) email

Short Abstract

This paper discusses 19th century photographs of Tasmanian Aboriginal people and how they have been used over time to bolster certain myths about the Tasmanian Aborigines. Other interpretations will be suggested.

Long Abstract

About fifty photographs of Tasmanian Aboriginal people are known from the 19th century. The best known comprises at least 21 taken at Oyster Cove, where a group of 47 Aboriginal people were institutionalised from 1847 until 1873. Little scholarly study has been carried out on these photos, apart from work by Julia Clark at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery and, more recently, by Indigenous scholar/artist Julie Gough (Gough in press). I have also been studying these photos in the context of a study of other images of Tasmanian Aborigines in the 19th century.

About three or four of the Oyster Cove photographs have been republished again and again, usually with misleading captions and identifications, where there have been any. They have been deployed to represent particular views, particularly the constant labelling of them as "The Last of the Tasmanians". I want to look at the complete set overall, in the context of the other known photographs, and with respect to the possibility of a richer reading of them, including their significance for the modern Aboriginal community in Tasmania. Despite the "Last of the Tasmanians" captions, these photos include images of ancestors of the modern community. Most of the individuals can be identified, and biographical detail about each is available, which together provide an individuated history of this group from the time of the European invasion until the middle of the nineteenth century.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.