Anthropology and Photography 2014 (1)

British Museum, Clore Centre, 29-31 May 2014

(P21)

Reasserting presence: reclamation, recognition and photographic desire

Location Claus Moser
Date and Start Time 30 May, 2014 at 09:30

Convenors

Christopher Morton (University of Oxford)  email
Haidy Geismar (University College London)  email
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Short Abstract

This panel will explore new theoretical frames and ethnographic contexts that engage with the concept of 'presence' as a key mode through which to understand photographic usage, rather than a representation.

Long Abstract

Recent theoretical work focusing on presence abandons models drawn from linguistics and suggests a turn away from language towards a more pictorial lexicon. What happens if you replace thinking with feeling in our understanding of the efficacy of photography and the claims that photographs make upon us? What kinds of histories can be written if we start from the image as the basis of a lived experience (presence) rather than a representation? How can an ethnographic perspective contribute to our understanding of photographic presences and what methods are appropriate? Recent projects involving indigenous communities have suggested that the presence of the ancestor or land is the dominant engagement, and representational and contextual issues surrounding the production of the image are deemphasized, for a variety of reasons. In turn, the destablization of the documentary and evidentiary capabilities of photography in other contexts, and its material elevation to fine art, museum piece, and so forth, have also pushed our understanding of photography's presence into a different frame of reference. What are the implications of this present moment for a contemporary ethnography of photography? The panel will explore the need for a refigured understanding of the evidentiary claims of photography and the problematics of twentieth-century photographic theory. We encourage submissions that explore new theoretical frames and new ethnographic contexts and challenge anthropologists to engage with 'presence' as a key mode through which to understand photographic usage: a "desire to share the awesome reality of people, things, events and feelings" (Runia 2006).

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

The ancestral image in the present tense

Author: Christopher Morton (University of Oxford) email

Short Abstract

Drawing on fieldwork with Aboriginal Australian communities, the paper explores indigenous responses to ancestral images not just as emergent from a matrix of contemporary socio-political contexts, but also the lived experience of the descendent, interacting with the ‘presence’ of the ancestor.

Long Abstract

Drawing on recent fieldwork with Aboriginal Australian communities, the paper explores the way in which indigenous responses to ancestral images are not just emergent from a matrix of contemporary socio-political contexts, but also the lived experience of the descendent, interacting with the 'presence' of the ancestor in the image. Drawing on a series of community consultations in South and Western Australia, and in particular with Noongar people in Perth, the paper examines the phenomenon of visual family history research being undertaken by many Aboriginal people today, especially those of the Stolen Generation, who have experienced disconnection from family, culture and language. For this significant section of the Aboriginal community, photographs held in Australian and overseas archives take on an additional and poignant significance. The reclamation of family connections to key Aboriginal ancestors through archival research is a highly politicized and sensitive area, in which the visual presence of well known local ancestors as copied images in private family trees takes on a powerful set of meanings associated with family connections to land, culture, kinship and political status. The paper argues that a reorientation of ethnographic thinking toward the concept of 'presence' in the photographic image allows us to rethink long-held presuppositions in Western photographic theory about the representational identity of the photographic image, toward an apprehension of its basis in past lived experience expressed in the present tense.

Presence, Significance and Insistence: photographic archives redeployed

Author: Devorah Romanek (Maxwell Museum of Anthropology) email

Short Abstract

This paper investigates contemporary redeployment of historic ethnographic images in Native America, by Native Americans. Assignments of “significance,” the weight of “presence” and the ongoing “insistence” of photographic images are given primacy over “meaning”, “epistemology” and “provenance.”

Long Abstract

This paper investigates contemporary redeployment of historic ethnographic images in Native America, by Native Americans in New Mexico. Late 19th and early 20th century ethnographic photographs that are typically found in publications and museum collections and archives, have been, and are, in great circulation in contemporary communities in New Mexico.

In the American Southwest, the employment of such photographs serves as the fulcrum for the seemingly unending dynamic in which Indigenous identified people experience both the impossibility of not being Native American and the simultaneous impossibility of being Native American, a very tangible double bind, but also related to the theoretical 'real' and the impossibility of being 'real' per Lacanian psychoanalysis.

In light of this double bind, and in acknowledging the limitations of twentieth century photographic theories, assignments of "significance," the weight of "presence" (Ruina 2006), and the ongoing "insistence" of photographic images are given primacy over "meaning", "epistemology" and "provenance."

This paper observes the way in which the role of memory and earlier notions of essentialism are strategically and aesthetically employed through the medium of the photographic image by contemporary Indigenous peoples. The historical ethnographic images that serve as the center of this research are significant, solicitous of historical presence and insistent in specific ways only in geographic context as constellated with identity, which raises interesting questions concerning localized or place-specific photographic usage, as opposed to the decontextualized representational implications of the published or institutionally housed photograph.

Palladio in Liberia: Towards photography as presence, ethnography as index

Author: Ines Cardoso email

Short Abstract

This paper will analyse photos of neo-Palladian homes of freed African American slaves in Liberia in relation to ideas of presence, the index and lived experience.It will draw parallels with architecture and ethnography and explore an alternative to Barthes’ definition of the photographic ‘noeme’.

Long Abstract

What questions arise when the Barthean index is reevaluated - the photograph no longer as testament to something that has been, but as a present phase of something that is perpetually in becoming? Using Max Belcher's photographs of Liberian African Americans' neo-Palladian homes, this paper will consider both photograph and home as forms of vision and as singular indexes of presence/lived experiences. By exploring parallels between photography's indexical ontology (photography as trace, as a proof of presence) and the indexicality of architectural structures and ethnographic practice, the paper will posit that Barthes' definition of photography's 'noeme', as something "that has been", might be expanded. Further, it will explore the visibility granted by photography to metapolitical issues through its unrivalled power in articulating connections between otherwise isolated visual fragments, thereby going beyond mere representation. The immeasurable value of photography to anthropology lies in the photograph's ability to capture, through selection and sequence, a moment of an ongoing dialectical process. Belcher's images forcefully convey the presence, exerted aesthetically onto the landscape of Liberia, of a people who suffered oppression and domination for centuries. The paper will defend photography and ethnography as exceptional tools in their ability to revisit and revive histories of hierarchies and genealogies that continue to shift and assert themselves as they remain implicated in complex questions of identity and identification. Finally, it will argue that the immediacy with which photography visually elaborates complicated issues, may serve not just as a complement to, but as a starting point for anthropological research.

Representation, absence and presence: Forensic Aesthetics and strategies of engagement through imagery in relation to hidden experiences in the Global War on Terror

Author: Edmund Clark email

Short Abstract

Perhaps contemporary photography’s most futile debate is whether it is possible to take humanist pictures if one doesn’t portray humans.

Long Abstract

My works ‘Guantanamo: If The Light Goes Out’ and ‘Control Order House’ engage with issues of state censorship and representation to explore the hidden experiences and spaces of control and incarceration in the ‘Global War on Terror’. Many of my pictures are unpeopled, dismal stage sets for unseen trauma. I will talk about tracing ideas of presence, shared humanity and otherness through the documents, possessions and environments of my subjects.

Presence in photographic representation through absence

Author: Thera Mjaaland (University of Bergen) email

Short Abstract

The discussion in this paper, which addresses the issue of presence in photographic representation through absence, argue for a redefinition of the basis for visual knowledge production in anthropology that incorporates, not only what is seen in the image, but also what can be imagined.

Long Abstract

The challenge to anthropological authority posed by the inherent ambiguity of photographic images rests on the fact that what can be seen continues to form the underlying, if implicit, positivist premise for visual knowledge production in anthropology. As a medium of representation that, according to Mary Warner Marien, simultaneously confirms and denies truth while emphasising the appearance of accuracy, art photography has, instead of conceiving this as a problem, thrived on this ambiguity. Hence, if ambiguity is approached as the most potent aspect of photographic representation also within anthropology, the way forward suggested here is to incorporate, not only what is observably present in the photograph, but also the effect on interpretation, and hence on knowledge production, of what is not immediately observable in the image. The photographic art project Houses/Homes, which forms the basis for my discussion in this paper, expands on the issue of presence in photographic representation through absence. I will argue that a redefined use of photographic representations in anthropological knowledge production must include the metonymic beyondness implied in Roland Barthes punctum, which would extend what the photographic image as index points to, from what can be seen, to what can be imagined.

Post-photographic presences or how to wear a digital cloak

Author: Haidy Geismar (University College London) email

Short Abstract

This paper takes the digitization of a Maori cloak as a provocation to think about presence in both photographic, and post photographic terms.

Long Abstract

In this presentation I explore tensions that digital processing throws up to our ideas of photography and think about how ideas of presence may mediate between the photographic and the postphotographic. Digital images, taken with digital cameras and then processed through computer software maybe argued to be postphotographic in that they decompose the indexical pathways of photographic processes into a series of coded operations. By describing experimental efforts to create a different kinds of digital images of a Maori cloak contained in UCL’s ethnography collections I argue that whilst these practices push us into the domain of the “post-photographic” they also continue the trajectory of photographic discourses of indexicality, and co-presence into digital space. This may explain the resonance of digital images in the context of indigenous epistemologies which often understand objects and images as encoding and presencing cultural knowledge systems.

The Spiritual Unconscious: indexicality, presence, and auratic images in contemporary Indonesia

Author: Karen Strassler (Queens College-CUNY) email

Short Abstract

Examining a genre of spiritually-charged images of a legendary spirit queen in contemporary Indonesia, I argue that images that “presence” supernatural beings require a rethinking of photographic indexicality.

Long Abstract

From its earliest days, the camera both provoked and promised to sate a voracious appetite for grasping the world visually. Yet, even as it became a buttress for positivist ideologies, the camera undermined faith in the powers of vision by revealing vast realms hidden from the natural eye, what Benjamin called "the optical unconscious." Nowhere is this potential to undermine faith in the givenness of the visible world more apparent than in images that purport to record the presence of supernatural beings. Examining a genre of spiritually-charged images of a legendary spirit queen in contemporary Indonesia, I argue that images that "presence" supernatural beings require a rethinking of photographic indexicality. Whereas the evidentiary basis for the camera's ideological status as truth-machine is its capacity to produce indexical traces, I argue that a different logic of indexicality is at work in spiritually charged images that act as mediums or conduits of spiritual presence and power. The simultaneously disturbing and titillating possibility of sensing the unseen via the photograph is registered in the popular discourse around the uncertain status of such images, which promise to reveal a "spiritual unconscious" at work within Indonesia's self-consciously pursued national modernity.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.