Anthropology and Photography 2014 (1)

British Museum, Clore Centre, 29-31 May 2014


Changing hands, changing times? The social and aesthetic relevance of archival photographs and archival methodologies

Location Claus Moser
Date and Start Time 31 May, 2014 at 11:00


Daniel Rycroft (University of East Anglia)  email
Barbara Knorpp (UCL)  email
 Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

A critical debate on the politics of re-used images to investigate how and why archival photographs acquire contemporary significance via anthropological, social and artistic practice.

Long Abstract

Contributors to this panel will explore the interplay of political, poetic and temporal aspects of photographic archives. Each contributor is asked to focus their analysis on a single image or photographic object, and justify their selection by exploring the controversies that such images have caused in post-colonial, post-imperial or transnational encounters, and how 'the archive' (broadly speaking) has defined subsequent images, manifestations, artworks or ideas.

The idea is to engage diverse yet linked issues pertaining to archival photographs:

• Multiple ownership and shared heritage

• Visual elicitation and reciprocity

• Photographic temporality

• Telling, re-telling and identity formations

• Routes, pathways and visual journeys

• Inter-medial changes and exchanges.

What do the (post-)archival entities and experiences under consideration tell societies about the public and personal effects of photographs, or the relevance of photographic time to apprehensions of pasts or futures? It is anticipated that contributors will dwell productively on anthropological topics such as contested ownership, visual methodologies, artistic heritage, reciprocal ethics, visual memory, and digital repatriation. Do the new images or ideas transgress existing modes of representation, or do they sustain the representational and social tensions that may have informed previous archival practices and anthropological interpretations? The panel organisers invite contributors from art history, museum studies, archival science, photographic and artistic practice, critical heritage studies, visual anthropology or media studies.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


The Colonial Memento Mori

Author: Roger Blackley (Victoria University of Wellington) email

Short Abstract

Certain categories of colonial art offer deep offence to indigenous cultures. How and why should we deal with such imagery today?

Long Abstract

A popular mode of artefact photography in colonial New Zealand involved the deployment of Maori material culture within highly staged, symmetrical arrangements. Such images relate to nineteenth-century ethnological exhibition practice, as well as to the long-standing still-life tradition of the trophy—the display of conquered weapons and treasure. Through the inclusion of human remains, a number of such images additionally co-opt the still-life tradition of the memento mori, the reminder of human mortality. 'The old order changeth', produced by the Auckland-based photographer Josiah Martin around 1885, was widely distributed over the following decades. It is a claustrophobic tableau of deities, ancestral effigies, weapons, utensils, ornaments, two preserved Maori heads, a taxidermied kiwi, and a photographic portrait of the Maori King Tawhiao. As a memento mori for a supposedly moribund culture, the photograph starkly fuses political and aesthetic realms.

In contemporary New Zealand, the recasting of museum ethnology as matauranga Maori (Maori epistemology) has unsettled both the deployment of collections and the colonial 'archive' itself. 'The old order changeth' has become a repudiated image, suppressed within most digital databases in New Zealand in order to render an offensive document invisible. Is it desirable or indeed possible to censor historical imagery, and what does the suppression of such imagery mean for the investigation and discussion of colonial ideologies? Should the art history of colonial cultures be condemned to inhabit an anodyne gallery of landscapes and heroic portraits, or might it have a duty to explore racist appropriations and misrepresentations?

The visual journey of "brigand" Villella's skull: from scientific exhibit to icon of "No Lombroso" protest

Author: Maria Teresa Milicia (Università di Padova) email

Short Abstract

In this paper I examine the “visual journey” – from first scientific drawning to actual photographic representation – of the image of "brigand" Giuseppe Villella’s skull that Cesare Lombroso exibited in 1871 as evidence of the Atavism, the foundation theory of Criminal anthropology.

Long Abstract

On a gloomy day of December 1870, at dawn, Cesare Lombroso found an anomalous shape into the base of the cranium of Giuseppe Villella, a suspected "brigand" who was brought from the Calabrian town of Motta Santa Lucia to Pavia prison, where he died in 1864. The scientist interpreted the anomaly as an evidence of the atavism, the foundation theory of Criminal anthropology. The brigand's skull became the staple of the Lombroso's craniological collection. When in November 2009 the renewed historical display of the Museum of Criminal Anthropology opened to visitors in Turin, a "No Lombroso" cartel of Neo-bourbon and other Southern political associations moved to protest over the "Horror Museum" and to demand the repatriation of the skull for burial. The political and juridical controversies between the «No Lombroso technical-scientific Committee» and the Museal staff is still going on.

In this paper I examine the "visual journey" of the image of brigand Villella's skull. I aim to focus on the changing of its historical temporality and mode of representation by tracing the successive stages of the image reproduction of Villella's skull:

from the first drawning and photo of scientific exhibit disseminated by Lombroso to

the actual symbolic "repatriation" into the visual archive of website and social network that contribute to produce a popular memory of the "colonial violence" in the South of Italy.

On photography and displacement: The uses of the image of King Njoya of the Bamum

Author: Simon Dell (University of East Anglia) email

Short Abstract

This paper discusses the re-use of a photograph of King Njoya of the Bamum and considers the tension between this image and the other media used by the Bamum. In turn, this permits a reconsideration of the role of the photography in the colonial encounter.

Long Abstract

Photographs are reproducible and therefore circulate rapidly; this placelessness has frequently been read as a sign of photography's modernity. Yet what status did this modernity have in the colonial encounter?

This question may be addressed by following the trajectory of one photograph, a self-portrait of King Njoya of the Bamum, Cameroon. Taken in 1913, the photograph was reproduced in a missionary narrative published in Basle in 1925 and then incorporated into an indigenous pictorial history of the Bamum, produced between 1927 and 1930. By this date Njoya's authority had been undermined by the French colonial authorities. So what did the re-appropriation of his image mean? Could it figure his fall, and his displacement?

African Art, Expeditions and Modernism: Man Ray’s Dogon photography

Author: Barbara Knorpp (UCL) email

Short Abstract

The photograph of a Dogon ‘Black Monkey Mask’ by Man Ray (1936) and subsequent images of the same museum object reveal the complicated and violent stories of ethnographic collections and the phantom image of Africa in both art and anthropology.

Long Abstract

This paper explores the visual histories of a black and white photograph by Man Ray from 1936 showing a Dogon ‘Black Monkey Mask’, first brought to Paris from Mali during the Paulme-Lifchitz expedition in 1935. Initially a wooden object from the Dogon ‘dama’ ceremony, marking the end of mourning and thrown away to decompose, the plundered object becomes a symbol of what Michel Leiris has called ‘l’Afrique phantôme’, an obscure exoticised image of African culture. Many Modernist artists have used ethnographic collections and archives for their work while anthropology has largely excluded fine art photography and popular cinema from anthropological theory. How can anthropology creatively and critically engage with photographic collections and visual culture of a given period? Leiris’ autobiography and diaries ‘L’Afrique phantôme. De Dakar à Djibouti 1931-1933’, published in 1934 and never translated into English, harshly criticized the realities of ethnographic expeditions at the time. French anthropologist Marcel Griaule, an expert on Dogon masks and member of the same expedition took a similar photograph of a monkey mask during a ceremonial dance, giving the object a more precise explanation on how the mask was used in its original context, although the Dogon themselves do not separate the mask from the performer, the mask is the performer. While Man Ray’s lighting certainly accentuates the mystery and beauty of the mask, similarly to the use of three-point-lighting for film actors, we can also interpret the photograph in a wider context of cultural production and exchange of knowledge, the circulation and display of consumer goods, and an emerging trade in ‘world art’.

Visual journeys of Birsa Munda: vexations concerning the politics of presence and time in Indian anthropology

Author: Daniel Rycroft (University of East Anglia) email

Short Abstract

An engagement with the visual and inter-cultural significance of an Adivasi leader, as pertaining to issues of memory, autonomy and representation.

Long Abstract

In the late-nineteenth century, the subaltern and Adivasi (indigenous/tribal) leader Birsa Munda was photographed as a captive of the colonial state in Ranchi district, central India. His portrait has since been re-interpreted, re-inscribed and re-used in diverse anthropological, regionalist and nationalist contexts. These processes point to the intersecting of a range of visual idioms, materials and sensibilities. How these have become efficacious across social, mnemonic and curatorial fields that are not necessarily characterized by an affinity with Munda heritage or Adivasi values is of anthropological significance. The paper will argue that a new conceptualisation of Birsa's 'presence' is required as a means of broaching the inter-temporality of the image(s) and histories under consideration. It addresses the slippages and overlaps between competing notions of time - insurgent versus counter-insurgent; ancestral versus lived; cultural versus political - that adhere in the image and its afterlives. The work will question how the milieu of 'Indian' anthropology, exemplified by S.C. Roy, informed the early phases of the photograph's afterlife, and prompted new nationalist artistic imaginings of 'the Mundas' as a civilizational rather than a primordial social entity.

Insignificance or fetishisation - Remediation and photo-elicitation without reciprocal value

Author: Katja Müller (Halle University) email

Short Abstract

Retelling the biography of a single photograph from South India, 1928, reveals the different perspectives a remediation can prompt, reinforces that “every era adds its own meaning to the picture” and demonstrates that reciprocal value in photo-elicitation is not an intrinsic part of archival photographs.

Long Abstract

A photograph can include certain biographical chapters. The 1928 picture of a man in a costume was once perceived - by the photographer - as a mean to document the way the 'devil dancer's' costume is worn.

The photograph was later used to reconstruct the way of wearing the costume and to display via the rearranged material culture the South Indian 'devil dance' in a German museum, leading to questions of appropriate museum politics, fetishisation and agency.

An ethno-historical analysis of the photograph, its form and content, reads the photograph as an incomplete example of teyyam, a lived South-Indian ritual including the depicted material culture.

The photograph's visual repatriation and hence perception by representatives of the 'source community' enables further forms of remediation and reveals semantic connections that lead to additional narratives. These include emotional associations to the depicted, reflections of personal situations and of musealisation.

The gathering of these multiple perspectives led to a deeper understanding of the depicted for the researcher. But it did not result in a reciprocal value for the 'source community' as is demanded by a number of authors. It did not influence norms or was part of learning, art and education. It was not used for social or political empowerment. It was mere pastime. While one could (on ethical grounds) argue for a reciprocal value, to demand it would be an essentialisation, paving the way for paternalism. Accepting that "every era adds its own meaning to the picture" includes the recognition of potential insignificance and fetishisation.

Cultural Mediations of the Visual: Mobilizing archival photographs for cultural futures

Authors: Hart Cohen (University of Western Sydney) email

Short Abstract

This paper addresses the re-mediation of archival images for cultural repatriation in collaboration with the Ntaria Aboriginal community. Archival images can be a space where embodied knowledge and cultural history cross as well as offering a new knowledge resource for remote Indigenous communities.

Long Abstract

This paper addresses how the re-mediation of archival images can be a basis for cultural repatriation. It reflects an interest in how archival images can be a space where embodied knowledge and community interest in cultural history cross. The ascendency of the visual in anthropology has been marked by a tension surrounding the use of images that have been collected and sequestered in archives. Two tendencies have converged recently: the use digital technology in the re-mediating of image collections and the repatriation of material culture by communities of interest from collecting agencies. Our project has embraced these two tendencies in exploring the idea of digital repatriation as a means of addressing the knowledge interests of a specific community. We have focused on narrative strategies as a means of mobilizing the archive with specific attention to digital storytelling in collaboration with the Ntaria School. Our project's interests can be summarized in three interrelated questions: How will the digitization of these archives enable us to find the knowledge flows within and across the Strehlow Collection? How can an engagement with contemporary Aboriginal communities inform the conceptual work of the project? How can Aboriginal people discover and create their own relationships to the content of the collection? This research is developed as part of an Australian Research Council project titled, Digital Archives and Discoverability: Conceptualizing the Strehlow collection as a new knowledge resource for remote Indigenous communities.

Emotion in the Archive: Understanding and recording personal and spiritual reactions to archival photographs

Author: Rachael Murphy (University of East Anglia) email

Short Abstract

What is the legacy of artist Christian Thompson’s ‘spiritual repatriation’ of Australian photographs from the Pitt Rivers’ collection? A critical evaluation of the role of emotion in contemporary engagements with archival images.

Long Abstract

We Bury Our Own, Christian Thompson's artistic response to the Australian photographic collection at the Pitt Rivers Museum has toured to institutions in Europe, America and Australia. Thompson describes the work as a 'spiritual repatriation' of the archive. He draws on his emotional responses to the collection of ethnographic and colonial photographs. Thompson consciously omits visual references to the images that inspired him, disrupting the classifying systems of the archive and the hierarchies of power and knowledge embedded in the collection. The popularity of Thompson's work raises the possibility that the ideas and emotions that arise out of interactions with the archive may have more powerful impacts on audiences than the archival objects themselves.

While We Bury Our Own has been displayed and viewed in diverse spaces, the photographic archive that inspired the series remains physically unchanged and unseen. This paper brings the archive to the foreground, focusing on one of the images which inspired Thompson. I ask the following questions: What is the legacy of emotional experiences that happen in the archive? What is their impact on the objects themselves and on the processes of collections management? Finally I consider Thompson's work in light of Roland Barthes' ideas on emotional responses to photographs. As Thompson's work was inspired by deeply personal responses to the archival images do these images necessarily hold any meaning for others viewing his work? Extending this does the very viewing of these photographs undermine Thompson's disruption of the colonial relationships which echo through the archive?

Unraveling photographs of the missionary myth among the Santals

Authors: Harald Tambs-Lyche (Université de Picardie, Jules Verne, Amiens) email
Marine Carrin (Université de Toulouse Jean Jaures) email

Short Abstract

The photo, which shows a colonial encounter between Santal “tribals” and Scandinavian missionaries, tells us of identity formation since the missionaries saw Santals as a nation. Yet, a closer look shows the Santals as untameable. Could the missionaries tailor the images sent to their sponsors ?.

Long Abstract

The photo I propose to explore displays a colonial frontier, a "tribal people"-the Santals - beyond the direct control of British India, and their encounter with missionaries from Scandinavia , on the periphery of Europe. This photo shows a colonial encounter where the missionaries who see themselves as representatives of progress and civilization appear in company of the natives they have decided to include. Some natives, identified in the Mission's archives, are close collaborators of the missionaries. I propose to elicit the story of this photograph in its own temporality. The most obvious message tells us of identity formation since the Santals were seen as a nation by the missionaries and this may be why the founder of the mission puts his arm on the chief's shoulder, as a token of reciprocity. Yet, a closer look at the other Santal characters unravel another story archives and leads us to another idea, the Santals are untameable. We shall confront this photograph with some others of the first converts : did the missionaries succeeded in tailoring the visual images they sent to their sponsoring institutions in Europe? While their letters reveal that they wanted to use photographs as tokens of their success, we understand that the photographs carried their own ambiguous message, leading us to a visual journey crossing the contradictions of missionary cosmopolitanism and parochialism.

Seeing Lahore: Explorations in its Architectural Archives

Author: Nadine Zubair (University of East Anglia) email

Short Abstract

Through Maynard Owen Williams’ photograph from 1921 titled “Where Electricity Dispels the Illusion of Arabian Nights,” this paper will examine the (imagined) cityscape of Lahore, Pakistan, and the role of architecture and its archives in formations of Place and Identity.

Long Abstract

The impetus for this research is a proliferation of, and predilection for, digitised archival images, on the internet more broadly, and within social media more specifically, of black and white photographs of the late-19th and early-20th century architecture from the Indo-Pak subcontinent. I will discuss a photograph taken by Maynard Owen Williams, an American photojournalist with National Geographic Society, in Lahore (Pakistan) in 1921 titled "Where Electricity Dispels the Illusion of Arabian Nights," that has received particular attention. I intend to use this image emblematically to examine how the visual and textual representations of architecture perform as markers of identity, in particular, the lexicon of wood carved balconies, arches, fenestrations and doors that makes locations within the region distinctive. These markers, often of nostalgia/memory or desire/utopia, are dynamic, heterogeneous, and evolve within ever-changing contexts. So where, perhaps in 1921, the imagined cityscape of Lahore was part of an American photographer's odyssey and captured an illusory, albeit tainted, nostalgia, by the twenty first century this visual depiction is often remarked as a utopian ideal by citizens of that city, a "location of longing" as suggested by Saleema Waraich. This paper will explore the performativity of such architectural elements and building configurations as they are variously beheld and invoked, and their role as an archive, in constructions of Place and Identity.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.