Palladio in Liberia: Towards photography as presence, ethnography as index
Paper 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’.
Paper 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.
Reasserting presence: reclamation, recognition and photographic desire