Now I am back in the world of study, having spent far too long applying for a new job, and eventually securing one, dealing with personal ‘moments,’ attending weddings and generally spending time over the summer on my house and garden, it is time to look at Post-colonial ethnography. (As well as catch up on other study bits and generally panic about deadlines)
Having looked closely at control and discipline we are now asked to explore an aspect of that, according to Elizabeth Edwards (1992, p.105), a research Professor in Photographic History and Director of Photographic History Research Centre at De Montfort University, photographers and photography is obsessive in wanting to ‘record, catalogue, explore, reveal, compare and measure the human body…’ This was especially so during the Victorian colonial photography era. The methods used by the ethnographers and anthropologists during the mid-nineteenth century are now recognised as demonstrating ‘the unequal relationship between the colonisers and the colonised.’Three names we are introduced to are: Thomas H Huxley, Louis Agassiz and J T Zealy.
Thomas H Huxley was a pioneering biologist and educator who supported Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and introduced an anthropometric method which all colonial governors were asked to adopt. Naturalist and scientist Louis Agassiz, in another project, commissioned J T Zealy to photograph slaves in Columbia, South Carolina.On reflection, have the historical and contemporary photographers who captured indigenous groups, accurately represented the peoples they have studied? Were they occasionally ‘faked’ or romanticized? Who were the intended audience? Was it science or just another excuse to gawp at the exotic ‘other’ or an attempt to make the colonisers feel superior?In discussing this topic you cannot avoid the name of Edward S. Curtis or the term ‘the Curtis syndrome.’ Edwards (2001) comments on his ‘obsessive commitment’ in capturing tribes of the North American Indian by stating “… documenting traditional culture in the face of irreversible change is not necessarily pure ‘documentary’. It evokes feelings of nostalgia at the passing of cultures and an aetheticised ‘nobility’ which transcends documentary.”Martha Rosler was not so kind and wrote: ‘[he]… was also interested in preserving someone’s cultural heritage… he carried a stock of more or less authentic, more or less appropriate (often less, on both counts) clothing and accoutrements with which to deck out his sitters…the heritage was considered sufficiently preserved… In Curtis; case, the photographic record was often retouched, gold-toned and bound in gold-decorated volumes… financed by J.P.Morgan.’Which makes you question all over again the authenticity and intention of the photographs we see. Do Curtis’ 20 volumes which span 30 years work contain a realism? I would hope that somewhere in there, even if a bit of a jumble, he managed to capture several tribes of vanishing people.
Bronislaw Malinowski, sometimes described as ‘the father of the functionalist school of anthropology’ (which is based on the notion that all the parts of the society work together as an integrated whole) perceived, and substantiated, ‘the fact that the mind of the “primitive” man was essentially no different than that of “civilized” peoples.’ He also held the view that the ‘ethnographic subject disappears at the very moment of its recognition.’ He saw that information being recorded was not a true reflection of the peoples being studied, not their way of life nor their intellect. Also, that once scientists arrived en masse they influenced the behaviours of others.
Malinowski vigorously emphasized the importance of immersing oneself deeply in the indigenous language or languages. But perhaps more than any other researcher before him, Malinowski embraced the value of studying everyday life in all its mundane aspects. Thus for him it was not enough to simply record what tribal members said about their religious beliefs, sexual practices, marriage customs, or trade relationships – it was important to also studying how this measured up to, or played out in, what they did in everyday life.
Browse the catalogue Tribal Portraits:Vintage and Contemporary Photographs from the African Continent , Bernard J Shapero Rare Books. Core resources TribalPortraits.pdf and write a brief commentary.
Tribal Portraits: Vintage & Contemporary Photographs from the African Continent was an exhibition and sale of over 200 rare images dating from 1865 to the present day, some of which had not been on the open market for decades.
A small sample of images are below:
Noting that most of the images on the Guardian website only featured frontal nudity of women I thought I would address the balance! I also love this image as the photographer focuses on the serious business of capturing a posed portrait of what I assume to be a form of traditional dress other people aimlessly mill about or intentionally photobomb the image. None are adorned like the subjects so it is easy to see why the audiences from the Victorian era, or even now given depending on the images, people assume that different cultures walk around in such exotic attire, or naked all the time, which obviously they don’t.
From researching various photographic works there is a tendency from photographers to follow suit, no matter what the genre. The way in which reviewers and curators write about the images also romanticise various bodies of work:
On Sebastião Salgado:
These Sebastião Salgado photographs were shot during a time of extreme industrial growth, marred by harsh social inequalities and political turmoil. The harshness and cruelty of this period is present at every turn in Salgado’s arresting images, juxtaposed with these curious observations of tenderness and romance in humanity. The result is a remarkable series of emotive photographs, that invite us into a world where – in Salgado’s own words – “dignity and poverty ride on the same horse”.
On Peter Lavery:
…the Xingu and the Yawalapeti are lucky to have him as their silent recorder, their likeness shimmering for prosperity in an alchemical mix of silver and whatever precious metals it may take…
As to be expected with a catalogue devoted to one area of photography the subject matter is broadly similar despite a few different approaches to capturing the portraits. Are or reactions different to these different approaches? I’ll try to sum it up as I go along…difficult when their is so much material to comment on.One of my favourite images is that on the front cover, taken by George Rodger: I like the silhouette, shadow and the framing, the candid nature of the image, even if possibly staged, and the naturalness of the action. However, not all his images were given this treatment as seen above, although none seem to take advantage or show any disrespect.Mirella Ricciardi was another featured photographer, and not one I had previously heard of…typical blurb on her site reads:
Born in Kenya, then still a colony of British East Africa; to an Italian father and a French mother, Mirella Ricciardi grew up on the shores of Lake Naivasha in a household that was both sophisticated and wild. She was married at twenty-five to the Italian adventurer Lorenzo Ricciardi, who swept her off her feet and hired her as the photographer on the film he was making in Kenya.
Having finally severed her umbilical tie to the African continent, she now lives in the East Sussex English countryside surrounded by her Archive.
Romantic again, also smacks of colonialism even if not intentional, the ‘I have embraced the wild primitiveness of Africa yet due to my upbringing and background remain apart from it and sophisticated and above all that….’ attitude. Her images seem to veer more towards the posed and artistic and still fall into the trap of naming people within a ‘group’ rather than as individuals.
I found it quite hard to categorically state that I did or did not like the way in which some of the photographers worked. For example Hector Acebes seemed to take overtly sensual images of nubile young boys and girls yet on the other-hand capture some genuinely interesting ‘activity’ and landscape shots.
However, he wasn’t as bad as Lehnert & Landrock:
The photographic studio of Lehnert & Landrock, active in Tunisia and Cairo in the early years of the twentieth century, specialised in producing images of the landscapes, architecture and people of North Africa. Made in large part for a European audience, the work was originally distributed through a series of monographs, as well as being sold from their own shops in the form of original prints, heliogravures and reproduction gravure and lithographic postcards. Since the 1980s, this work has enjoyed the renewed attention of scholars and collectors.
Contemporary photographer Antoine Schneck, applied a totally different creative technique removing almost all contextual information from his portraiture.
There was a smattering of images either taken in a studio or outside against painted backdrops. I always find this odd if trying to reveal an indigenous population within its own environment. The photographers who fell into this trap were C. Vincenti, Pascal Sebah, and even Irving Penn…these images remind me of the typological approach of August Sander.
In conclusion this catalogue illustrates the diverse nature of ethnographical anthropological approaches in capturing African tribes. None supply the entire context or background story, but then what photograph can or does? On reviewing these images and harking back to the exercise on ‘the gaze’ it does make me think twice about how I should represent any future subject matter myself… note…don’t use bed sheets and palm fronds!
Primitive typologies/Research Point
Under this section we are introduced to the work of Peter Lavery ‘Of Humankind’, David Bruce’s images of the San, Juan Echeverra’s studio images of the Himba of Namibia and Alvaro Leiva’s work regarding peoples of the Amazon Basin, and to question if and how photographers capture indigenous peoples honestly and without falling into the many traps there are associated with this genre. The traps being:
is certainly guilty of decontextualised tribal portraits with his use of B&W portraits taken against a black velvet backdrop, which harks back to the Victorian era and typology aesthetic, thus reducing his subjects to stereotypes. This is quite at odds with a statement made on his website which was to:
make portraits for himself of people he met in his travels and who interested him not as types but as individuals.
My argument is also underlined by his lack of captioning or use of the individuals’ names.Juan Echeverria
also parallels with Lavery to a certain extent as much of his work it decontextualises the subject from their environment by placing them against a plain backdrop. In some instances the images are printed in sepia or B&W. There is, yet again, a smattering of nudity, some of which seems in context whilst others appear voyeuristic.David Bruceseems to treat his subjects with a more gently human approach to his direct portraiture. As with others many are against a plain backdrop and taken in B&W but he seems to engage with his subjects, they are smiling, pulling faces, interacting with him on an equal level. The variety of expressions reveal the engagement rather than the usual serious/bored detachment often found. He includes small detail shots as well as wider contextual everyday activities. I found myself warming to his body of work.
wasborn in 1970 in Madrid. In 1989 he started shooting travel photography, and has travelled to over eighty countries on assignment. In conjunction with his commercial work, he has worked for the past seven years on The River People. The project documents the daily lives of people along five of the world’s major rivers – the Amazon, Ganges, Mekong, Mississippi and Niger.
Researching this photographer was made fun by his website seeming to be out of action for a while and a typo in the course notes spelling his name Leyva! A selection of his work can be seen here and he was featured in an edition of foto8 magazine.
From the small amount of work I could find he also shoots in B&W and uses large landscapes, small detail and incorporates more natural/candid shots than formally posed.
In completing my own research the obvious name that appeared was Jimmy Nelson, I then thought of Sebastião Salgado’s body of work Genesis, and also that by Jacob Maentz. There were many more I could use but have previously mentioned them in other posts when exploring how famine is presented or capturing the exotic ‘other’.
The reasons behind believing they succeed more often than not is that they generally, not always (they do also fall into some of the traps, especially Salgado)
wanted to ‘create carefully orchestrated portraits of these amazing peoples, at their absolute proudest.’ Endearingly honest his website tells us:
Jimmy Nelson is not an anthropologist or a man of science. He does not claim to have the knowledge to address the questions we have about indigenous and other traditional cultures. He is a photographer and a storyteller. What started as a naive engagement with the peoples he met during work assignments, has over a period of three decades turned into a personal project. The book ‘Before they pass away’ is an homage to the cultures he will probably never fully understand, but who will never stop luring him to explore.
In an interview in the Guardian (2014) he admits his pictures are ‘intended to be aesthetic rather than factual…There is no sociology, no statistics. It’s how I see the world..’
His images are definitely more on the ‘Art’ end of the scale but he tempers this with captions, naming not only the tribe but the individual people within his images.
Rather than focusing on the fact they are vanishing Nelson has since altered his view he now believes :
Where there are challenges, there are solutions. he has come to appreciate the pride, strength, vigour, honour and resilience of the people he asked to pose for his lense. This provides him with an unending inspiration to continue his work.
In this light, ‘before’ attains a meaning that is diametrically opposed to the fatalistic reading of doom. ‘Before’ signals a moment of opportunity, a call for action and an appeal. To decide with confidence that we value what we have and will take our support into the future.
again uses colour and occasionally relevant captions, even if once more he enjoys taking slightly romantic and artistically composed images.
The above shot shows he does not shy away from the difficult situations either. When downloading this image from his website it was called ‘Yolanda’ so presumably although her name is not used within the caption, Maentz knows exactly who she was.