Anthropology’s Symbiotic Relationship with Photogr

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Anthropology 174

It is by no coincidence that the fields of photography and

anthropology have evolved together. At the very least, photography and the

visual representation of so-called “primitive” peoples have legitimized and

mainstreamed the field of anthropology. Anthropologists have been called

“merchants of the exotic,” a reputation well deserved based on the early

period of ethnographic photography. In many cases anthropologists have been

aware of this reputation and exploited it, to promote interest in their

work. In many other cases however anthropologists have had a genuine

interest in promoting enlightenment and understanding of nonwestern

cultures, yet have still missed the mark and spread stigma and stereotype

instead. Photography and visual representation is a very powerful medium

(in both productive and destructive ways) which probably was not fully

appreciated at its inception, but is perhaps more understandable in


The first photographs were modeled after the two modes of painting

(portraiture and landscape, or “scenes”), which were the only other form of

two-dimensional visual representation at the time. This can be seen in the

early ethnographic photos of Rudolph Poch, who posed his subjects in

various positions and stood in the midst of them looking far off into the

distance (probably thinking himself a very great man).

As the field of photography progressed, and photographers began to

discover new uses and possibilities of photography (i.e. other than just

really realistic-looking paintings), the medium developed new meaning, and

attracted new interests. Of these new interests anthropologists too

discovered photography as a tool for a wider range of uses.

Elizabeth Edwards, summarizing Rochelle Kolodny outlines three

functions of photography underlying its use today. The first is

romanticism, which is based on the tradition of painting and art.

Romanticism is concerned with aesthetics, and a romantically modeled

photograph would be one in which it is clear that the photograph was taken

because either the subject was aesthetically pleasing, or something about

the way the frame was arranged was aesthetically pleasing. Under the

romantic model, since the purpose is to end up with a good-looking picture,

the photographer has a role in structuring and posing the subjects in the

frame. Second, there is realism, which is the mode of photography in which

the photographer’s intent is to record facts. In this mode the photographer

tries to capture a real situation, photographs are not posed, or it is

clear that the photograph was taken to record the realistic characteristics

of a subject. Lastly, the documentary model (which can include elements of

the above two) is operating when the photographer’s intent is to make some

sort of statement about the subject, either a social or political


Normally when we view photographs we view them without criticism. We

see a picture and assume it is what it is. To different people a picture

may have different meaning, depending on culture, experience or background

knowledge, and a picture’s meaning may change over time as its viewers age

or it is viewed by different generations with different values. This is the

passive quality of photography that Edwards points out in her introductory

chapter. But she also suggests that photography has an assertive quality;

photographs can be structured in a way to convey a certain meaning. In

addition to the three models that Edwards presents, she says that each can

be broken down into four, what she calls “facets.” The facets are really

questions that can be asked about the pictures, the answers to which speak

volumes about the photographer, a party to the photograph who usually

remains unscrutinized.

The facets are, first, the assumptions about the nature of the world

as defined by the role of the images. Second, the aspects of the creating

culture to which the images connect. Third, the ideological frameworks

which the images uphold, and lastly, the function of each model or


Consider the photograph of a Motu girl paddling a canoe (p. 162 in

Edwards’ book). The photograph, which was probably posed, was done in the

romantic mode of photography, because the primary purpose of the

photographer was not to convey facts of native life or native culture

(realism), nor does there seem to be much of a social or political

statement that this photograph is making. The photographer’s intent seems

pretty clearly to be to capture this girl’s beauty and grace as she paddles

down the river. She is looking right into the camera as she paddles,

something she probably wouldn’t be doing had the photograph been taken

spontaneously, or if she really were busily paddling away.

Applying the four facets of the romantic model allows us to ask

questions of the photographer. Edwards suggests that the romantic model of

photography is based on the ideological framework of idealism (the third

facet) and that the function of this framework is redemptive (the fourth

facet). This leaves the question of the first two facets, that is, what are

the assumptions about the nature of the world as defined by the role of the

image, and which aspects of the creating culture does the photograph

connect to? To answer the last question, the aspects of the creating

culture that the photograph connect to is fairly obvious; the picture is

modeled after European paintings. If the woman had had blonde hair, fair

skin and less tattoos she would be indistinguishable from subjects of many

other romantic paintings done the century before. The connection is that

this woman is made to looks like a variation of a western ideal of beauty,

which serves to redeem her (from being “savage?”) in the eyes of

westerners. Furthermore, keeping in mind the framework (idealism), its

function (redemption) and the connection (western ideals of beauty), it can

be further deduced from the photo that that the photographer holds certain

assumptions about the nature of the world. Namely, that this woman and her

culture need redeeming at all.

Photography has tremendous power, in part for the reason mentioned

above: because we now frequently assume a realistic model, people rarely

question the structure of photographs. They are after all supposed to be

accurate portrayals of whatever the camera is pointed at. However

photographs are intentionally structured and can be structured to portray

what the photographer intends. Ethnographic photography especially then has

serious moral implications, outcomes of which could determine the survival

or independence of an entire culture.

Photography during the early period of anthropology was often abused

as a method of displaying the exotic, or making native peoples appear

silly, unintelligent or fierce (see p. 13, plate 7 of Edwards’ book). I

believe anthropologists should be wary in general of posed pictures in

anthropology, since the doctrine of anthropology is primarily to observe,

not to create.

Photography has a number of other constructive roles in anthropology

besides the illustration of native people and cultures for western eyes.

Photography in modern anthropology has evolved into a research tool itself.

There are three phases of ethnographic inquiry, as outlined by John

Collier, Jr. and Malcolm Collier. First there is the introductory phase, or

orientation. After an anthropologist has been introduced to and oriented

with the community under study s/he can move into in-depth fieldwork and

narrow her scope to the goals of the research (which is the second phase).

Finally when she feels she has gathered sufficient data, she’ll synthesize

her findings into an article or ethnography. Photography has an important

role in each of the three phases of research..

In the first phase an anthropologist or ethnographer usually has just

arrived in the community to be studied. At a time when the anthropologist

is totally unfamiliar with her surroundings taking pictures gives her

something productive to do. The first images of her surroundings at this

point have no pertinent meaning to her. As Collier and Collier put it, the

initial photographs are the first step toward learning “. . . the visual

language of a new cultural ecology.” (p. 20) These initial photographs

will not only help to orient the anthropologist but will also be useful in

later stages of the research.

Photographing the land surrounding the community and the exterior of

the village is also important in the early stages of research. For one, it

aides the researcher in learning more quickly how to get around, as a kind

of photographic map. In addition these photographs provide context to the

research. Later they can be studied to deduce important knowledge about the

people, such as how they make use of their land, what their farming

techniques are , whether they produce crops or livestock, how they organize

their village and what the hierarchy is ( if there is one). Napoleon

Chagnon for example, in his study of the Yanamama was interested in

horticultural land use and the rotation of their gardens. He stood on a

hill top and took survey pictures of the surrounding land to document the


If one has access to it, aerial photography can reveal even more about

a community, including the community’s relationship to nearby villages, a

more accurate survey of land use, nearby natural resources and roads, which

can be evidence of trading patterns.

Photography has its greatest utilitarian value in the second phase of

ethnographic inquiry. In the spirit of realism, photography can aide an

ethnographer in making a cultural inventory of the physical items in a

culture. An inventory with still photography can capture so much more than

written notes or even moving pictures. When taking notes an anthropologist

will write down only the things notable to her/him at that time. If the

anthropologist is still at a fairly early stage in the research she may

miss things, or the absence of things that have yet to become significant

to her. In addition, it is tedious work writing down and describing

everything you see. A photograph captures the image of what’s in the room

almost perfectly, and allows the eye to roam each corner of the frame,

catching all the background details, without the objects moving or

distracting activity. From a cultural inventory a myriad of questions can

be asked and answered of the people, such as: What is kept inside the

house? Are the objects utilitarian or aesthetic in nature? Examining

objects that are valued enough to keep around can lend insight into value

systems themselves. An anthropologist might also examine where things

inside the house are placed in relation to each other. This may provide

some insight into how the people organize and categorize things and

activities in their minds.

Still photography images of technology are useful, perhaps were more

useful before the advent of moving image. Because technology and tools may

be tedious to describe, and also because technology is only meaningful in

use and in relationship to a user, visual images of a foreign technology

are indispensable to its understanding. One limitation to still photographs

of foreign technology is obvious: the viewer can’t see the technology in


In his chapter on interviewing informants with photographs, Collier

asserts that the photo-interview and projective interpretation by the

native is perhaps the best use of the camera in the field of anthropology

and the only way to truly exploit its full record.

In the first place a photograph can serve as an icebreaker in the

community (or “can-opener”) and in relationships with informants; they may

feel honored that you chose to photograph them or something they’re proud

of, or you may be able to use photographs of them and the community (taken

during the slow days of phase one) to strike up conversations. In an

interview with photographs the photos can serve as starting points and

reference points of the conversation, giving the anthropologist the power

to guide the interview (she chooses which ones to bring) without having to

be verbally assertive. The interview is less of an interrogation and more

of a conversation.

In the final phase of ethnographic study, conclusion and synthesis,

photos serve as illustrations and provide visual context. There have been

attempts to use photography as a primary research tool, an effort called

“saturated photography,” But these efforts in the end have not come to

much, primarily for the same reason that photographs are so useful in

interviews. That is, it takes another medium, such as spoken word or text,

to convey the meaning and intent of the visual representation; the

interpretation of visual media varies with culture and value systems and so

without some sort of guided interpretation via another medium, purely

visual interpretation is mere speculation.

Photography then has had a huge impact on anthropology; without it, one

could speculate the field may not even exist, or not to the extent that it

does today. Photographs give anthropologists a tremendous amount of power,

which they are expected to exercise wisely and morally. But anthropology

does not stand on photography alone, and without written word and film, the

anthropological body of knowledge would not be as rich as it is today.

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