Anthropology’s Symbiotic Relationship with Photography


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 retrospect.

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 statement.

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 framework.

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