|Anthropology Meets Photography on the Internet
Allison James, University of Hull
Jo Booth, National Museum of Photography, Film & Television
This article describes an encounter. It is an encounter between people, positions and disciplines which has led to the generation of an ongoing interactive research project, primarily between Finnish and British students of photography and anthropology, but also potentially one which reaches out to many other places, people and disciplines through the medium of the internet.
In brief, the project involves the production of a website that will function as an on-line educational resource for FE and HE students of photography and the visual arts, social sciences and humanities. The site will comprise a virtual exhibition of photographs which looks at the themes of ‘identity’ and ‘home’ and, as such, represents a continuation of an earlier project also devised by the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television called Auslander/Foreigners. This too is an on-line educational resource which explores perceptions of identity and cultures throughout contemporary Europe. It was inspired by Ooh La La!, an exhibition of the work of British photographer Martin Parr held at the Museum in Spring 1998. In this paper we describe the ‘natural’ history of our current project which led not only to the generation of a piece of ‘applied’ anthropological work in the field of education but also, along the way, revealed the parallel development in the disciplines of anthropology and photography - a shared concern about the intellectual process and practice of representing the ‘other’.
The University of Lapland meets the University of Hull
The production of this on-line resource, still ongoing, has involved two groups of students drawn from the University of Hull, East Yorkshire, and the University of Lapland. They have come together to join a team comprising: Jo Booth, Education Officer, NMPFT, Liz Williams, freelance artist, Allison James, anthropologist at the University of Hull and Jeff Taylor and Michael Jacobs at the University of Lapland. The students from Finland are a culturally mixed group, drawn from both Finnish and Sami cultures, and are first year arts students working on a photography module. The British students are second and third year students of anthropology.
One of the key aspects of the project is to explore the process of editing work for exhibition, and its subsequent re-presentation to an audience. The process of the re-presentation of the ‘self’ and the ‘other’ as engaged by both photography and anthropology is also under scrutiny. Thus the project has been devised to capture the process as it takes place and to develop our mutual understandings of it. With the support of Liz Williams, Jeff Taylor and Michael Jacobs, the Finnish students, working to a brief, photographed their ‘homes’ and ‘identities’, and forwarded their images to the students in Hull. The Hull students were required to organise the material into a coherent exhibition with a specific theme or message. Additionally they were responsible for providing interpretative text for visitors to the virtual exhibition. At present, the project has reached this stage, and out of the hundreds of images sent, the British students have chosen about 30 photographs to exhibit. The discussion surrounding the selection of images has been taped and will be used as the basis for an evaluation of the process of selection and the resultant exhibition. This evaluation will be done by Allison James, and her thoughts, in the form of a written response, will be included on the site. Finally, Michael Jacobs, Jeff Taylor and the Finnish students will also be invited to comment, and be represented on the site in the same way. Central to these commentaries will be an exploration of the ways that the Hull students have decided to re-present the material sent to them, and what effect this has had on the meanings of ‘home’ and ‘identity’ with which the Finnish students originally inscribed their work.
At the heart of the project therefore, are questions of representation: of cultural identity, of self and of other. These questions are also at the heart of the debates taking place contemporarily within both photography and anthropology as the next sections explore.
Photography, Anthropology and Representation
When photography was invented, in 1839, it changed the visual landscape forever, and offered new and exciting possibilities for people to learn about the world, culture, society and the environment. It also offered the general public the possibility of making visual records of themselves and their families, a practice which had previously been limited to those able to afford the services of a portrait painter. During the 1840s, numerous high street portrait photography studios opened, offering Daguerreotype portraits, in which the image was recorded onto a light sensitised and highly polished metal plate. By the end of the century, photographic technology had moved forward to allow for the mass production of affordable cameras and by the 1930s it was estimated that around half the households in Britain owned a camera. Today, market research suggests that at least three quarters of the adult population of this country owns a camera, and some households own three or more. Photography has been identified as one of the country’s most popular leisure activities and the total market value of annual consumer spending on photography in the UK is estimated to be in the region of £1.3 billion.
Photographs are wherever we look, accessible and familiar, visible every day on posters and billboards, in family albums, newspapers and magazines. We have in this sense, inadvertently become experts at reading photographs, and understanding their coded languages. Despite the enormous variety of images that are produced by photographic means, and the diverse contexts in which they are located, photographs have a common visual language, and conform to certain conventions which are understood by their audiences. The term ‘print literacy’ refers to an ability to read the printed word, and there are rules and regulations which govern its use. The same is also true of visual images. Beliefs, attitudes and opinions are heavily influenced by photography and the codes and conventions which are used allow the image to impart its message and be understood. It is these codes and conventions which we refer to as the ‘visual language’ of photography. Most of us can distinguish an advertising image from a personal snap or news photograph; we know what fashion photographs look like and what to expect from images in travel brochures. It is this implicit knowledge and understanding which we draw upon when confronted with a visual image.
And yet historically, there have been difficulties regarding the classification of photography (see Photography, An Independent Art by Mark Haworth-Booth 1997). While some argued that it should be recognised as art; that photography constituted a valid form of artistic expression, others categorised it as a technology, important only in its capacity to provide an accurate record of whatever is put in front of the lens (as above). But this begged questions regarding the meaning of ‘art photography’, because if ‘art’ is that which is referred to as being connected with the practices of the gallery and the art establishment, then claims for the photograph as an artform suggest that it has the capacity to transcend the mere recording of events, objects, people or places. Implicit within this argument therefore, was the acknowledgement that photography had the capacity to re-present, and not simply represent. Moreover, as our knowledge of photography tells us, and as we are currently exploring in the web project (see below) photography can claim an additional role because it can help us establish our place within society and culture, reflect for us our sense of self as well as our knowledge and understanding of others.
But what of the artist/photographer? What are his/her intentions during the process of making photographic representations? Even though the phrase ‘the camera never lies’ is still used, photography and concepts of ‘reality’ and ‘truth’ have never been comfortable bedfellows. Photographs are not objective accounts of the world around us. They are subjective accounts of tiny parts of it and issues of subjectivity and representation have become central to its study.
Martin Parr - documenting subjectivities
Martin Parr, who was born in 1952, and who grew up in suburban Surrey, today exhibits widely. In addition, his work can be found regularly in newspapers, magazines and journals. Nationally and internationally respected, Parr and his work are described in Contemporary Photographers (1995:800) thus:
Martin Parr can be considered generally as the leading light of the ‘New Colour Documentary’ school of eighties British and European photography. As such he has been a major influence upon young photographers, both as a protagonist and a teacher. His style has been imitated extensively, but in the original, is marked by an aggressive, typically British coolness and a gleeful propensity for eccentricity and the foibles of human existence. These qualities are presented for our inspection in a manner that seems somewhat insistent and unyielding compared to the methods of the traditional documentary photographers.
Parr is fascinated with holiday resorts such as Scarborough and Morecambe, and the ‘brash side of English life,’ as he has described it. One of his earliest photographic essays was made at Harry Ramsden’s fish and chip shop just outside Bradford, when he was about 16 years old. He says himself that he portrayed the shop as being bleaker than it actually was, as quite a sad sort of place. Even at this early stage he was searching for a way of expressing the fact that he identified with the places that he was photographing. He knew that they would soon become outdated, as society and culture moved on.
This theme of Britishness characterises much of Parr’s work. He is interested in the way people decorate their living rooms and socialise on holiday; in the values, attitudes and ways of life that are being eroded or are under threat. The trivia and ordinariness of everyday life appears regularly in Parr’s photographs, and represents a resistance to the homogenisation of society and the erosion of individual national identities. Thus, in the exhibition The Last Resort (1986), a study of the seaside town of New Brighton on the Wirrall, Parr photographs the ways that family groups act and behave together. He includes the screaming, the crying, the good and the bad points which are revealed and on display during a day out at the seaside.
The best way to describe Parr’s work, then, is ‘subjective documentary’. Writing in the catalogue for the exhibition On The Bright Side of Life (1997) Brett Rogers describes this school of contemporary British photography as follows:
The revitalisation of documentary begun by (Tony) Ray Jones and continued by such individuals as Martin Parr, Paul Graham, Chris Killip, John Davies and Jem Southam was motivated by radically new perception of its function. Like their American counterparts, the British photographers had undergone a disillusionment with documentary practice, realising that its objectivity was mythical, that its claims to reveal the ‘truth’‚ were spurious, and finally but most fundamentally that it had failed to effect any real change in the world. The ethical problem they posed themselves was how to respond to the radical social and political changes occurring in Britain while not succumbing to the old myths about the power of the documentary aesthetic.
In using photography to explore the physical and cultural climate of Britain in the light of the economic, social and political changes and the post-industrial climate of the late twentieth century, Parr and his contemporaries are arguing that photography is fundamentally subjective. It is about re-presentation, not representation; that is about the ‘re-presentation’ of visual material in a way that acknowledges the thoughts, feelings, preferences and ideologies of the photographer; it is about acknowledging the subjectivity of the photographer who, even within the tradition of so-called documentary photography, can never portray a subject as it ‘really is’. The photographer always works from a specific and individual point of view.
Thus, in Parr’s work, for example, a particular perspective and an interest in cultural identity is clear, and can be seen in the very authorial style of his images. His photographs use saturated colour and fill-in flash; they reflect the language of mass tourism and are reminiscent of the postcards tourists buy and that he is fond of collecting. Such a style is at variance with every convention of documentary photography, a tradition which has been dominated by black and white images and the capturing of newsworthy events. Parr’s photographs were and remain ironic, quizzical; obsessive almost, in their quest to collect the details of contemporary culture, and to make a spectacle of the ordinariness of everyday life. They ‘speak’ clearly about the feelings he has about culture and identity.
Small World is a large collection of photographs that Parr took of the tourist industry between 1987 and 1994. The catalogue which includes reproductions of many of the images, was published in 1995, with text by Simon Winchester. The photographs in Small World serve as a radical comment on the industry, and through his photographs, Parr positions himself as a cultural commentator, observing the ruination of special sites, the production of tacky souvenirs and the continued demands made by the tourist industry to make the world smaller and more accessible.
In search of an authentic experience, the tourists are pictured roaming around, like walk-on parts in a soap opera, video cameras clamped to their eyes, recording the sites and places that are, year by year less authentic, less genuine, less fresh. Often comical, they draw attention to the ludicrous promises of authenticity made by the advertisers. In the words of John Taylor, writing in his article, A Dream of England:
In the photograph, the tour guide carries a miniature reproduction of the original painting of the mill and indicates the area which Constable painted. This confirms that the party has arrived at the site, and overcomes the tourists fears of failing to see the desired spot.
A later exhibition, Ooh La La! (1) which was first put on show by the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television in 1998, sees Parr moving closer and closer in on this subject. Lurid and detailed, the photographs in Ooh La La! picture cheap and commodified culture - the items and foodstuffs - the clichés - of seven European countries, laid out for consumption. The trinkets, souvenirs and sun-burn which Parr has photographed may remind people of their own forays abroad. Ooh La La! is an observation of the banal, the worn icons of predictable holiday experiences; pizzas, plastic models and sandals decorated with artificial flowers. The aim of the tourist industry is to not unsettle. Experiences that might be unfamiliar or daunting are avoided by the tour operators, resulting in holiday experiences dulled down by a thin veneer of manufactured familiarity.
In reflecting upon photography’s role as a medium of representation it is possible to see considerable overlaps with debates which have taken place about representation within social anthropology. This is perhaps not surprising with regard to visual anthropology which, since the earliest days of Bateson and Mead have used resources such as still photographs (as advocated by Collier and Collier, 1986), and ethnographic film (Banks and Morphy, 1997). Increasingly, however, questions are raised about the roles that photographs and films are able to play in anthropological enquiry, and their value as objective documentary devices. Banks, for example, addresses the question of authenticity versus re-presentation which, as noted above, has played a part in the debate about art photography. He describes how one of the earliest ‘documentary’ ethnographic films, shot by A.C. Haddon in 1898, of the Torres Strait Islanders participating in a ritual dance, was, in fact, constructed by Haddon for the very purpose of making the film. Under the influence of missionaries, the initiation dance had already died out, and the Islanders were encouraged by Haddon to re-enact it. They constructed cardboard replicas of their ceremonial masks for the sole purpose of the filming. Thus, as Banks notes:
..the film is in one sense a record of what happened - men wore masks and danced - but in another sense is a fiction, an account of something that could not (or could no longer) be seen. (1998:15).
Claims to veracity - or image as evidence - presume complete and authoritative control and intention lying with those who produce the image, and who have faith in their ability to record reality, or their vision of reality convincingly. Yet the intention lying behind early (and later) uses of photography cannot be assumed to be unproblematic. (1998:15)
Still photographs are no less problematic. As Edwards (1992) has argued, photographs are never simply evidence. They always have an historical and subjective context; they are taken by someone; for a purpose; in a particular cultural context. It is not possible to use them simply as dispassionate or objective documents of cultural difference.
However, what is perhaps interesting is that the discussions taking place around documentary photography (both for photography in general and for anthropology) find other parallels in wider debates about anthropology’s representation of its own knowledge. This debate has centred, in particular, on anthropological writing, with questions being asked about the techniques and devices used within anthropological texts to produce authoritative accounts of other peoples cultures. The ‘crisis of representation’, which has been brought into being through collective worrying about the ‘writing culture debate,’ has led anthropology and anthropologists to seriously question the different styles of re-presentation they have employed (Clifford and Marcus 1986; Marcus and Fischer 1986). In sum, it alerted anthropologists:
...to the need to pay closer attention to the epistemological grounds of their representations and, furthermore, has made them consider the practical import of that process of reflection, both for the anthropological endeavour and for those who are the subjects of any anthropological enquiry. (James, Hockey and Dawson 1997: 3).
Central to these debates, as in the debates surrounding the work of photographers such as Martin Parr, are issues of power. The power that anthropologists/photographers hold. Though their ability to represent other peoples’ worlds prompts the need for them to acknowledge that neither the written text nor photographic image is (as it may appear), a ‘truthful’ or objective account. As Geertz (1973) has argued, both are simply, points of view. There is, then, a recognition that the ‘lens’ of authorship is as much in evidence in the written anthropological word as it is in the photographic record, and that texts, just like photographs, are shaped by discourses of ethnicity, age, gender and class. This understanding was the starting point for the conversation about photography and anthropology that has culminated in the web project outlined above. Within both discourses questions of partiality, selectivity and cultural bias are at play; the aesthetic and the pragmatic are also at work; issues of power and authority are as important to the written account as to the visual image, in working to persuade.
Home and Identity: Finland and Britain
It was Parr’s work which provided the point of departure for the web project and for the conjunction of anthropology and photography which it represents. Central questions, as yet unanswered by the project, are precisely those which Parr engages with, both through his subject and his technique: what is ‘home’; what is ‘identity’ and how can these be represented? To these are added questions about the making of representations: how ideas of ‘home’ and ‘identity’ are imaged; what are the intentions behind the image; what techniques are used to produce it and to persuade?
There is, however, a second layer of questions posed by the project. These include: how are images of ‘home’ and ‘identity’ received by others?, what do students in England understand about Finland through the images they have received? and on what basis are images selected? What kinds of stereotypes are marshalled to justify the selection of one image over another, and what received wisdom or specialist knowledge is brought into play?
Once the exhibition has been constructed, it will be sent back to Finland for comment by the students and their lecturers, Michael Jacobs and Jeff Taylor. Michael and Jeff will comment on the Hull students’ work, and the Finnish students will find themselves reflected back at themselves, with the exhibition yielding yet more questions which are to be explored - not only about ‘home’ and ‘identity’ and what that might mean, but also and perhaps more importantly, about how those ideas are imaged, produced and applied.
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 * Ooh La La! by Martin Parr was part of 10x98, commissioned by Photo 98 - the UK Year of Photography and the Electronic Image. The 10x98 European commissions were a series of exhibitions by ten international artists that asked important questions about the nature of Europe and its changing political, economic and cultural identities. They are a key facet of Photo 98, which was hosted by the Yorkshire region.