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VISUAL ANTHROPOLOGY

by

Harald E. L. Prins

Chapter 26

(pp. 506-525)

In

A Companion to the Anthropology of American Indians.
Edited

by

Thomas Biolsi

Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

(2004)

The 1839 invention of the daguerreotype in France marks a turning point in world history. Initially thought to record nothing “but the truth”, photography was quickly and enthusiastically accepted as “an actual reproduction of nature” (Arthur, 355). Notwithstanding this early confusion between truth and accuracy, cameras made it possible to mechanically reduce subjects from transient existence in real life and convert them into their apparently fixed representational state. Spreading swiftly across international boundaries, the new visual technology transformed the way people viewed themselves and their world. Within the next century, the global media revolution created a new phantom reality where representation is fact and perception may have real consequences.

Major steps in the development of visual technology and anthropology are intricately intertwined with significant turns in the demise and rise of Native America. When visual technology’s transforming influence began, indigenous nations still residing east of the Mississippi River were facing the devastating consequences of the 1830 Indian Removal Act, a federally mandated ethnic cleansing policy. Almost simultaneously, American anthropology emerged as the cross-cultural study of humankind and surveying teams fanned out across Indian country west of the great river to map the “wilderness” for military conquest and white colonization. In 1842, just when U.S. troops rounded up the last remaining clusters of Creeks and Chickasaws for resettlement in what was to become Oklahoma, the American Ethnological Society was founded. The first motion picture cameras appeared in the 1890s when anthropology began its rise as an institutionalized academic discipline and the U.S. Seventh Cavalry crushed the last pockets of indigenous armed resistance. And finally, visual anthropology came to the fore as a formally recognized academic enterprise in the 1960s, when portable synchronous-sound cameras were introduced and educational uses of television became ubiquitous. Not coincidentally, mass media expedited the rise of “Red Power” activism, which found inspiration in the romantic pictures of the past in its drive for native rights and cultural revitalization. [506]

As the earliest and most photographed and filmed tribal peoples in the world, North American Indians have been profoundly and variously affected by visual media. Probably the first natives to be placed in front of the camera were a group of eleven Iowa Indians touring England where they performed ceremonial dances in their exotic Great Plains outfits. A daguerreotypist captured their image in London in early 1845 (Wedel 2001). In September 1894, half a century later, William Dickson filmed a group of northern plains tribesmen “in full war paint and war costume” performing a “ghost dance” in Thomas Edison’s small experimental film studio in New Jersey. Only four years earlier, federal agents had prohibited the actual dance and, fearing its messianic fervor, brought it to a violent end at the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890.

Since these pictorial firsts, cameras have never stopped clicking or rolling, capturing portraits, ceremonies, and countless other aspects of American Indian life. By now, the number of pictures taken of Indians is inestimable. And the number of films, some only a few minutes long and others running several hours, can be counted in the thousands.

American anthropology has deep historical roots in the systematic study of North America’s indigenous peoples and cultures. Long categorized as “primitives”, American Indians became the object of an early (and important) anthropological practice known as salvage ethnography, which spawned the production of many of the most significant visual records of indigenous North America. Other records were produced for purposes of physical anthropological or cross-cultural research on anthropological themes such as styles of non-verbal communication.

Tracing the beginning of visual anthropology to the mid-nineteenth century when the practice of anthropological camera- use began, this essay focuses on the visual documentation of indigenous North America for research, teaching, and cultural preservation, in particular photographs, films, and videos. It provides a historical review of changing perspectives on anthropological use of cameras, takes into account technological innovations, and links these changes to some major theoretical trends in the development of the discipline, suggesting a dynamic relationship between anthropological paradigms and visual media. Although the dividing line between ethnographic and commercial or other visual media is blurred at best, attention is drawn to problems of ethnohistorical interpretation involving visual media produced for the sake of salvage ethnography, composed as cultural reconstruction, or fashioned in the spirit of an historic romanticism that reflected white dominant society’s primitivist ideology of the “vanishing race”. In addition, this essay offers some reflections on the inherently unstable nature of imagery and briefly surveys indigenous use of cameras.

This chapter also describes visual media’s cultural and psychological impact on indigenous North Americans as internally colonized peoples within a larger hegemonic order. Objectified via technologies and values not of their own making, North American Indians themselves partook in the formation of a new media environment simultaneously pervaded with realistic imagery of their cultures as they actually exist(ed) and with fictional imagery representing an imagined “Indian” world that never was. In photography’s early years, few could have imagined its transformative power—-including the fact that under ethnocidal conditions of internal colonialism and constant exposure to the phantom reality of modern media, a generic “pan-Indian” cultural identity would emerge among so many disparate cultural [507] groups. This chapter marks out some of the ambiguities of this still- unfolding dialectical process, examining the ways contemporary indigenous individuals and groups, as well as tribally-enrolled scholars (including anthropologists), are tapping the visual archives for ethnographic materials, cultural feedback, neotraditional playback, and even political advocacy. The final part of this chapter examines modern indigenous visual media-making, the role of the world wide web, and offers a few observations of and reflections on the agency of visual media in cultural revitalization movements in “Indian country” today.





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