Post-colonial Ethnography

Peter Lavery’s work ‘Of Humankind’ (Of Humankind (s.d.) At: https://www.peterlavery.com/of-humankind (Accessed 06/10/2020)) is, as mentioned in the course notes, a particularly vivid example of the overly romanticised view of indigenous peoples. He has photographed all his subjects against a plain black backdrop so that all we can see are the people themselves. This conscious decision to remove any environmental context reduces all his subjects to the same level, as static models with no sense of their individuality. The choice to include people from many different backgrounds – first world, majority world and indigenous – removes much of the differences between them and reduces them to little more than specimens.

David Bruce’s photographs of Ju/’Hoansi Bushmen (Ju/’hoansi Bushmen (s.d.) At: https://davidbrucephotography.co.za/juhoansi-bushmen/ (Accessed 06/10/2020).
) is not quite so reductive but still portrays his subjects with little in the way of clues to their life and environment. Most follow the same pattern as Lavery; by photographing the people against a neutral background we lose any real sense of who these people are. One or two of his images do show a bit more life but most just depict the people as subjects for us to study.

I found it rather hard to find Juan Echeverria’s photographs of the Himba people of Namibia. Links from what seems to be his own site only seem to go to Flickr pages showing magazine pages. I found some of his B&W images on a Spanish travel agency website (Himba (s.d.) At: https://www.inoutviajes.com/album/822/himba/1/himba.html (Accessed 06/10/2020)), which seemed highly appropriate given the images displayed there. Like Lavery and Bruce, he photographs his subjects in studio settings so that they also lose any sense of who they are as people. I realise that there are only a few images displayed here but those do suggest an obsession with breasts. This attempted exoticism is little better than the representations of Sarah Baartman in the early 19th century.

Photographs by Alvaro Leyva’s from the Amazon basin are shown in Foto8 vol. 3 no. 4 (Foto and foto (s.d.) Volume 3 Number 4. At: https://issuu.com/foto8/docs/vol3no4 (Accessed 06/10/2020)). Unlike Lavery, Bruce and Echeverria he chooses to photograph his subjects on location, so that there is much more sense of who they are and how they live. The images shown in Foto8 may well be just a small selection so perhaps only give an impression of what may be seen from a larger set. There is little accompanying text to add any meaning to the images, and although some  – such as three women in traditional dress – do have an enigmatic quality, this seems as much to come from the photographer’s own choice as from the subjects themselves.

All of the works mentioned above are in B&W, an approach I find tends to undermine any empathic reading of the subject in favour of an appreciation of the photographer’s aesthetic approach. I don’t think shooting in B&W will always work against myself as viewer being able to connect to the subjects. I think of Josef Koudelka’s photographs in ‘Gypsies’ as an example of a work that manages to both make this connection between viewer and subject, and highlight the photographer’s own abilities.

I find it easier to make a connection to subjects when the image is in colour. On its own though this is not enough; we need some reference that relates to our own world. In an earlier post I referenced the work of Adam Hinton in Guatemala (https://simon513313documentary.net/2020/06/30/panos-pictures-eight-ways-to-change-the-world/). His photographs are in some ways not dissimilar to those mentioned above; mostly static portraits with the subject addressing the camera directly. There are aspects of these that do allow us to make a connection to our own lives. In the photograph of a mother and daughter in front of their home we see the planks and nails used to construct their house, and we can relate this to our own home and immediately see similarities and differences. Or in the photograph of mother Lucia Cac and her daughter , inside their home, the pictures on the wall behind them are familiar. We may not know the exact images but we can connect with the footballer, or the children’s drawings.

Mads Nissen’s book ‘Amazonas’ (Mads Nissen (s.d.) At: http://www.madsnissen.com/amazonas/ (Accessed 06/10/2020).) shows photographs from the Amazon that provide a different kind of context, by depicting the collision between indigenous people and outsiders coming into their territory for various reasons. This is not specifically a depiction of the indigenous people themselves but avoids an overly romanticised view of their world. By alluding to how this place is affected by the incomers he gives an idea of what is being lost to the original inhabitants.

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