May 26, 2010

Photographs and Anthropology: Context Matters (Take 2)

The above photograph was taken in the summer of 2005
at an anti-war rally in downtown San Diego.

The above photograph was taken in the summer of 2004
during a trip that I made to Costa Rica. I had just eaten
dinner, and was walking with friends when I noticed this
gathering of street performers.

The above photograph was taken in the summer of 2007
during my trip to Oaxaca, Mexico. This was taken in
the zocalo, where vendors, street artists, and others
congregated in the tourist center, awaiting passersby.

Which of the above captions is correct? Does it matter? The photographer Brett Weston, who is still one of my all-time favorites, wasn't all that interested in describing the meanings of his photographs. In 1970s interview with James Danziger, Weston candidly expressed his opinions about various interpretations of photography: “This verbal-gobbledy-gook just bores the hell out of me, I’m sorry. It might excite certain psuedo-intellectuals but it doesn’t excite me. All this art talk on painting and photography is a pile of horseshit.” (Danziger and Conrad 1977:168). In some ways old Brett Weston had a point: photographs do have a certain power in and of themselves. At the same time, they are also open to immensely divergent interpretations, meanings, and understandings. So what does this mean for anthropologists who use photography as one of their tools?

Some people argue that photographs and other visual images speak for themselves, and that descriptive captions should not be added to them (this is an argument that I see more commonly from art photographers like the late Mr Weston). At the same time, in many ethnographies, photographs are additions to the mainly textual argument that is presented. And while they often have short captions, there is usually very little consideration of the the context of the photograph itself--when it was taken, who took it, what was happening at the moment, etc. Often, photographs are used as little more than illustrations of ethnographic and other anthropological texts, as opposed to vital pieces of data and meaning in their own right.

The "meaning" of a photograph can be easily manipulated, taken out of context, or changed completely. Controlling that meaning can be very difficult, and is sometimes impossible. This is especially true when images become available online, where people can grab them and use them for a variety of purposes that completely escape the original context of production.

So what can be done about this? My point here is that context matters. It matters because it affects the ways in which a photograph is received and understood by different audiences. Adding contextual cues can direct viewers toward particular points or conclusions. At the same time, I do not think that photographs MUST have contextual data added to them in order to be anthropologically useful or valid. I do, however, think it's pretty important to keep these kinds of issues in mind when using photography for particular purposes. Photography is anything but the literal truth emblazoned on film or digital sensors. To me this point can never be repeated enough.

I am going to end this post with a few questions, since this is something that I am thinking through myself: What makes a photograph ethnographic, anthropological, or even scientific? Is there a strict set of rules that can be followed? Or are the possibilities only limited by the creativity and imagination of the anthropologists who wield those powerful and ubiquitous little photographic machines that record life in all of its amazing--and utterly boring--manifestations?

*This is a re-worked version of this post, which I wrote about a year ago. Same question, different day.

**By the way, caption #3 is the real one, just in case anyone was wondering.

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