October 12, 2009

man with beard

today i came across a photograph that was posted on an online anthropology site. it shows a man, sitting in beautiful light, looking calmly at the photographer. snap. it is presented in black and white. there are people behind him, holding hands for some reason. the only information reads:

"Man with beard in Diphu, Karbi Anglong district, December 2005."

what does this mean? is this anthropological? why?

i have spent plenty of time somewhat intertwined with the "art" of photography, but i am pretty ambivalent about it in many ways. how should photography be used? what does it mean to take photographs of people and place them in books, online, or in galleries? for what purposes should photographs of people be used? when she they NOT be used? is the whole world a subject, or are there limits?


man with beard, no less, no more. granted, from a photographic perspective you have some good images here. but photographs like this--no name, no real context, no background--what do they mean? who is this person? does he know that his face is now posted online for everyone to see and comment on? does he have a story, a family, a life? or is he a symbol of something, of himself, of anthropological travel? is this "ethnographic"? is he a symbol of cross-cultural knowledge? of poverty? of conflict? how did this photograph happen? how did he agree to sit there and wait for you to focus, compose, and shoot? what was this moment like? did you pay him to pose, or did he volunteer? did this man happen to be sitting in this strong side lighting? why did you choose black and white film? what happened before this was taken, and after? were you talking to him, or just passing through? where is this man now? does this photograph depict a momentary relationship, a photo-op, or do you still know him?

de-contextualized, what purpose does this photograph serve? what does it tell us? is it art, or anthropology? is it art for the man in the photograph, or just for us?

photographs always leave me with so many questions.

are we all merely subjects, just waiting for the chance to be photographed and documented?


Stacie Gilmore said...

Clearly, judging from the title, the beard is VERY significant... not just a man but a man with a BEARD. That's about all I can draw from it.

Ryan Anderson said...

the beard matters, i guess.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it's anthropology to just photograph someone and label it. Sometimes photographs speak for themselves and provide a window that words do not give, but from your explaination this photo seems to bring up more questions than it answers.

Anthropology is about windows into other worlds, but it is also about critical reflection, as you have shown in your reflection on the photo. De-contextualised the photo is art, not anthropology.

Ryan Anderson said...

Hi Alli,

Thanks for your comment. Sorry it took a bit to post...for some reason it was held up. Who knows.

Anyway, I agree with you about photography and anthropology. For me there is something problematic with taking a photograph of some person while traveling and then just automatically calling it anthropology. I think that works for art, which can be presented in a decontextualized manner, but anthropology needs something more or something else.

As with other aspects of anthropology, I think there is a certain responsibility that comes along with these sorts of things. Critical reflection is definitely a part of that.

I have seen too many photographs passed off as "anthropological" just because they depict subjects that fulfill a generalized expectation of what such subjects should look like.

Giles said...

Perhaps we should want the photo to urge us to ask more questions. That, in my opinion isn't really a problem. Still, this "man with a beard" photo should probably be accompanied with something that can help the process of answering any questions that readers/viewers might have. Either way, I'm going to search for that title. I want to check out this special beard.