Photography changes what we see, depending on who’s looking

Elizabeth Edwards

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Elizabeth Edwards [ BIO ]

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Elizabeth Edwards

Elizabeth Edwards, professor and senior research fellow at the University of the Arts London, works on the complex relationships between photographs, anthropology and history, in many different contexts from fieldwork to museum exhibitions. Previously, she was curator of photographs at Pitt Rivers Museum and lecturer in visual anthropology at University of Oxford.

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Elizabeth Edwards, visual anthropologist and historian, shows how the meaning and authority of photographs change, depending on how they are used and who they are seen by.

This photograph of a group of women and a girl was taken by British zoologist Alfred Cort Haddon on Mer Island in the Torres Strait, between Australia and the island of New Guinea in 1888. It is one of a series of prints bought by the Smithsonian in 1891 as “documents” supporting some of the objects collected by Haddon in the Torres Strait Islands during his expedition there. Haddon sold the photographs as a way to raise money for a return visit to the region in the days before there were permanent university faculty appointments and research grants that paid for travel expenses. He also deposited prints of the photographs in his home institution, the University of Cambridge; another set was given or purchased for the British Museum in London, and in time still another set was acquired by the Australian Museum in Sydney, Australia.

At first glance, this photograph, showing women in their mission-style frocks seems a strange choice for Haddon to include in his Smithsonian set. Other photographs that he took, but which were not included in the Washington group, depicted fishing, clothing and rituals, which might seem to have been more appropriate for the Smithsonian’s anthropology collection than this photograph, which appears to be interested in cultures which were perceived to be “dying out” through contact with aggressive colonial expansion.

However, a closer examination suggests the ambiguity in Haddon’s photograph, his interests, and in his anthropology. On one hand he was interested in Torres Strait islanders as scientific specimens to be described and documented. This is indicated by the way in which two of the women are carefully posed in exact profile so that in one frame the viewer can see the full impression of the facial characteristics of the region. However, Haddon was also interested in the Islanders as real people who had a view of the world, who probably talked with him, ate with him, advised him and gave him information. Thus this photograph functions also as a portrait of people he knew, posed in their best dresses in front of the camera. We know their names which are recorded in Cambridge: Padigo (just out of frame in the Smithsonian print); Deau (see in profile); an unidentified child; Kaimi; Kabur; Nini; Gebi (seated in the front facing left). They appear somber in front of the camera; this is probably because of the fairly long exposure time and perhaps the relatively unfamiliar technology of photography. Had these women ever had their photograph taken before?

But while the photograph entered a scientific institution on one hand, it was soon making very different meanings on Torres Strait itself. There is a very good chance that the women saw their photograph and were able to respond to it. Haddon returned to Torres Strait in 1898, this time with anthropological rather than zoological interests, and with a newly configured Cambridge University Expedition whose members included the psychologist W.H.R Rivers, who went on, during World War I, to define ‘shell-shock’ as an identifiable neuro-psychological condition.

The Expedition took with them lantern slides of photographs taken by Haddon in 1888/9 on his earlier visit, and a magic lantern projector. These images were shown to Torres Strait Islanders who thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Indeed, the Expedition had to do repeated performances of the lantern slides by popular Islander demand, to continually delighted audiences. Haddon noted in his diary, “Nearly all my old friends that were alive turned up and many others and to their intense & hilarious delight I showed them some of the photos I took on my last visit not only of themselves but of other islands… [some] cried when they saw photos of deceased friends but mostly they were in a state of wild delight.”

What is important here is the way in which different formats of the photographs exist as “multiple originals,” differently sized and cropped prints, lantern slides, all doing different work at the same time. While this photograph—carefully printed to ensure the long life of the print, and printed to a size where there is maximum legibility of the content even though the focus is poor—was doing the work of a scientific document in the Smithsonian, the lantern slide was specifically intended to disseminate the image. In Torres Strait, it became an almost magical access to family and community histories, viewed as a lantern slide in the dark, the image filling the space, flickering on the screen (probably a sheet hung on a house or a tree). The multiple number of ways this image was presented and used underscores the fact that the authority of photographs is vested not merely in the image but in a whole series of actions and in the people who undertake those actions which involve an image. As such, this photograph became a family and community document as well as a scientific one. It made, and still continues to make, different kinds of history in different places.

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Group in Costume Outside House with Tin Roof by Alfred Cort Haddon
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  • Group in Costume Outside House with Tin Roof, 1888
  • Alfred Cort Haddon
Four Women and Young Boy, All in Costume and Wearing Ornaments by Alfred Cort Haddon
  • Four Women and Young Boy, All in Costume and Wearing Ornaments, 1888
  • Alfred Cort Haddon
Man with Harpoon and Two Dead Dugongs Outside Pole and Thatch House by Alfred Cort Haddon
  • Man with Harpoon and Two Dead Dugongs Outside Pole and Thatch House, 1888
  • Alfred Cort Haddon
Group of Men in Partial Costume Raising Sails on Outrigger Canoe by Alfred Cort Haddon
  • Group of Men in Partial Costume Raising Sails on Outrigger Canoe, 1888
  • Alfred Cort Haddon
Ceremony by Alfred Cort Haddon

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