Photography changes who gets to see images of us

Haidy Geismar

Story By
Haidy Geismar [ BIO ]


Haidy Geismar

Haidy Geismar, assistant professor of anthropology and museum studies at New York University, has worked with the Vanuatu Cultural Centre and National Museum since 2000. Her most recent project explored the life history of a collection of photographs made in 1914 in Vanuatu by the British anthropologist John Layard, and examined how their meaning changed when used over the years by anthropologists, diverse museums, and local communities.

Bookmark and Share

Haidy Geismar, assistant professor of anthropology and museum studies at New York University, reminds us that in some cultures being pictured creates problems.

The starting point for most engagements with photography seems, naturally, to revolve around the act of looking. But what if a starting point for thinking about photography was to consider the very right to look as being a problem? What if some photographs are made not to be seen by many and all, but only by a select few? As a technology, photography creates images that are easily reproduced and circulated, but for some this provokes powerful anxieties: concern about copyright and context (the ways in which images may be re-used and given new meaning, without permission); concern about cultural sensibilities and the appropriateness of visibility; and concern about the authority and power to take, make and present photographs as fact and evidence.

We take for granted, particularly in the context of museums and archives, that photographs are supposed to be seen. This is part of our own, often unexamined, cultural perspective that insists on visibility as one of the prime modes of acquiring knowledge (seeing is believing). We live in what Martin Heidegger has called the “age of the world picture.” But what if what you know is contingent on things that are hidden or unseen? Since its invention, photography has been in an uneasy relationship with cultural groups who have not only been subjected to the gaze of the photographer, but also to the distribution of images of themselves and their way of life, made without their consent.

The circulation of images may, in fact, work against local understandings of the appropriate use of images. For Aboriginal Australians, for instance, only initiated cultural “insiders” will fully apprehend the true meaning and stories contained within locally produced images, even as they circulate in wider and wider contexts (such as the widely collected and coveted acrylic paintings from Papunya Tula). Indigenous protocols that hinge around the idea of invisibility (or holding back) are carried through into other contexts; for example, historically, when a person died, all mention of them would cease and their belongings would be destroyed. They were no longer referred to, represented or seen—provoking an anxiety regarding the unauthorized presence of photographs in print, on display or in archives. In Australia, it is increasingly the custom to preface publications, exhibitions, websites and films with a warning to Aboriginal people that they may see images of people now deceased, in order to limit the cultural harm that this visibility may render.

The upshot of community collaboration and consultation around photography collections may in fact be the end of public access to certain images. An example can be found in the Mukurtu Wumpurrarni-kari Archive, a browser-based digital archive created by the Warumungu community in Tennant Creek, Northern Territory, Australia in collaboration with researchers from the US and Australia. Initially, the project’s goal was to develop a local archive that was sensitive to indigenous concerns regarding the handling of cultural materials that belonged to specific communities, families and individuals. But the project also aims to provide a more universal platform for indigenous people, an alternative archive to the conventional museum catalogue which presumes open access. A demonstration of the archive (on the site “Digital Dynamics Across Cultures") illustrates a number of ways to deal with the combination of indigenous protocols and the reproduction of images in the archive: photographs are obscured by pieces of tape, or made entirely unavailable; videos cut out or fade half way through, warnings are given about the gendered nature of knowledge. Each of these protocols is explained carefully to give the non-indigenous viewer a chance to rethink the viewing restrictions that are embedded within Aboriginal engagements with images in the archive.

Similarly, in the idiosyncratic database of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre and National Museum, photographs can now be catalogued in relation to a number of different viewing restrictions. Any one of these has the power to remove the record entirely from visibility. A photograph archived in relation to these restrictions will not be made available in a search until a user with the appropriate privileges logs in. Hard copies of these photographs are hidden in the archive in manila envelopes that must not be opened. Even curators are excluded from accessing these images. Viewing photographs in relation to local protocols is an important intervention and challenge to the authority of any museum to speak for, order, and present cultural materials.

In addition to negotiating indigenous protocols, photographic archives have also become places where the authority of colonial collecting practices may be both resisted and subverted, in particular by indigenous peoples who have historically had little say in the management and exhibition of their photographic images and records. This process may seem paradoxical; it is the initial visibility of photographic images that then precipitates a critique that in turn removes these images from view. But this process speaks to the ways in which the very act of viewing photographs may become the ground by which authority and access is re-negotiated. For indigenous peoples this is a question of sovereignty as much as protocol. Seeing photographs becomes not just a question of what is proper or appropriate but a political act, and having the power to control the visibility of images, it is hoped, may facilitate the devolution of other kinds of power and authority.

[ TOP ]

Screenshot of cultural warning from an Australian website with a “cultural warning”
[ + ]
  • Screenshot of cultural warning from an Australian website with a “cultural warning”
Screenshot from the Digital Dynamics Across Cultures Project
  • Screenshot from the Digital Dynamics Across Cultures Project
Screenshot from the Digital Dynamics Across Cultures Project
  • Screenshot from the Digital Dynamics Across Cultures Project
Cataloguing restriction for photographs in the Vanuatu Cultural Centre Database
  • Cataloguing restriction for photographs in the Vanuatu Cultural Centre Database, 2008