February 9: Photography and anthropology have parallel histories. Both appeared in the nineteenth century and anthropology’s modern manifestation developed as photographic technology became viable for field work.
Even before the emergence of anthropology as an academic discipline in the 1880s, ethnologists whose field could be considered an academic discipline since the late 18th century, especially in Europe, came to use photography as a tool of research.
Early anthropologists valued photography as a physical record; an authority more reliable than speech and text, and they regarded it as modern and rational. It was these qualities of the medium and its distribution that drew anthropologists toward the ‘primitive’ lives of those they studied. ‘Being there’ is essential to anthropology as a practice and photography provided evidence for it.
Australian Francis Edgar Williams, born on this date in 1893 in Adelaide, was an anthropologist who worked for the government of the Territory of Papua, Australia’s nearest northern neighbour, from 1922 to 1942.
A Rhodes Scholar, he had to defer his studies at Oxford to serve in France in WWI, then graduated in anthropology in 1921, returning Australia where, given his training and ‘outside experience’ in the middle East during the war, he was the prime candidate to be appointed as assistant government anthropologist on 8 March 1922. In 1928 he was promoted by succession to Government Anthropologist, a position he kept until the demise of the Papuan administration in 1942.
Williams was one of the few anthropologists of his time who did not have to return to a metropolitan university or institution; he remained in the field for twenty years, given complete freedom by the Lieutenant-Governor of Papua, Hubert Murray, and published many books and articles. In 1935, his manifesto The Blending of Culture was well received by a global audience.
Williams was at the outset sent to investigate the effects of the ‘Vailala Madness’ cargo cult that swept the Papuan Gulf coast in 1919, but finding this to be inconsequential, Williams concentrated on the daily life, social relations, material culture, as well as religious beliefs and practices in the Delta.
He was equipped with an ICA Tropica camera on his commencement as assistant anthropologist, though he was also a very competent draughtsman and often preferred his drawings as illustrations for his books particularly where they could better convey the patterns ornamenting artefacts.
Out of some two thousand pictures he took in his time in there, ninety-six glass plates were produced by Williams during his eight-month stay on the Delta. The folding plate camera required that he often had to pose his subjects or reconstruct scenes as he attempted to document otherwise fleeting aspects of social life, and delays in shipping to the Delta also meant that Williams had to shoot judiciously (his plates were delivered in soldered tins to protect them from the tropical conditions). By 1935 he had the use of a Speed Graphic and had adapted the then rather worn ICA Tropica to also use the (B&W) sheet film in adapted holders, and had the negatives sent for printing by Harringtons in Sydney.
His access to his subjects and their stories was restricted owing to their suspicions aroused by the presence of his accompanying police officer. Nevertheless, an image like this one of two young boys Kauei Ove and Kauri demonstrating a string-figure allows us to assess his success in using photography, as described in detail by contemporary anthropologist Joshua A. Bell in a 2010 paper.
In addition to this portrait Williams ‘mapped’ Kauei’s family; his father Ove Kawei, Chief of Karara-Ravi (Ukiravi), and his mother weaving an akeke (sago fibre) basket, examples of which now preserve some of the last remaining totemic patterns from this culture after the inroads of Christian missionaries made them taboo, just as tribal ties and associations are withering before the growing environmental problems they are experiencing from the logging and oil/gas activities on the Purari River.
Williams also photographed Kauei’s sister Varia Kau’u as example of the initiation of daughters of chiefs, and the funeral of Kauei’s paternal aunt to document mourning by members of chiefs’ kin. Several months later in November, Williams documented Kauri’s initiation, a painful scarification with the patterns of crocodile scales.
The intensity of this contact with members of the chief’s tribe accounts for the relatively relaxed interaction of the young man Kauri with the camera. Williams filed the photograph in a folder marked ‘Games’, so the intention of his picture is to record the string figure in Kauri’s hands, and it is accompanied by his brief note that the string figure “said to be [a] large lizard—can tie its tail to [a] tree”.
Despite the evidence in these photographs of a benign and familiar attitude to the people he photographed Williams would by today’s standards be regarded as a paternalistic racist. Among his many works, during the Second World War he wrote You and Native, a booklet advising the Allied soldiers on how to behave with Papuans.
Nevertheless, his photographs remain an invaluable record and are still in use today by visual anthropologists including Joshua A. Bell at the Smithsonian Institute whose work has entailed fieldwork since 2000 amongst communities in the Purari Delta to investigate the social, economic and environmental transformations in the wake of regional resource extraction. He uses Williams photographs in collaboration with with I’ai communities of the Delta to document aspects of their heritage and traditions. He has recorded several instances in which subjects recognise relatives in these historic images as does Chris Ballard, Associate Professor in Pacific History in the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University in Canberra, who recounts;
…at Yo’obo (Williams’s Yokobu), Yafori Arisa recognised both her father, Arisa of Wasemi [below], and her former husband and then-youthful assistant to Williams, Kaviraka – whose skull was then pointed out to me this morning at the famous lakeside ossuary of Bebere. Yafori’s current husband, Soiane Yogoba, a youth of about 14 at the time the photographs were taken, could name most of the figures shown before the men’s house at Yo’obo, including his own father seated at the centre. Then, when he saw the photo of Ivan Champion, Soiane asked after Bill Adamson by name; on learning of Adamson’s death, he leant over the book and chanted for a kiap whom he had greatly admired.
I have drawn on these as well as Anthropologist in Papua: The Photography of F. E. Williams, 1922-39 by Julia Young Clark in writing about this unsung Australian photographer.
String-figures are called vinako, the same word signifying stories told by women to children; vinako are objects of play, but have a secret purpose to convey also the narratives told by and to men during initiation about the kin groups’ origins, and thus they are charters to land and resources that are so much in dispute in modern Papua New Guinea.
F. E. Williams died, in the midst of the War in the Paciifc, on 12 May 1943 in a plane crash on the Owen Stanley Range, 20 km south of Kokoda.
A group show Neon Paradise: Shamanism from Central Asia opens at 6:30pm today at Laura Bulian Gallery in Milan continuing until March 17. Photographers, videographers and other artists included are Vyacheslav Akhunov, Said Atabekov, G. Kasmalieva & M. Djumaliev, Kyzyl Traktor, Saodat IsmaiIova, Alexander Ugay. They are from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
The exotic is attractive, but the title of this show has an ironic edge. Said Atabekov (*1965) for example lives and works in Shymkent, Kazakhstan and in 1993 joined the Red Tractor Group; the first avant-garde art collective founded in Southern Kazakhstan after Perestroika.
Witness to social and political upheaval that dragged the region from nomadic culture through Communism to Capitalism in less than a hundred years, Atabekov pinpoints the ethnographic signs of conflict between these cultures and attacks stereotypes by drawing on recollections of the Russian avant-garde and Post-Soviet realities. His work spans a variety of media, from video and photography to sculptures and installations.
Anthropology safely guides our attention away from our own ethnicity. These artists are the new visual anthropologists. They research their own country, which like any in the world now is a diverse array of ethnic groups confounded by history.