“What is on the pictures in the archive?” (Anthropology) plus “The Future is Blinking”


First uploaded: May 28 to July 19, 2018   (Link to the German original); Reference to “The Future is Blinking” July 13, 2022


“What is on the pictures in the archive?”

I was in the room IG.501 at 6 pm last wednesday and think the students’ initiative “Boa’s Kitchen” at the Ethnological Institute of the University of Frankfurt is good.    

 “What’s on the pictures in your archive?” The question from the circle of students to the image archivist of the Frobenius Institute does not let me go. The topic of the meeting in “Boa’s Kitchen” was “Image Documentation in Ethnology, Past and Present”. The enumeration of the archivist was not really attractive to me, but characterizes the material of such archives: landscapes, people, objects, and whatever else you took up. There were two more experts present, so time was missing for further questions. At home I open the database of the archive and enter the tribe-name “Pende”. What do I find: ’nude negroes’ posing in different groups. I remember tapping at least ten sources for my twenty-seven illustrations of a web post about the Pende, mostly illustrations in books. (Link)


The scientific picture archives are store-houses

 As far as I know they offer randomly rinsed raw material provided with little contemporary tabular information, in the same way as the collected ethnographic objects.

We know from criminology how sophisticated and laborious the interpretation of evidence is, and that most information is usually lost at the crime scene.

When pictures appear in books or essays, at least one informative context is usually created, beyond time and place, and our perception is focused. Of course, the image information is not exhausted in this. We are always free to see more and different things in it.  


The picture information is a delicate thing

1       Personal

It starts with the photographer. How biased is his view? Does he know what he wants to capture? Which conventions or secret passions control him (e.g. for naked females or muscular boys)? What explicit prohibitions or tacit taboos prevent or disfigure the photographic image? Of course, this problem also affects documentary photographs from Europe.

By the way, lies and propaganda thru pictures have accompanied photography since its invention. The photographer can lie, but also those depicted can hide the ‘truth behind the picture’.


2      State of the art

Are the circumstances of direct admission favorable or do you have to adjust or arrange what you want? Typical are nocturnal mask dances and discrete events. But it also depends on the state of the art. As it is seen in a booklet on media in Frobenius expeditions, the drawings of the expedition 1904-5 were more informative than the photos, their origin was also better documented.

New standards set the Leica photos by Hans Himmelheber* or Hugo Bernatzik in the Thirties. With the snapshots, vibrancy came into the picture.

* Hans Himmelheber: Zaire 1938/39. Exhibition catalog. Zurich 1993

The greater information content of modern sensitive color films and handy flash devices can also backfire, if they expose the photographer more than the exotic persons in the focus. Thus, Gert Chesi’s unbridled lust for sweat-dripping naked skin and blood sacrifices in his illustrated books on Togo’s nocturnal ‘Voodoo’ hustle and bustle seems obvious to me. By contrast, the notorious Leni Riefenstahl was downright respectful of the admired ‘Nuba’, and at the same time more stylish.


3        The aesthetic quality is not to be underestimated.

The Leica photographers of the thirties had to work with black and white film of low sensitivity; her art has overcome the technical limits. In many other pictures, today’s observer wonders: Were the people depicted so ugly, so sick, their culture as wretched as they appear to us? In our knowledge of the criminal exploitation of people in the colonies, this question is not insignificant.

Modern photos and films are much easier to read in this regard. But that is not the end of the story.

We are already experiencing the new plague of digital image processing, which leads into the area of deliberate forgery. And in view of the commercial management of the Internet, the technically more and more perfectly defended access, the explosion of the ’right on the own picture ‘ and the professional caution in the archives – shall we experience something like picture documentation at all in the future?

4       Text

As disappointing as it may be, because we so often want “pictures” to illustrate objects and narratives – the word is probably superior to the picture and above all indispensable: without words we can not embed pictures situationally, they only provide the narrative framework, the background to details, which usually remain mysterious to us. They direct the attention of the viewer, they allow the consideration of different interpretations and the weighting of the details, and, and …. Who should speak? Ideal would be: Both sides.

 Johannes Fabian has brought together Narrative and Paintings in his book “Remembering the Present – Painting and Popular History in Zaire” (UCP, Berkeley & L.A. 1996,)


 5        Movie

The movie should not be silent too, even if you dislike some commentaries, some editing or musical accompaniment. At least one pioneer of the ethnographic film that I know does it right: Michael Oppitz. He took his time for field research, he made friends with the shamans of the Magar so that he finally could use the film camera freely. “Shamans in the Blind Land” became famous in 1980. By the way, he had a very interesting course of education (Link: Interview Oppitz 2009) and only settled down as a professor in Zurich when he was fifty years old.



’Uhuhuh! Photographer steals My Soul!’


I read an interesting study on academia.edu: Z.S. Strother. ‘A Photographer Steals the Soul‘: The History of an Idea. In Portraiture and Photography in Africa, ed. John Peffer and Elizabeth Cameron. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013, 177-212

 Everybody knows the evergreen from somewhere saying ‘photography steals the soul’. Zoé Strother empirically refutes such a statement not only for her field of research. The striking argument of their interlocutors among the Pende was the lack of material contact, a mere ‘shadow’ offers no basis for black magic. What remains of the blood-curdling tale are rational fears, as we know or understand them, such as when people live in a dangerous police state.

The ‘history of the idea’ itself becomes in Strother’s essay a lesson about the longevity of scientific myths! One cites, copies the other, by the way amusing to read.


An extremely uneven distribution of the photos obtained and preserved

 For our initial question, this essay is important for showing the extreme social imbalance of the existing imagery. The photos taken by local ambulatory commercial photographers for the village people had no chance to survive. As a medium, ‘paper’ can not stand against ‘wood’. Zoé Strother records the situation in the late 1980s, after photo identity cards were enforced by Mobutu and in that sense, photography became ‚part of daily life’ (p.197):

 In the late 1980s, despite the demand, few people had photos, except for the ID cards. The career of Pende photographers was often sabotaged by their equipment, which due to the humid conditions easily failed and required extensive repairs in remote urban centers. Besides, photographs did not survive long. Colors faded quickly and few people could protect them from erosion in the hands of admirers. It has been difficult for many to refuse to give it away because generosity is one of the most admired virtues. I have never seen an album in the country until 2007. It belonged to a successful entrepreneur in Tshikapa and contained photos since the seventies. (P.197)


And the other side?

Do the boring pictures of the colonialists, kept in the archives, pay their maintenance costs? They exacerbate the research problem of one-sidedness. Do they even contribute significantly to the information? Certainly, if they document crimes, as some private photo albums war-crimes, or if they serve skull measurements, they are document – for ‘scientific’ narrow-mindedness.

What strikes me about the essay is the confusing multiplicity of relevant aspects. How many factual prerequisites exist for the return of slanted ‘ideas’ into a scientific discourse that only can raise interesting questions again. The reviewed anthropologists proved to be methodically inadequate: authoritarian, prejudiced, premature, theory-hungry, vain, and alien to life. Well, a broad reading of literature is required, but necessary is some ’peer review’ by those being talked about.

Added July 13, 2022


 LINK to the 7-minute video presentation in German by the curator Nanina Guyer on YouTube.de. – Text in English and pictures are available: LINK

Just twenty years after the invention of photography in 1839, a flourishing photo culture started to develop on the Atlantic coast between Dakar and Luanda. Local commercial photographers acquired ‘modern’ technique and took photos in open-air studios against more or less improvised backgrounds, where their clients could present themselves as they wanted to be seen. The hundred original prints presented date from the period between 1875 and 1930. Thirty photographers have been identified. (Guyer)

Mini Commentary

Such pictorial artists are also being collected and researched in the hinterland of the West African coast, for example by Roger Hargreaves, Andrew Wilson: “Joseph Chila and Samuel Finlak: Two Portrait Photographers in Cameroon”, published in July 2005.

To be honest, these portraits are anything but sensational aesthetically. Their importance lies elsewhere: Today they can produce historical counter-images to the products of colonial photographers, who often only stir up prejudice and condescension in the viewer because they consistently document an unbridgeable alienation between them as photographers and the persons depicted – no wonder given the superficial colonial tourism of researchers ‘taking pictures’ and the power imbalance to the resident Europeans, especially during the colonial period.

Then I ask myself: Wasn’t that mainly true of the people in the interior of the country, the miserable subjects of local and colonial rulers?

The curator Guyer mentions the ‘African’ design principle of frontality and the goal of “creating memories for future generations with idealized portraits”. At that time, both citeria also applied to portrait art in Europe and America. And the early portrait photographers, if only for technical reasons, worked statuesquely, with the well-known intimidating effect. As customers, Africans at least had a certain influence on the staging.

For my Duala boat model project (specifically 1.4, 1.5, 2.6 – see LINK for synopsis), the exhibition offers with studio photographers commuting between ports a new example of the regional ties through trade, labor migration and African entrepreneurship along the Atlantic coast, and that already in the 19th century.


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