Academic journal article Oceania

Photos in Wiradjuri Biscuit Tins: Negotiating Relatedness and Validating Colonial Histories

Academic journal article Oceania

Photos in Wiradjuri Biscuit Tins: Negotiating Relatedness and Validating Colonial Histories

Article excerpt

What is it that will be done away with when that person who can testify to this photograph is gone? It is love-as-treasure which is going to disappear forever.

Roland Barthes 1981

I became an avid if amateur taker of photos during my first field work in the Torres Strait Islands in northern Australia and have tended to carry a camera ever since. This no doubt stems from a love of photos I have had since a child rummaging through my mother's boxes, learning about her relatives on the other side of the world which, at the time, was Australia. I promise myself from time to time that one day I will do a proper course to get beyond the snapshot level. But here my interest is not in my role as anthropologist and producer of photos but in the boxes of photos collected and handed down over a century by Wiradjuri people of south-eastern Australia. Most of these might be described as 'family snapshots'. In a few cases these collections now contain many photos taken by myself.

Anthropologists have long been interested in photography as a technique in the gathering of ethnographic data, more recently writing critically and reflexively of this activity (see Portman 1895-6 for an early example; contributions to Edwards (ed.) 1992). They have analysed the use of photos in colonial, nationalistic and self-representations, and as art and, in all such contexts, written extensively and critically about photos taken of Indigenous peoples (eg., Scherer 1995; Vizenor 1998; see also Bolton 1989), including those of Australian Aboriginal peoples (McBryde 1985; Peterson 1985; Poignant 1996; see particularly, Marcus (ed.) 2000). Recently, Pinney's (1997) analysis of the social practices within which photography is embedded in India has heralded a more ethnographic approach and is already encouraging new ways in which photography and photos are studied (see, for instance, contributions in Pinney and Peterson 2003). However, there is still little recognition of the value given to photos cherished by Indigenous peoples themselves. Indigenous contexts differ from those of the (usually non-Indigenous) photographer and anthropologist. This has encouraged a dismissal of their own modes of valuing and interpreting photos. The photo is not simply glossy paper with an image. It unfolds as embodied meaning as it reveals itself in a particular cultural context (cf. Sahlins 1976:209; Tagg 1993:63). The fact that valued Wiradjuri photos are usually simple 'snapshots', of the family album type, is most probably what has contributed to their underestimation in cultural terms.

While the vast majority of all photos taken throughout the world are probably still valued for the contribution they will make to family albums, literature about photos and photography pays inordinate attention to the much more limited photography produced, often by professionals, for artistic outcomes and its contribution to the world of 'high art'. Most work on photography focuses on photography as technique, art or symbol. Some attention is given to its effects on the viewer but more is directed at the aims, intentions and values of the photographer. There is perhaps inordinate attention in post-colonial critique to the disappearing and melancholy subject of early anthropology (eg., Maynard 1985; Edwards 1992: 10). Little attention has been given to the meaning of photos to those who wish to own them and their often very different evaluations (cf. Dubin 1999:71). The kind of Wiradjuri photo collections in which I am interested would be deemed remarkably 'ordinary' in the world of high art, belonging to what Bourdieu (1984:32) would characterise as a 'popular' aesthetic, associated with the working class and those fractions of the middle-class 'least rich in cultural capital'. This patronising assessment seems class-based and has a long history, as Sontag (1977:203) has illustrated: in September 1871, Macmillan's Magazine of London, commented:

   Any one who knows what the worth of family affection is among the
   lower classes, and who has seen the array of little portraits stuck
   over a labourer's fireplace . … 
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