Academic journal article Borneo Research Bulletin

Recovering Lost Voices: Working with Archival Photographs

Academic journal article Borneo Research Bulletin

Recovering Lost Voices: Working with Archival Photographs

Article excerpt


While museums and historical archives typically include collections of photographs among their documentary and material resources, many collections are divorced from the context of their origins, separated from the persons who produced and used them (Nordstrom 1991:207). In some cases, the photographer has provided archival information which assists with the reading of the image. But in images of the colonial past in particular, we seldom hear the voices of the subjects captured within the image, of those who were witnesses to the making of the image, of those who know the background story behind the image, or the biographical details of the human subjects involved.

Decontextualization is not merely a physical construct: it also has cultural, social, political and cognitive dimensions. Thus the methodology chosen for this project was motivated by a concern to reunite, as far as is possible, image and context in the interest of adding to and broadening the discussion. There are sound epistemological reasons for doing so. The reflexive turn in the social sciences has raised our awareness that photographs--as historical and cultural documents--are never neutral. Rather, they are "representations of reality, not a direct encoding of it" (Banks 1995:2).

In an unpublished paper, Worth (1977:1) talks about language in terms of a "semiotic code ... We know those semiotic codes so well that we 'know' immediately when we do not speak another's language, and we also know that there are many languages ... different from our own." He goes on to lament the fact that this recognition "does not seem to extend to our understanding of visual signs. Somehow as soon as we leave the verbal mode we begin to talk about universal languages" (1977:1).

Photographs, too, can be considered to speak a language. As material artifacts they bear witness to, and make a statement about, a world and a past. However; as Worth makes clear, they do not speak a universal language; social conventions and cultural rules prescribe what can be photographed, what it is considered fashionable or important to photograph, and where and how photographs should be displayed (Worth 1977). Neither is the language spoken by the photographic image a fixed or static phenomenon. Like all languages, it is a living process which is continually evolving. As material artifacts, photographs embody traces of the cultural changes and interactions taking place within the communities or cultures which gave them voice. Hence, contextualizing the moment in time and space is a first step in the decoding process.

A more comprehensive reading requires that we also ask questions which probe the contextual circumstances surrounding the image. Who produced the photograph? For whom? Why was it taken? Why was it kept? How does it reflect ideas that were circulating at the time? What does it mean to the viewer? (Worth 1977; Ruby 1981; Banks 1991).

To find the answers to such questions involves a turning back towards the source of the image. Time moves inexorably on and people pass away; often it is no longer possible to access details from the subjects of the photographs themselves or from the photographer. However, it is possible to return to place--the place where the photographs were taken; to see and hear how they are interpreted by, and what they mean to, people living there today.


In 2000 George Appell, President of the Borneo Research Council, sent an email to members describing a recent visit to a traveling exhibition of archival photographs of aboriginal peoples from Southern Alberta. The exhibition, entitled "Lost Identities: a Journey of Rediscovery.," was introduced as follows

Photographs can speak. They can whisper or shout. They can lie. Many photographs, though, are silent. When individuals, events or other details are not known, photographs do not have voices. The subjects of the photographs in the Lost Identities exhibit were unidentified, and voiceless. …

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