Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Ten Canoes and the Ethnographic Photographs of Donald Thomson: 'Animate Thought' and 'The Light of the World'

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Ten Canoes and the Ethnographic Photographs of Donald Thomson: 'Animate Thought' and 'The Light of the World'

Article excerpt


The release of the film Ten Canoes in 2006 has added momentum to interest in the ethnographic photographs of the anthropologist Donald Thomson, extending awareness of his work beyond the specialist fields where it was previously known.1 Thomson's photographic images, taken in Arnhem Land in the area of the Arafura Swamp in the 1930s, were pivotal in the genesis and production of Ten Canoes. Thomson's research material-field notes, photos and collection of artefacts-make up the Donald Thomson Collection, which is known as 'by far the single most important ethnographic collection made in Australia'.2 His work, and stories about him, are widely known in Arnhem Land, where the 1930s are commonly referred to as 'Thomson Time'.3

His photographic images are reputedly 'the part of his work that Aboriginal people hold in the greatest esteem today', and Museum Victoria, where the collection is now housed, sees a steady stream of Aboriginal visitors, particularly from Arnhem Land and Cape York, come to reignite their connection with this ancestral photographic record.4

Ten Canoes draws heavily on Thomson's photographs for both its look and content. Thomson's image of ten canoeists on the Arafura swamp inspired the narrative of the film, and his images and field notes were also used as cultural source documents; for example, as documentation of techniques of body ornamentation in the 1930s-such as armbands-which were then duplicated as closely as possible in the film. The images and notes were also used as a guide to the construction of the canoes, mosquito huts, tree platforms and other elements of material culture.5 The overall look of the film also draws on Thomson's photographs for its inspiration. In the director's account of the origins of the film, it was his recognition of the cinematic quality of the ten canoes photo that convinced him in a flash that this could be the focus of the film. The black and white segments reproduce the ethnographic visual codes of many of Thomson's photographs: they are largely shot in wide shot, setting us at a distance from characters, producing a panoramic perspective that emphasises human figures in the environment-'people in nature'-and the camera is usually locked off, quite still. Ten Canoes also directly reproduces the compositional eye of a number of Thomson's photos, in a range of precisely matched images.6

My initial aim in this project was to explore a genealogy for the 'eye' of the film-the look or the visual style-and, by exploring the source photos and the tradition they come from, to decipher a 'cultural imaginary' at work in the source images themselves and the influence this heritage has on the visuality of the film. The initial hypothesis was that the visual codes of ethnographic photography inherited from Thomson, particularly the wide shot composition, produce a sense of a world that we look at across a vast distance of time-a space that appears floating and otherworldy (figures 2 and 3). I believed that the monochrome sections of the film hook into deeply embedded ways of engaging with ethnographic images-in contexts where these forms have become familiar-that seem to reproduce what Faye Ginsburg has described as common colonial tropes that, to contemporary audiences, place tradition in a timeless, seamless past and traditional life as firmly rooted in that past, having no engagement with modernity.7 Ginsburg describes this as a 'preexistent and untroubled cultural identity out there'.8

Whereas the film reproduces Thomson's images as a source of authenticity, Thomson himself to some extent staged images in a way that reconstructed an imagined pre-contact past, taking 'culture' out of the context of historical changes that were happening at the time. Athol Chase writes that Thomson 'wanted [his] photographs to represent the time before European intrusion, so [he] carefully arranged [his] subjects and locations and removed any signs of European influence'; he requested, for example, that the subjects of the photos remove their clothes. …

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