- Photography’s Other Histories ed. by Christopher Pinney and Nicolas Peterson
There is by now a significant body of scholarly work on colonial and postcolonial photography. Although enlightening our understandings of colonialisms, in particular the relationship between photographic image and stereotype, most of this work has failed to venture beyond the important discussion of colonial encounter and its lingering effects, neglecting to investigate wider systems of photographic practice that fall outside normalized European and North American models. Photography’s Other Histories goes a long way in disrupting these limited and limiting views of photography by locating this global practice within specific, local systems and providing case studies that expand received notions of the history of photography.
The volume is comprised of twelve essays edited by anthropologists Christopher Pinney and Nicolas Peterson and is divided into three sections: “Personal Archives,” “Visual Economies,” and “Self-Fashioning and Vernacular Modernism.” It includes essays from an international conference held at the Museum of Queensland in Brisbane in 1997, as well as three reprinted essays. The essays are mostly well-crafted case studies that make good use of theoretical frameworks without losing their solid grounding in ethnographic and historical research.
After a well-constructed introduction by Pinney, the first section of the volume, “Personal Archives,” begins with Jo-Anne Driessens’ very personal chapter, “Relating to Photographs,”on her journey through Australian archives of photographs of Aboriginal people, which ultimately helped her track her birth family. This is followed by two similarly personal accounts of photographic encounters with archived images, by Michael Aird, again in an Aboriginal context, and a reprint of Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie’s 1998 essay, in a Native American context. These essays are not the usual academic discourse thinly disguised as ‘the native’s view’; instead, they are jargon-free, creative alternatives to established ways of writing about photography. Aird’s contribution, “Growing up with Aborigines,” injects into what could have been an ‘empirical’ piece of academic museum ethnography a personal, inside view of his own community, and demonstrates how in the postcolonial, people can employ colonial photographs in strategies of survival, “looking past” the surface, reclaiming them and strengthening indigenous family history and life (p. 25). Tsinhnahjinnie’s suggestion by example of what an indigenous reinterpretation of colonial photography looks like is especially interesting. For example, she recasts—through vivid dreaming—what were initially “depressing” ethnographic images, such as those taken of the massacre at Wounded Knee, as images of survival by moving beyond what is pictured during a waking viewing.
Although certainly not the final word on how to incorporate postcolonial indigenous views on photography into academic discourse, these essays raise important issues of how colonial images, mostly maligned by scholars, can be and have been reappropriated by people in postcolonial communities, in very positive and even healing ways. The book would have been strengthened, however, had additional chapters that expand academic ways of analyzing photography been included. Furthermore, the choice of essays in the first section (and subsequent sections) does nothing to dismantle reified notions of who the Other is, sticking squarely to the usual, non-western, colonial/postcolonial subject, ignoring a myriad of other possible constructions of difference. As a result, while the volume successfully argues for a reorientation of the critical debate in the study of photography away from the Euro-American center, it simultaneously maintains dominant categories of Otherness.
A notable (but only partial) exception to this problem is found in the book’s second section, “Visual Economies.” The section, whose title is taken from Deborah Poole’s influential model of the unequal exchanges and circulation of Andean images across cultural and geographic boundaries, includes five excellent essays that examine these economies in various regions. Morris Low’s chapter on Japanese colonial-scientific photographs is the volume’s lone example of a non-western version of othering, and a welcome addition to scholarship on the understudied but exceedingly rich field of East Asian photographic practice. Low introduces us to another ‘colonial archive’—that of the Japanese in Manchuria —and encourages inclusion of this non-western colonialism into larger...