The Photographers' Categories


Clues to the "lived life" from which the images emerged are visible both in the content and in the distribution pattern of the images. This pattern is by no means regular, and can be seen to represent "tides of attention." The chronological order and event description as recorded in the accompanying field notes are the only regularizing, external structures (codification) providing a benchmark against which to recognize these "tides." By analogy, one might call the resulting images the driftwood which we were able to collect from the flow of the lived experience.

Let's explore this analogy with driftwood. It may be useful. If we know more about characteristics of wood, we shall be able to tell something about a given piece of wood before it was set adrift. Furthermore, if we know something about ocean currents, we may be able to learn something about where the wood originated and its path of travel. If we previously knew nothing about either wood or ocean currents, we shall simply take the piece home as a beautiful object. Similarly, we will have to do the same with photographs which are uncontextualized. Many photographs of "exotic others" are, indeed, used in this way -- as objects onto which the aesthetic and moral values of our own culture are projected.

More disciplined ways of looking can begin with an attempt to discover the categories which were in the minds of the photographers at the time they were photographing. The first explicit categories we notice in our Maring material are those in the photograph index. At first glance, the categories may appear to be entirely "culture-free," no more than basic identificatory material. Indeed, at first it seems difficult to separate "basic identifications" from "culturally formed systems of classification." Let's look at this challenge in detail.

Running in a row across the top of the index page for each roll of film are the following titles: date, location, people, technical, and comments. Running down the left side of the page is a column in which the number of each frame (or series of frames) is placed. This row and column create a grid defined by categories which seem quite "neutral," nothing that we, the outsiders, might consider that we are imposing upon the scene. The categories are just the basic "when," "where," "who," "how," and "what" of any report we learned to do in school. Only by scrutinizing these terms with care do I begin to realize how they oscillate between the "view from the outside" and the "view from the inside."

The "date," of course, is a totally imported categorization of time, imported by us, the anthropologists, to keep a linear order in our observations. This was a much-needed order since we had little grasp of local forms of seeing order in the daily flow of activity. We also needed a "neutral" translation system between local Maring ordering, in terms of memories of outstanding events, and our own needs to "locate" and "relocate" events in terms of our photographs. From this perspective we could call the photographs "artifacts of memory."

The "place" is more likely to represent local categories. The Maring landscape was, in fact, honeycombed with named areas, and we learned these names and used them to locate events.

As for the "names of the people," these were the names we learned from the local people, or we heard them call each other. In fact, in most face-to-face communication, individual names were scarcely ever used - they appeared only as terms of reference, used by third parties in the absence of the person concerned. In that sense, the names here are entirely appropriate. Yet, at another level, our use of names in the initial identification of each image betrays our own cultural patterning. Our concentration on the individual name as identification, rather than on a lineage, gender, or age group identification, opens the posssibility that the Maring, in discussing events (with or without photographs as memory aids), would use these various levels or systems of classification differently from the way we did. Thus, again, what seems like a "neutral observational tool" becomes, as we stop taking it for granted, another translation device which must be clearly understood as such, and which may come more from our perspective than from the Maring perspective.

The "technical description" is, like the date (and the roll and frame number), entirely a construct of our perspective, dealing as it does with an evaluation of the visual qualities of the photographs. At the time our fieldwork, the Maring for the first time were seeing photographs, ours and those in magazines and books which we had brought with us.  They did not have a developed aesthetic for looking at pictures, and they did not spend much time looking at them.

It is the "comment" which may be the most informative from the point of view of analysing "what we thought we were doing." The "what" transforms itself into a "why": the question which often comes to mind in looking at a photograph -- "why did I snap this image?" -- may often be answered by looking at this column, although the activities described seem to relate to what the people in front of the camera are doing. It will be interesting to examine this column with care and ascertain the extent to which its content provides useful information.

July 16, 1996

Last modified March 15, 1999


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