Exercise 4-8: Post-colonial ethnography

George Rodger - Nuba
George Rodger: The Wrestlers, Kordofan, Sudan 1949

Browse the catalogue ‘Tribal portraits and contemporary photographs from the African continent’ by Bernard J. Shapero.

Write a brief reflective commentary in your learning log.

The first thing that is striking about the catalogue, ‘Tribal portraits and contemporary photographs from the African continent’ by Bernard J. Shapero is the emphasis placed on the provenance, dimensions and quality of printing that accompanies each caption. While this is hardly surprising given that the purpose of the book is to sell prints, it also provides a reminder of the importance of these aspects on the ‘value’ of a photograph. The audience for the book are photography collectors who have thousands of pounds to spend on photography, concerns about accurate representation of the people in the images is secondary to aesthetic and historical concerns. I am also struck about the lack of distinction, or even interest, in each photographers intention and the lack of context provided. The pictures are not shown chronologically so early photographs of a anthropological nature are shown alongside documentary work, for example that of George Rodger, that although aesthetically powerful appear to attempt to capture a reality and convey experience.

The majority of the images feature nudity, most often female and sometimes young girls, that is problematic. On one hand it could be argued that these images show a reality and that nakedness for the people shown is not a natural state and it is only our western gaze that makes us uncomfortable. To accept that however would mean believing that the images have an authenticity which is impossible to divine from simply looking at them. My instinctual feeling is that there is a voyeuristic, perhaps even lascivious, gaze at work and racism that makes it acceptable to show images of African women naked when it would not be acceptable to show western women. The most troubling pictures for me are those that are clearly posed as in these the exploitation of the subjects is overtly present. Although the images shown in this catalogue focus on the exotic ‘other’ – something that calls into question the documentary value of the images, the very same pictures could feasibly gain credence if shown in a different context.

Bibliography:

Belgrave R. and Elleston, S. (N.D.) Tribal portraits: Vintage and contemporary photographs from the African continent. Bernard J. Shapero rare books. Available at: https://www.oca-student.com/photography-2-documentary/exercise-29 [accessed 6th June 2018]

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