Christopher Wright is a lecturer in Anthropology Department at Goldsmiths College, University of London where he teaches on the MA Visual Anthropology course. He can be contacted at – firstname.lastname@example.org
Print made in 1999 from glass-plate negative by Lt. Henry Boyle Somerville 1893
Courtesy of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Gathered in the smoke-filled shade of a large communal cooking hut, the villagers of Bulelavata – a small village on the edge of Roviana Lagoon in the western Solomon Islands – pass round a copy print made from a nineteenth century photograph of two Roviana teenagers. The photograph, or perhaps photo-object is a better term here, incites a whole range of responses. Old men talk sadly about the kastom (‘tradition’) that might be reclaimed through the photo-object – the large wooden earrings, clothing, lime-stained hair, and face decoration mark the image as one from “before”. The ‘crack’ is taken by the people of Bulelavata as a sign that the photo-object itself – rather than the glass-plate negative from which it was reproduced – must have been damaged in an attack on Roviana carried out by the Royal Navy in the late nineteenth century. My discussion of the glass negative is met with indifference. People speculate that the descendents of the two teenagers can be recognised by comparing their faces to those of the living. Fathers complain about their own teenage sons, who hang listlessly about the village avoiding the subsistence work of gardening and fishing. These teenagers, whose cheap sunglasses, knotted red bandanas, and over-sized clothes show the influence of Ragga music and also raskol styles from Papua New Guinea, laugh dismissively at the photograph. But later, out of parental view, they express more curiosity. Women laughingly point out that teenagers are still obsessed with how they look and, talking about the ruf boys of the village, they make a series of thinly disguised sexual innuendo’s.
The archival photo-object is re-animated through connection to these kinds of living contexts, revealing photography’s connection to a plurality of histories. The comments the photo-object incites also suggest how the photographic process itself is understood in Roviana. Here, photographs are unique objects and their reproducibility – key to Euro-American models of the medium – is not a feature of Roviana models. Negatives are rarely returned with photographic prints, and when they are people make no attempt to keep them. Many photographs arrive through circuitous means from friends, family and outsiders, and are not taken by people themselves. In Roviana the links between photographs and the past are bound up with their status as singular objects, a fact which ally’s them to a range of previously existing Roviana media. Objects such as ancestral skulls – kept in communal skull-shrines (oru) – and a variety of shell valuables that once played a central role in preserving histories and maintaining links with ancestral power. But with the advent of Christianity these kinds of relics are no longer avowedly available, but photographs – or in this case photo-relics – are one area where links with ancestral power can still be discussed.
For Roviana people photographs are maqomaqo – shadows, shades, spirits – and the subtleties of this understanding are brought out through considering photography in relation to historical Roviana practices such as headhunting and the development of a range of media for memorialising the past. The connections between photography, memory and history are taken for granted in Euro-American models of the medium, such that, as Trachtenberg suggests, that which is considered historical is precisely that which could have been photographed. As well as modernising our vision, photography has profoundly altered our sense of the past. In relation to photography and history Bourdieu has argued that “the definitive certainty of an object replaces the fleeting uncertainty of subjective impressions”. The status of certain objects in Roviana, and their ability to materialise presences and channel ancestral power, is a key to understanding the current range of links between photography, memory and history.
Disappearing photograph copied by the author, Roviana 2001
The intense heat and humidity of the Roviana climate mean that many photographs printed in the last ten years gradually disappear in front of their owners’ eyes. Since there are no negatives from which further images can be reproduced, this gradual disintegration is distressing. The process invokes a profound sense of loss, both of the self and of memory and history, and such is the hold that these photo-objects possess, that even completely illegible images are still lovingly handled and remain the subject of personal histories. The ‘ethnic tensions’ and related problems that have been an on-going feature of life in parts of the Solomon Islands since the coup in 2000, have also fore-grounded the role of photography in relation to history in Roviana. This disappearance of photographs at a time of significant social and political change is seen as a material indication – an index – of how “things are bad now”. Here photography reveals the connections between ideas of tradition, identity, and change. What is preserved in nineteenth century photographs, and what will be lost with the disappearance of contemporary ones? These are questions that concern Roviana people and, the fact that the copy print of the Somerville photograph above was in such good condition compared to peoples’ own photographs, was taken as evidence that “things were good before”. Contemporary Euro-American photographic practices – and their historical antecedents such as ‘spirit’ photography and the production of photo-jewellery containing human hair – come to resemble those of Roviana rather than vice versa.
- Alan Trachtenberg Reading American photographs: images as history, Mathew Brady to Walker Evans New York: Hill and Wang 1989 p.195
- Pierre Bourdieu Photography: a middle-brow art Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1990 p. 36