Accepted paper:

Taboos that 'pull us' into focus: two ontological understandings of photographs

Author:

Heather Winter (Melbourne University )

Paper short abstract:

Taboos that ‘pull us’ into focus: two ontological understandings of photographs. Talismanically, the imprint – or a photograph – has the power to possess, calling into question the protocols and taboos when the experiential is translated into scientific data.

Paper long abstract:

Walter Benjamin described photography as the optical unconscious and the photographer a descendent of the 'haruspice.' Conversely, the transmission of light in alchemically transfixing the life force of the subject-object, conjured a talismanic fear that the person's spirit could be possessed. On examining the German anthropological photographs of Ngarinyin Wanjina cave sites in the North West Kimberley, I review Andreas Lommel's 1938 'degenerative' theories of a 'dying medicine man.' His analysis referred to as 'Gotterdammerung mythology' failed to recognize Ngarinyin ontology's where the life force of humans and non-humans together are contingent to the reincarnation principles of keeping the Wanjina alive. The imprint of the Wanjina in the cave constitutes a space of encounter where male genealogies embody religious belief. A strange ontological twist with photography emerges as families talismanically replicate the Wanjina imprint, whereas Lommel's scientific view fossilizes the Wanjina as 'art.' Lommel's theories parallel the ontology of mechanical reproduction invoking 'what-has-been.' Like the haruspice, Lommel blasphemously dwells within the Wanjina cave in the presence of the ochre covered bones. On viewing the imprint within the cave, the rock hang in the photo strangely morphs into a skull, making visible what descendants often fearfully describe as a space of encounter where 'spirits can take us away.' This response reflects the illogical presence of Lommel in the cave. Talismanically, the imprint - or a photograph - has the power to possess, calling into question the protocols and taboos when the experiential is translated into scientific data. As Benjamin stated: 'Even the dead are not safe'.

panel Rel04
Moral highground? Magic, witchcraft and spiritual encounters