Women carrying babies: colonial postcards to Flickr
Nancy Ukai Russell
Paper short abstract:
Photographs of women carrying babies on the body, carefully posed as objects of anthropological interest, was a popular subject of colonial-era postcards. A century later, this visual trope persists in digital form, a maternal and material world reimagined, ethnographic research notwithstanding.
Paper long abstract:
From the early 1900s, during the golden age of postcards, the inexpensive photo postcard enabled particular, clichéd images of "native women" carrying infants on their backs, hips or chests, using cloths, netbags or animal skins, to circulate rapidly, inexpensively and globally. Such images on colonial postcards provided an exotic visual contrast to the Edwardian practice in Western metropoles of women pushing babies away from the body in wheeled carriages. Photographs of babycarrying were used by colonial publishers, missionaries and in ethnographic spaces to highlight difference, assert cultural superiority and entertain distant populations. Often shown in profile, such images of women were visual shorthand for anthropological theories that cast the carrier as a beast of burden at a lower stage of evolutionary development. A century later, the contemporary practice of "babywearing," or using a cloth or soft device to tie a baby on the body, has become a popular, medically-sanctioned and culturally-borrowed method of childcare advocated in societies that once disparaged it. Digital images of babywearing by film stars, politicians and in mothers' smart phone "selfies" now circulate digitally, along with the familiar trope of indigenous carrying, on social media sites such as Flickr, Pinterest and websites. Despite ethnographic research on the embodied aspects and cultural meanings of infant carrying, modernist views of baby carrying continue to be culturally bound and tied to the production and consumption of aestheticized visions of motherhood. Colonial criticism has turned to admiration of "native" practices thought to exemplify methods of natural parenting.
Constructing and Contesting Imaginaries: Anthropology, Photography, and the Histories of Durable Visual Tropes