Accepted Paper:

Revealing "unseen" information. On the potential of reinterpreting ethnographic photography with 'informed eyes'  


Anja Soldat (Museum Rietberg Zürich)

Paper short abstract:

On the basis of photographs taken by anthropologist Dr. Hans Himmelheber on his 1936-37 expedition to the Yup’ik-Eskimo in Alaska, this paper seeks to illustrate the high potential of reinterpretation, even revelation, of hitherto “unseen” information on ethnographic photography.

Paper long abstract:

A selection of photographs taken by anthropologist Dr. Hans Himmelheber on his 1936-37 expedition to Alaska has been published in the year 2000 by cultural anthropologist Ann Fienup-Riordan. In the book, produced as anthology and enhancement of Himmelheber's Alaska publications, most of the photos were reproduced for the first time, accompanied by (re-)interpretations of Yup'ik-Eskimo expert Fienup-Riordan. It seems likely that Himmelheber himself hadn't always been fully aware of what he was framing, given that it was his first and only expedition to the Yup'ik peoples. To him, these pictures might have served the mere purpose of proof and illustration of his expedition and he published only a handful of them during his career. Almost 70 years later, Fienup-Riordan was able to identify numerous objects on the photos, often in the background of the picture and nearly "invisible" to uninformed observers.

This process of revealing hitherto "unseen" information on photographs is possible only with what I call 'informed eyes'. And the photographer, when acting as mere registrar, seems to have little control over what might have "seeped into" the picture. People with insider knowledge about the depicted events and sceneries (experts or community members) have a chance here to reinterpret archived photos for their own purposes. The paper seeks to analyze this potential of 'informed eyes' and the possibilities of bringing back ethnographic photography to the community, for example via online collections.

Panel P15
Afterimages: Putting ethnography into the family album