This post builds on the research article “Photography and Photo-Elicitation after Colonialism,” which was published in the November 2015 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.
Cultural Anthropology has published numerous articles on postcolonialism in Africa including: Damian Droney’s “Ironies of Laboratory Work during Ghana’s Second Age of Optimism” (2014); Antina Von Schnitzler’s “Traveling Technologies: Infrastructure, Ethical Regimes, and the Materiality of Politics in South Africa” (2013); Susan Cook and Rebecca Hardin’s “Performing Royalty in Contemporary Africa” (2013); and Filip De Boeck’s “Inhabiting Ocular Ground: Kinshasa's Future in the Light of Congo's Spectral Urban Politics” (2011).
Cultural Anthropology has also published a wide-range of essays on imagery and politics. See, for example, Charles Brigg’s essay “Dear Dr. Freud” (2014), Paul Manning’s “Rose-Colored Glasses? Color Revolutions and Cartoon Chaos in Postsocialist Georgia” (2007); and Gregory Starrett’s “Violence and the Rhetoric of Images” (2003).
About the Author
Liam Buckley is an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at James Madison University. His research focuses on the relationship between photographic aesthetics and postcolonial change, with fieldwork in The Gambia, Kenya, and, recently, in India. He is a former editor of Visual Anthropology Review and has served as the president of the Society for Visual Anthropology. For more on Professor Buckley’s work visit his faculty page.
Interview with Liam Buckley
Darren Byler: Toward the beginning of your essay, you discuss the emergence of portraiture as a central element of cultural aesthetics in post-1965 Gambian society. Since you mention that these photo studios are located in close proximity to beauty salons and dress shops, I’m wondering how this phenomenon breaks down in terms of gender and class? Who is having their portrait taken? When are portraits taken?
Liam Buckley: If you were to talk to Gambians and ask them this question about gender, the answers would be that young women are the ones who are most interested in having their photos taken. However, if you were to look in someone’s photo album, you would see that the images are equally of young women and young men. In the light of this evidence, when I questioned the accepted logic that only women had their photos taken, respondents would laugh and then say that if young men were appearing in a photo, it was done because a young woman told him to. There are many levels of locally gendered discourse surrounding photography. For example, men will claim that woman have photographs of themselves in order to attract the attention of men. Women, on the other hand, will say that they have photographs to show their female friends how they were dressed, for example, at a dance. They might continue by saying that men do indeed come to acquire their photos—not because they received them as gifts, but because they take them without permission. Generally speaking, the demographic of those being photographed in studios are young people, of all classes, in their late teens and early twenties, typically before they are married. During festival times, however, the range of people going to studios increases to include married couples with their children. Elderly people, however, rarely go to studios. The photos are mostly taken late in the evening when young people go out to socialize.
DB: At one point, you argue that your research demonstrates a disposition toward photography that creates “its own social critique” by asking questions such as “Is this fashionable? Is this up-to-date?” How does the present and future orientation in Gambian photo aesthetics relate to a sense of lack when it comes to the “out-of-date” and the “unfashionable”? Why is the “up-to-date” privileged?
LB: Aesthetic discourse is often striking, to scholars at least, because of its apparent lack of political commitment. Understanding the privilege of the “up to date” could thus move in two different ways. This privilege could be aligned with an embracing of modernist teleology and “progress.” However, this embrace could also be counter-modern. There is the postcolonial urban folklore of the person somewhere in Africa who asks, “When will Independence end?” This question is not requesting a return to colonial times. Instead, it seeks reassurance that the state of life known as “Independence” is not how history is going to end—that there has to be something that will follow Independence. The concern for the up-to-date, then, could reflect the hope for an opening-up in the present that offers some new route or recovery from colonialism.
DB: One of the most interesting things to emerge from your research was the way viewers entered into a relationship with colonial images that was based on reverie rather than memory: imagining themselves as actors in an historical image without “preconditions or antecedents.” What longings motivate such a viewing of colonial photographs?
LB: I don’t think it is a “longing.” Rather, it is based on a humanistic and visceral experience when we view photographs with our entire bodies and become perceptive or sensible bodies. I don’t think this only happens in The Gambia or when looking at colonial photographs.