Issue 8.3, August 1993


Essay Excerpt

In examining the imagined worlds of empire, John Comaroff critically examines the colonizers' images of empire, one being the notion of an "idyllic countryside." He writes, "For those who lamented a paradise lost to the cause of the industrial revolution, the idealized British past was situated in a pristine countryside cast timelessly in the early 18th century" (1989:667). These idealizations parallel Renato Rosaldo's (1989:120) notion of "imperialist nostalgia" as "conventional trope," or Donna Haraway's (1989:267) "colonial-nostalgic aesthetic."' Rosaldo "dismantles" the "ideology of imperialist nostalgia" examining the "process of yearning for what one has destroyed"; he suggests, provocatively and disturbingly, that anthropologists "inhabit partially overlapping ideological spaces" with colonizers and missionaries in "mourning the passing of traditional society" (1989:115-116, 120). One could also implicate photojournalists and postcolonials in sharing this "conventional trope" of yearning for a pastoral past. As Raymond Williams (1973:289) reminds us, the persistence of these images of pastoralism accompanying agrarian capitalism is matched only by their historicity and by variable and powerful meanings "in feeling and activity; in region and time" (1973:4).

Idyllic representations[2] of New Zealand high-country life proliferate in a variety of genres, authored indigenously and exogenously. For indigenous authors who sparsely inhabit this country of tussock grasslands - runholders and station hands, such as shepherds and shearers - high-country pastoralism is a way of life. Exogenous authors do not inhabit the mountain lands but have contact with them - urban and down-country people may be recreationists (hikers, skiers, fishermen), conservationists, farm advisers, service people, journalists, writers, artists, or sometimes tourists. Representative genres include imaginative writing - detective fiction,[3] novels,[4] poetry,[5] and cartoons;[6] indigenous nonfiction[7] - station correspondence, scrapbooks, farm diaries, station and family histories,[8] autobiographies, and descriptive accounts of high-country pastoral life, usually in the form of vignettes and yarns;[9] and exogenous nonfiction-documentary films and television features, photojournalistic pieces in magazines and picture books, and magazine feature articles. For the ethnographer, these materials provide data for examining the varying representations of high-country life within a national and historical context, as well as for examining representations and constructions of knowledge in indigenous narrative.

I limit myself here to an analysis of nonindigenous nonfiction, specifically photojournalism of the genre that Donna Haraway (1989:139) has described as "the adventure travelogue of seemingly participatory, popular, democratic science characterizing the National Geographic." [10] During a return field trip to New Zealand's South Island Canterbury high country,[11] two photojournalists on a two-week assignment for Discovery,[12] a National Geographic-type magazine, came to research a photo-essay on a runholding family. I had read their high-country pictorial book and an earlier magazine article and thought both were superb examples of quality photojournalism, not only for their photography and descriptive lyricism, but for their detail and sensitivity to the central categories of behavior and thought shaping high- country life. Noting that they were "asking us the same kinds of questions you do," high-country people referred the team, Bill and Natalie, to me to answer detailed questions about genealogy and history, and also interpretive kinds of questions.

In response to my research participants' inquiries into the differences between photojournalism and anthropology, I found myself struggling to articulate to them the distinctions between the tasks involved in each. This event provides an opportunity to explore the theoretical implications of those differences for ethnographic authority. I focus on this case study as data, drawing on preceding and subsequent photojournalistic representations of this particular valley, among others, to explore some of the distinctions between media and anthropological representations of the runholders. As I juxtapose a photojournalistic representation against the context of my own fieldwork, analysis, and ethnography,[13] I examine the high-country mystique and delineate the uniformity in elements comprising it. The anthropologist, unlike the journalist, must penetrate the "conventional trope" of high-country nostalgia by contextualizing self-presentation and must explore the motivations surrounding the construction and perpetuation of nostalgia by others (317-318).

From Dominy, Michèle. "Photojournalism, Anthropology, and Ethnographic Authority." Cultural Anthropology 8.3(1993): 317–337.