May 1, 2018
Bringing it all Back Home: The Visual Repatriation of Historical Photograph Collections from the Pitt Rivers Museum to the Turkana of Northern Kenya
https://pittrivers-photo.blogspot.com/2018/04/bringing-it-all-back-home-visual.html Original blog article:
Original blog article:
Do old colonial-era photographs matter today? Do they really have anything to say amidst Africa’s diverse ongoing political struggles and intellectual movements, any relevance within the continent’s dynamic social scenes or bustling rural and urban economies? Should they be gathered up from their obscure hiding places in Western museums and archives and afforded a place in the unfolding future, or should they simply be left to quietly fade from memory? These are some of the questions that crossed my mind as I thumbed my way through the albums and collections in the Pitt Rivers Museum photographic archives in the autumn of 2013. At the time I was haphazardly searching for glimpses of the colonial era in the Turkana region of northern Kenya -the area that my doctoral research sought to explore. I was not entirely sure of my objectives, nor did I harbour great expectations for what I might uncover.
I was abundantly surprised, therefore, as I gradually came to recognise that the collection of photographs before me was an extraordinarily uncommon entity. Not only did it contain some of the earliest photographs ever taken in Turkana -the work of Ernest Emley (a colonial administrative officer), but it also comprised a series of other later albums and compilations that, through their somewhat unlikely consolidation, served to provide a chronicle of changing life spanning the entire 20thcentury. In coming to terms with this realisation, as I sat surrounded by various albums and catalogues in the museum study room, I felt both a sense of enthusiasm and puzzlement.
To a place like Turkana, whose remarkable past continues to be overlooked in history book and school curriculum alike, such a visual record is surely incredibly precious. Yet, many of the images were also, indisputably, very troubling. In some instances, and particularly in photographs from the early decades of the 20thcentury, subjects had been arranged so as to show disparities in physique, bodily decoration and ornamentation across different social ranks or divisions. This compulsion to recognise and report on non-industrialised peoples purely in terms of ‘archetypes’ was largely a reflection of the belief in progressive social evolution that underpinned and justified the colonial project. In other images, and particularly those dating to the later colonial era, this concern for documenting ‘types’ and ‘categories’ within and across social groups had been substituted for a profound romanticism. Daily scenes and portraits captured in the mid-20thcentury, like many of those contained in the works of the photographer and travel writer Sir Wilfred Thesiger, were framed and engineered so as to imply a sense of timelessness, and to depict the Turkana as a vanishing race with fragile traditions and values.
Such characteristics are by no means uncommon. In fact, as much scholarship in the sphere of visual anthropology has shown, they can be traced in colonial-era photographic collections pertaining to a wide range of societies the world over. Nevertheless, observing these traits in early photographs of the Turkana, I was struck by how powerful their legacy has been over the years since Kenyan independence. Like many other African pastoralist societies, the Turkana are, to this day, persistently beset by essentialist depictions of their culture, practices and livelihoods. They continue to be represented in the popular press through various enduring visual and rhetorical tropes, shown as relics of a bygone age struggling to cope with the onset of ‘modernity’ and ‘globalisation’ (tropes that can be seen very clearly in many of the more recent post-independence era images in the Pitt Rivers’ collection). Alongside their longstanding political marginalisation (which has only recently begun to thaw), such impressions have served as obstinate barriers to the fulfilment of local hopes, desires and aspirations in postcolonial times. They have, moreover, facilitated the stubborn exclusion of Turkana communities from the decision-making processes that lie at the heart of development planning and practice. Here, in the archives of the Pitt Rivers Museum, I could see just how deeply rooted in colonial subjugation and oppression these visions of the Turkana were.
The paradox of this gradually accumulated collection -its profound rarity and importance set against its insistence on an invented and enduringly burdensome image of the Turkana -left me brooding over what utility it might have today. It was not long before it dawned on me that the only way to really find out would be to visually repatriate the assemblage to northern Kenya. Only then might it be possible to fully assess both the fraught political contexts of its compilation and the unrecognised locally constituted narratives and histories that weave their way through its layers, binding them together in heretofore undisclosed consonance. Indeed, it was with this idea in mind that I brought copies of over 150 images from the collection (dating to a range of different periods from the 1920s to the 1990s) with me to Turkana when I undertook my doctoral fieldwork. For over a year (between 2014 and 2015), and alongside other ethnographic techniques, I held regular discussion sessions in villages and homesteads in southern Turkana to explore the stories that lay dormant within these photographs. At times I passed them around large groups of people on market days or during community meetings, and at others I allowed the images to evoke personal memories during one-on-one conversations and interviews with individual participants.
Over the months, a series of socio-economic and political histories began to emerge that ran counter to the visions of stasis, fragility and passivity that might otherwise be read in the photographs. The colonially-entrenched veneer of the collection came to be actively reconfigured and reconditioned through accounts that emphasised productivity, dynamism, ingenuity and, most significantly, social change as a process primarily driven by local individuals and communities (rather than as an uncontrolled or unmediated phenomenon). Many of the stories and narratives that were told using the collection ran counter to what its various albums were initially constructed to portray, and indeed to the enduring colonial legacies of both photography and archaeology that continue to craft interpretations and depictions of Turkana through various media in the wider world. These newly uncovered narratives were the focus of the core discussions in my doctoral thesis entitled ‘Trade, development and resilience: an archaeology of contemporary livelihoods in Turkana, northern Kenya’, which can now be accessed through the Oxford University Research Archive.
In returning to the question of why and how colonial-era photographic collections, and later images crafted amidst their visual legacies, might be relevant to contemporary African societies, issues and futures, the case from Turkana raises two key points. Firstly, that one of the most convincing and effective ways of shattering the powerful myths that such collections conjure is returning them to the communities they pertain to and, in the process of doing so, using them to write new histories. Secondly, that because of the often deeply potent and evocative nature of such collections (features well understood by anyone who has used photo-elicitation in their research) their political ramifications and connotations are never at rest, never fixed or resolved. There is, to the contrary, a great deal still up for grabs. The stories that such collections first set out to tell may very well be over but, in their aftermath, there are other stories that lie in wait to surface.