I originally trained as an artist, producing work in painting, photography, and video. I then worked for several years in independent filmmaking making feature length Super 8 and 16mm films, before becoming the Photographic Archivist at the Royal Anthropological Institute in 1992.
During my time at the RAI I was awarded a three-year Leverhulme Trust award to return three major collections of 19th century anthropological photographs to their source communities in the southwest USA, Sikkim (Himalayas), and the Solomon Islands (south Pacific). I have curated a number of exhibitions, including The Impossible Science of Being at the Photographer’s Gallery, London (combining 19th century anthropological photographs with responses to the archive from contemporary artists and photographers), and Presence at Leighton House west London in 2003 (see Bedazzlement link on this page).
I taught as a Visiting Tutor in the Anthropology Department at Goldsmiths in the late 1990’s before doing my PhD at University College London and returning to the department as a lecturer in 2002. My teaching is largely around themes and arguments within visual anthropology, practical training in visual production, and the connections between anthropology and contemporary art practices.
I continue to work for a local community-based video co-operative where I live, making films with teenagers, and alongside this I continue to experiment with the practical possibilities of using digital video, sound and photography within anthropology
Dr Wright is a specialist in visual anthropology with teaching links to the BA Social Anthropology, BA Anthropology with Visual Practice, and MA Visual Anthropology programmes. He is also responsible for the visual aspects of MPhil/PhD training.
He convenes the MRes in Visual Anthropology.
He teaches the following courses:
• Anthropology and the Visual II
• Anthropology and the Visual: Production Course
• Anthropology of Art I
• Intercultural Film
• Photography and Sound
• Anthropology of London
Areas of supervision
My main areas of PhD supervision revolve around visual anthropology and a whole range of approaches to the use of images in anthropological fieldwork, alongside the study of other visual cultures. I have recently supervised PhD projects that have focused on the study of contemporary art conservation practices (for which I collaborated with the White Cube Gallery, London), and the role of photographic images in Amnesty International campaigns.
Current MPhil/PhD students supervised:
JoAnna Sedillo, 'Lowrider Car Culture in New Mexico, USA'
Mina Lavender, 'Japanese ‘purikura’ Photo-Booth Photography and Gender'
Toby Austin-Locke, 'Creative Commons in New Cross, London'
Minou Norouzi, 'Object Documentary: objectifying practices in contemporary documentary' (joint supervision of practice-led film PhD with Media/Comms Department, Goldsmiths)
Completed PhD Students supervised:
Katrina Crear, 'The Material Lives and Deaths of Contemporary Artworks'
Amy Johnstone, 'The Social Life of Human Rights Images'
“A Devil's Engine”: Photography and Spirits in the Western Solomon Islands
Material and Memory: photography in the western Solomon Islands
‘The Third Subject: perspectives on visual anthropology’
‘”An Unsuitable Man”: the photographs of Francis R. Barton’
Tricky Positions: A Conversation Between Dave Lewis and Chris Wright
"The Echo of Things": The Lives of Photographs in the Solomon Islands
Contemporary Art and Anthropology
Blurred Visions: Reflecting Visual Anthropology
Faletau's photocopy, or the mutability of visual history in Roviana
Photography's Other Histories
Ancestral skulls in a ‘skull house’ (oru) on Kudu Hite island, Vona Vona Lagoon, Solomon Islands 2001.
Faletau Leve holding a photograph of himself as a young man. Munda, Roviana Lagoon, Solomon Islands 2001.
In the 1920’s anthropologist Arthur Hocart wrote about the reaction of Solomon Islanders to photographs –
“The soul is called galagala, which also means a shadow, a reflection; it is caught in a camera. A Shortland man says ‘it stop all over a man’: by taking a looking glass you can see it. When a man dies, his soul (galagala) comes out at the mouth: some men can see it by the use of charms. Rakoto says it is just like a man and big or small according as it belongs to an adult or a child. A certain shadowiness seems associated with departing spirits, for one man asked whether a vague figure in an advertisment of Odol [a brand of soap] was a ghost.”
1922 A.M.Hocart ‘The Cult of the Dead in Eddystone. Part 1’ Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 52: 71-112
“Spirits - you can see their shadow, and you can see it in the photo – not clear, blurred. Something remains, the echo of things, your shadow in the photo. The soul is like a magnetic thing. People have an opposite, that is our spirit. The photo contains a person and their shadow. Strong power can make a material. Our ancestors talk and receive and that can happen with photos too. Some photos are very strong – electric. They take things from the air and make them real. The spirit can make things form on the photo. The spirit can stay in the photo like in the skull.”
Faletau Leve. Roviana Lagoon. Solomon Islands 2001
The ability to ‘capture souls’ is a founding myth of photography within European and North American traditions and it continues to mark photography as a distinctly savage practice. It continues to be a defining characteristic of photography’s vernacular use. Their uncanny ability to achieve a presence is responsible for the strange intensity of our attachment to particular photographs. Hocart’s account reveals that, although it may have been subject to certain fears, photography was readily ascribed a place by Solomon Islanders’ within a pre-existing scheme of relations between the living and the dead, between the seen and the unseen. Does this represent an aberrant reading, a mis-reading pf photography, or a recognition of one of its fundamental tasks? My research on photography in the Solomon Islands is an attempt to understand contemporary attitudes towards the medium and trace some of its connections to ideas of memory and history. Contemporary photographs, processed by machine in Australia, often dis-colour, fade and gradually disappear as a result of the interaction between chemical processes of reproduction and the intense heat and humidity of the Solomon Islands – a process which causes much distress to people who may only own a few images. Photography’s reproducibility – an aspect taken to be fundamental to European and North American conceptions of the medium – is not recognized in the Solomon Islands, and as a result the photograph retains the aura of a unique object. It is intimately bound up with local ideas of ‘soul’ (maqomaqo) and the connections between ideas about spirits and souls forms a central feature of understandings of photography.
My research interests centre around visual anthropology, including photography, visual culture, aesthetics, film, material culture, contemporary art, and the relation of visual images to ethno-history.
I worked as the Photographic Archivist at the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland during the 1990’s and, with funding from the Leverhulme Trust, was involved in various projects to return collections of anthropological photographs to local communities in New Mexico (USA), Sikkim, and the Solomon Islands. These projects involved a wide range of strategies for ‘returning’ photographs to individuals and groups, from photographs hung on strings in people’s houses, to major permanent exhibitions. I co-curated The Impossible Science of Being: dialogues between anthropology and photography at the Photographers Gallery, London in 1995, and Presence at Leighton House, London in 2003. The latter was an innovatory exhibition that featured interventions and installations (including a sound piece by the artist Mohini Chandra) by four contemporary artists and archival material from the Royal Anthropological Institute Photographic Collection. Both sets of material were inserted alongside the existing permanent exhibits at Leighton House.
I have carried out fieldwork in the Solomon Islands, South Pacific in 1998 and in 2000-2001 funded by the Arts and Humanities Reseacrh Council, UK. This focused on links between photography, material culture, and memory, and formed the focus of my PhD. I am currently working on this material as the basis of a book ‘“The Echo of Things”: photography in the western Solomon Islands” due to be published by Duke University Press.
I am currently working on the practical and theoretical connections between anthropology and contemporary art, particularly in relation to the anthropology of the senses. In 2003 I was the co-initiator and co-organiser of Fieldworks: dialogues between art and anthropology, a 3-day international conference held at Tate Modern, London. The conference archive can be accessed online via the Tate Modern website (http://channel.tate.org.uk/channel). In 2007 I was the co-initiator and co-organiser of Beyond Text? Synaesthetic and Sensory Practices in Anthropology, a 3-day conference at the University of Manchester. The conference explored the implications of the 'sensory turn' for practice led anthropology and considered the possibilities of combining different elements of image, sound, voice and object. In doing so it considered artistic methods of doing and representing ethnography, including film, photography, sound recordings, art installations, sculptural and other plastic media, dramatic performance and museum display. Some of the material from the conference will be published in a forthcoming book Beyond Text?
As well as continuing to explore the links between anthropology and contemporary art I am in the initial stages of planning a research project on the current use of digital media by First Nation artists and communities in British Columbia. Canada.
I continue to experiment with the practical possibilities of using digital video, sound and photography within anthropology.