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?
His 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.
His 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.
He 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. He 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.
He has 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. He is 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.
He is currently working on the practical and theoretical connections between anthropology and contemporary art, particularly in relation to the anthropology of the senses. In 2003, he 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. In 2007, he 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, he is 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.
He continues to experiment with the practical possibilities of using digital video, sound and photography within anthropology.