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Posts tagged ‘reality’

Life on water: a photographic tale from Cambodia

January 10, 2013


Back in August 2012 I spent a day at the Vietnamese floating village at Kampong Chnnang, central Cambodia.  Lying at the mouth of the Tonle Sap Lake, much of the town of Kampong Chnnang spends half the year beneath the water.  Allowing for this, many of the local people have adapted their lives and homes, whilst the local Vietnamese community lives entirely in a floating village; living their lives on the water in floating houses, shops on boats, and livelihoods which make the most of the surrounding water and wetlands: subsistence based on fishing and wetland rice farming.  I took a lot of photos that day documenting the everyday life on water of the floating village, and I was fortunate to have some of the photos I took selected to be part of the Intimate Lens Festival of Visual Ethnography in Caserta, Italy in December last year.  Now you can see the full gallery on my flickr page.  Here’s a taster below.  Enjoy!


Visualising the body

November 9, 2012


‘Then tell me who that

me is, or the

you understood, the any of us….’

(excerpt from Human Atlas by Marianne Boruch)


A couple of months ago I had to have an operation.  On fieldwork in Cambodia at the time, I flew to Bangkok, and following a couple of uncomfortably contained weeks in hospital, I was discharged from hospital clutching a folder brimming with papers – the record of my time in hospital.  A few weeks later, on a sweaty afternoon in Phnom Penh, I sat looking through the folder and came across a CD of pre-operative CT scans.  As I flicked through the images, I started thinking about my perception and conception of my body and its place in my interactions in the world, something I had become acutely aware of through being sick.

As anthropologists we are encouraged to reflect on our position within our work.  But I had not really considered the place of my body within my research beyond its colour and gender.  Thinking about the body is nothing new to anthropology of course; in 1935 Mauss wrote about the body as a tool for experiencing the world, and hundreds of others have examined it since, but as I considered the scans, I started to think about the place of the visual in this articulation.  I spent the afternoon examining each image, fascinated by this exotic presentation of my self, at once both recognisable and completely alien.  A central method in anthropology is the decentralisation of the self; that movement in perception back and forth between the known and the unknown, from that which is familiar to that which is not.  Looking through the images I found myself experiencing this othering, and thus contemplating how we know our physical selves – our bodies – our ultimate research tools through which we interact, communicate and contemplate.

CT scan of my mid and upper thorax

The physicality of the body is often de-emphasised in social anthropology in favour of approaches that examine the culturally constructed meanings inscribed on it, the symbolic aesthetics presented, or the performance of power that the body enables for example.  But as I slowly recovered in the unbearable heat and humidity of Phnom Penh, the physicality of my own body was impossible to evade; it was impossible to think of the understanding of my body as simply a product of specific social, cultural and historical perspectives.  Kirmayer argued that the body provides a ‘structure of thought that is, in part, extra-rational and disorderly’ due to its relation to emotional, aesthetic and moral worlds; my thought processes and engagement with the world and others within it were entirely disorderly at this time due to their connection to the physical and the altered control of agency of myself and others on my body.  Examining the images, meanwhile, made me contemplate the relationship between the visual and the body: how much of our understanding of the body (our own and others) is influenced by what we see and how those images are presented, particularly in a medical setting?

These images were central to the relationships I became enmeshed in during this period.  They also marked a distinct interplay of power relations.  In his 1991 examination of terror in Northern Ireland, Feldman argued that power is embedded in the body and thus the body is an instrument of agency in power relations.  Whilst I am not suggesting that my experiences are anything resembling those faced by people in Northern Ireland during the troubles, I certainly became aware of the power the body wielded – both to myself and to others – and it was through the imaging that power was often articulated.  I lost the power of control and interpretation of my body and others gained it – only certain doctors could take the pictures, certain others could read those images, whilst still others could decide the actions taken on me.  My ‘docile body’, to steal Foucault’s term, caused a period of ontological insecurity which lasted some time and it seemed, as I contemplated these images, that it was initially through the visual that I began to regain power over my body, and my feeling of self.

Cross-sectional scans of upper legs showing femoral-pelvic articulation (left) and pelvis showing iliac-sacral joints (right)

The interactions that occurred in the hospital, although in Thailand, were firmly embedded within Western medico-legal theories and histories.  I wondered how a spirit-medium or soothsayer in Cambodia would interpret the pictures (particularly as I first got sick whilst visiting a mass grave), or how others would interpret them as a layperson.  The images of my body were not simple transmitters of information.  They were articulations of power, tools of communication, mechanisms of thought.  As I travelled through my body, via the CT images, I experienced an odd disjuncture: my inners looked alien and animal-like and brought to mind the dehumanisation I had felt whilst in hospital.  At the same time I felt belonging: I recognised elements of a body that exists only inside me – my peculiarly crooked spine for example, which bends at the top of my lumbar vertebrae, but which is invisible from outside to another person.  I made a journey in understanding of my body from pure physicality and hyper-awareness of its workings to aesthetic appreciation and awareness of its symbolic nature.

Now several weeks on I am intrigued by the process my body has gone through, and part of my reflecting on this caused me to produce the visual journey through my body that you can see here.  There is a form of Buddhist sect in Thailand that attempts to understand the cosmos by meditating over the corpse.  Perhaps I am performing some such form of meditation; right now this period is central to my fieldwork experience and has informed my initial interactions with Cambodia.  How does the way I use and view my body affect my communication and relationships with others and therefore my research?  Have the physicalities and resultant impact on my sense of being affected my sense of self and therefore how I interact in the world?  Certainly they did at the start.  The images and charts provided a shared language to certain members of my social circle and were completely exclusionary to others including, at first, myself.  What effect has this had on my understanding of my place in my fieldsite?

Mandible exposed through the soil at mass grave

Exposed mandible at Choeung Ek mass grave, Cambodia

My current research looks at contemporary understandings of and relationships with mass graves in Cambodia.  I feel a more embodied concept of how the body is used to influence and coerce people, how it can be a focal point of power relations, how our own understanding of ourselves is central to the understanding of the world we engage in.  The bodies that fill the graves in Cambodia are perfect examples of the manipulation of power using the body.  More than that, my understanding and views of the graves themselves has been altered through this visual approach to contemplation.  The CT scans offer a slice of my body in time and space; they represent a small, fragmented part of a much bigger whole, which each image hints at but none shows.  The graves that exist today in Cambodia are layered by years of living; each year as the rains come the layers move and elements of bodies begin to emerge before being hidden again – bone shards, small pieces of cloth – visible in part but hidden in whole and wholly incomprehensible if you do not know what lies beneath.  As I think about my own journey through my body, I also start to think about relationships with the graves; this ebb and flow of visuality that at once both offers power and voice to those skeletons whilst simultaneously removing it.  I don’t mean to be facile; I’m not trying to claim that my experience lends me any deep understanding of the graves, only that it has offered a new way of looking at them as they are manifested in everyday life.

I’m not sure exactly what the visuals of my own scans symbolise to me.  The losing of myself perhaps – the loss of control over myself, and the uninvited and uncontrollable agency of other people within my body.  The physicality of my interactions with the world.  The place of my body as a tool of communication, and as an embodiment of power relations.  The beautifully alien aesthetic of the body.  And the way that something that I know and own so intimately is also something from which I am completely disconnected.

The “Meaning” of Photography

November 5, 2010

Reuben Ross

Photo taken in Paris

Photo taken in Paris

Anthropologists, such as George Marcus, have often discussed the effectiveness of photos and film in comparison with text. But, for now, I would like to leave this debate aside to discuss what I think is an even more fundamental issue: determining the “meaning” of images. In the course so far, I have found that determining the “meaning” of an image (if such a thing exists) is an extremely difficult task on a variety of different levels. As someone who has a background in the visual arts, I think any understanding of any image (which, of course, is central in Visual Anthropology) must begin with a basic, elementary understanding of the philosophy and psychology of the medium itself before moving onto cultural and anthropological critique. So, during the first week, we were asked to take in a photograph, that we had taken ourselves, to our seminar for Visual Anthropology Theory (SE859). I brought in the photo above, which I took on a short visit to Paris earlier this year (the photo, coincidentally, looks almost exactly the same to a scene from Jean Rouch’s Chronique d’un été!) We were then told we must analyze each other’s photos, according to Marcus Banks’ three questions he poses for use in social research with pictures. These three questions are:

i)    what is the image of, what is its content?
ii)    who took it or made it, when and why?
iii)    how do other people come to have it, how do they read it, what do they do with it?

While these questions represent one way of determining the “meaning” of an image, this opens up a whole other set of questions revolving around photography, visual media and the discipline of Visual Anthropology itself. As this is the first post in my blog, I would like to briefly introduce some of the important questions I have come across in my reading and experiences so far. I will do this, as I will in the rest of my posts on this blog, by discussing both my work (in this case, the photo I brought into my seminar) and the theories, opinions and research by other anthropologists I have read.

I found John Berger’s article The Ambiguity of the Photograph particularly thought provoking in its discussion of photography. Berger argues that photography’s raw materials are light and time, creating “unforeseeable consequences,” which he goes onto describe. His main argument is that, if we are shown a photo, there is irrefutable evidence that the event photographed existed. However, we do not know anything about this event. According to Berger, a photo preserves a certain moment in time, which isolates it, disconnecting it from time itself. But “meaning” is created through what connects; without connections, without a story, there is no meaning to anything (for instance, numbers and facts alone have no meaning). Therefore, when a photographer takes a photo, he is choosing or creating a representation of an event that gives it an appropriate past and future and, hence, a “meaning”. Of course, viewers of a photo may choose to apply other versions of a past and future. So, although it is irrefutable what a photo is of and that the event pictured existed, its “meaning” is unknown. Can a photo ever show “reality” or the “truth”? Berger concludes that “all photos have been taken out of continuity” and, most importantly, that “all photographs are ambiguous.”

But, of course, as Berger says, photos are also a “cultural construction,” not least in the sense that a photographer chooses what he wants to photograph (and, more importantly, what not to photograph). Of course, photos and photography are “cultural constructions” in more ways than just one, as I have seen in other readings. But, I thoroughly enjoyed Alan Klima’s article Corpore Obscuro: Meditation on the Dead in Thailand, which I thought exemplifies one aspect of this issue very well. According to Klima, Buddhists in the Thai monastery of Toong Samakhi Dhamm Temple meditate over corpses in meticulous detail, in order to confront the inevitability of death. After studying the corpse itself, the monk has a detailed image of the body in their mind that they can focus on as they meditate day after day for weeks on end. They literally obtain a photographic image of the corpse in their mind, so the actual physical object itself is no longer needed. This practice is strikingly similar to photography itself and, it is therefore quite ironic that the Thai government has forbidden the use of real corpses (as a result of British tabloid newspapers depicting the practice negatively) in favour of actual photographs. As a result, many Buddhist temples will, according to Klima, have autopsy photos on display to the public, often with captions reading “I was once like you. You will one day be like me!” I find this fascinating for two reasons. Firstly, it almost undermines Berger’s view that “all photos have been taken out of continuity”; rather, the Buddhist monks use photography to instill a sense of continuity in their lives. Secondly, and most importantly, Klima’s article shows that photography is, indeed, a cultural construct and that different cultures use it in different ways.

A similar point is made by Stephen Sprague in his article Yoruba Photography. In this article, Sprague explains how the Yoruba tribe in West Africa have largely replaced their traditional sculptures with photography and, in the process, created a distinct photographic style with very particular rules and subject-matter. Essentially, photography has been integrated into their existing culture. Whilst questioning whether photography is “universal” (rather than an art-form and mode of representation specific to the “western” world), Sprague concurrently highlights Berger’s view of photography as a “cultural construction.”

Now, let’s return to my photo. In the seminar, as the others analyzed the photo, people speculated on a variety of different aspects of the image. It was first thought that my photo was taken in a foreign country – perhaps the south of France. People questioned how long I waited until I took the photo. And, interestingly, it was thought that the photo must be of a place I was not familiar with; I had, apparently, clearly taken it out of discovery and curiosity. However, I found it amusing that nobody asked, for instance, whether or not I knew the people in the photo or with what sort of camera I took it with – both of which I thought would be crucial questions in understanding the meaning of the photo to me. In reality, I had waited perhaps 10 minutes to take the photo with a clear idea of how I wanted the photo to turn out. I did not know anyone in the photo, although Paris is a special city to me (I lived there for several months a few years ago). What’s more, I had taken it with a black-and-white disposable camera, something that I thought added novelty and interest to the photo. Yet, to others the “meaning” of the photo was entirely ambiguous: all they could do is speculate. So, I think that, while Banks’ three questions for social research with images are certainly useful, there is clearly much more to it. Photos are taken for many different reasons by many different people, for a variety of purposes and are then seen in a totally different way by different people and different cultures. We can barely agree on whether a photo really does represent the “truth” or “reality,” let alone what it means to someone.