Anthro-Photographic Studies: Narrating the Past with Imaginations from the Future | 攝影—人類學:歷史敘事與未來想

This short essay originally served as the paper read on the "Re-imagination in Visual Narrative: History, Memory and Archives" symposium held by OCAT Institute, Beijing. The discussion was in both English and Chinese.


The wildness, or the madness of photography, has been considered symptomatic for the way of seeing in modern time. From the punctums that may cause ‘bruises’ for the beholder[1], to a simulacrum that keeps on plotting to ‘usurp reality’[2], the history of modern visuality, a large part of which goes to a history of photographic images, has been built on the tension between the desire of producing and consuming images and the attempts of taming such desire. According to Christopher Pinney, in the ‘double history’ where photography and anthropology have a number of coincidently corresponding moments[3], anthropologists have never stopped endeavouring to confront the madness of the Photograph. These methods for disciplines include Malinowski’s using the photograph as a sheer document and visual evidence that revealed any ‘physiognomic’ information out of the Benjamian ‘optical unconsciousness’ (i.e. the studium[4] of a photograph in Barthes’ understanding)[5], and Bourdieu’s claim that photography was a tool for social integration with ‘no room…for contingency, for the unexpected and subjunctive’ based on his survey with French people in the 1950s.[6] Interestingly, however, both trajectories led to further ‘unruliness’ of photography because Malinowski’s physiognomic records, though panoramically possessing much information and background, was doomed to fail to explain the invisible social facts and institutions, while Bourdieu’s own photographic practices during the Algeria war, during which his ethnographic data became much more explicit under the French military activities, forced him to look at the contingency the Photograph can carry, leading to a reverse conclusion against the one he held before heading to the battlefield.

Although Malinowski and Bourdieu’s efforts to tame photography can hardly be said successful, nor were they insignificant. At least, these encounters of anthropologists and photography have proved the nature of exorbitance and contingency inscribed in photography, which are also the two pillars that have interested a number of scholars across Anthropology, Visual Culture and Art History. In an interview with Christopher Pinney published in a special issue titled ‘Anthropology of Photography’ in 2018, he confirmed that such contingency and exorbitance are something that allows a broader, more general definition of photography to transcend various kinds of photographies(e.g. Indian photography, Chinese photography, American photography; or, portrait photography, landscape photography, documentary photography, etc.), guiding us to perceive photography as a medium that ‘makes more dramatic the problem of technology as cultural practices.’[7] Following this, it can be summarised that the exorbitance and contingency are considered as ‘photographic natures’ inscribed within photography itself, but can only be discovered and activated when the image is no longer regarded as something inert with attributed meanings but a social actor whose significance and meanings can only be gained through networked practices in motion.

This examination of the exorbitance and contingency of the Photograph, as well as the derived way of examining photography, has inherited Anthropology’s holistic tradition and absorbed from other anthropological resources, especially Alfred Gell and Bruno Latour, who share a similar idea that the agency of social actors (including both men and things) should be understood in a nexus, or network, of social relations. In an article in the same special issue with Pinney’s interview, I used the term ‘Anthro-Photographic Studies’ to conclude such method of researching photography, after a review of four different types of scholarships where anthropology and photography, the twin descendants of modernity, get entangled historically and instrumentally, and, on the other hand, for photography’s ‘anthropological (in a widest sense) ontology’ mediated through a nexus of practices that are relationally and socially-oriented. Generally speaking, I consider Anthro-Photographic Studies a theoretical framework beyond ‘a mechanic application of sociocultural anthropology to photographic studies’ or ‘a mere review of anthropologists’ use of photographic techniques,’ which has gained a handful of scholarly attention. Instead, it is a framework that ‘takes photography as a medium that connects images, individuals and societies…that attempts to discuss the history of visuality, techniques of observation, and perception of images in different human societies, thus decoding the Zeitgeistbeneath our visual cultures.’[8]

I believe that such research framework has several advantages in understanding photographic images in a time when types and quantities of them are in unprecedentedly explosive growth. Particularly, it emancipates the Photograph from singular categories, such as ‘art’, ‘technology’, or ‘archive’, which often put discussions on photography under an ‘either/or’ tautology, by replacing the analysis of contents and signs of the Photograph with analysis of its encompassed relations, discourses and social biography[9]. For instance, a revisit of the final part, ‘The Image World,’ of Susan Sontag’s classics On Photography, which was first published in 1977, would remind us of a fierce dispute in the history of film. In this essay, Sontag wrote a lengthy analysis of how the resistance and rejection to Michelangelo Antonioni’s documentary Chung Kuo, which was shot in 1972 when China was struggling in the Cultural Revolution, served as an embodiment of a Chinese way of perceiving the photographic reality that was sharply different from its Western counterpart. While this argument has received very few reflections in academia, I found that Sontag’s deductive process was not free from problematic. The Chinese ‘attacks’ on the documentary’s contents, subjects, colours, and angles of filming quoted by her were excerpts from A Vicious Motive, Despicable Tricks: A Criticism of Antonioni’s Anti-China Film ‘China’, an article first appeared in the CCP-owned newspaper People’s Daily (30 January 1974). Based on the Chinese criticism and hostility embedded in a time of strong ideological control towards the film, Sontag developed a distinction of perceiving photographic reality between a Western ‘us’ and a Chinese ‘them’, arguing that for ‘us’, photography was associated with a ‘discontinuous way of seeing’ while for ‘them’, it was only associated with continuity[10]. Here, a Western discontinuous way of seeing refers to a pursuit of dismemberment (i.e. close-ups) and movement (i.e. snapshots without consent) in photographs. On the contrary, a Chinese continuous way of seeing refers to a preference of completed, frontal, and posed photographic images that display a ‘proper’, ‘positive’, and ‘decent’ look of the photographed subject. If we further link this to John Thomson’s earlier parodical description of the mode of Chinese portrait photography in the late Qing Dynasty (Figure 1)[11], which had a resemblance to Sontag’s understanding of the Chinese way of perceiving photography, we might be convinced that Sontag’s argument is not only valid in her own time when the Cold War between the Capitalist and Socialist states had distributed political confrontations in the ideological domain, but also legitimated in terms of its own historical origin, although such origin has been proved a mistake by fact and a cultural bias[12].

Figure 1 John Thomson, parody of Chinese photographic portrait, from Gu Yi's citation from British Journal of Photography. The original caption reads: ‘John Thomson, parody of Chinese photographic portrait, from British Journal of Photography, 19, no. 658 (1872): 591 (artwork in the public domain; photograph provided by Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University in the City of New York)’

However, as revealed by both Chinese and English literatures, the article A Vicious Motive, Despicable Tricks turned out to be a public political strike with truly vicious motives and despicable tricks that was initiated by the Gang of Four on Zhou Enlai (the former Prime Minister and head of the government of People’s Republic of China who approved Antonioni’s filming), so that they could seize more power of control in the country[13]. In this light, the wave of criticism on Chung Kuoin the 1970s covering almost every aspect of the film from its conception, photographed subjects, to its way of filming, became highly suspicious. Essentially, the criticism was rather a distorted version of a Chinese way of perceiving the photographic reality embodied by administrative interventions in a politically sensitive time, during which the forms of art and aesthetic in China were probably in their most dull and dreary pitfall. Drawing on criticism of such, Sontag’s summary inherently attached the Chinese way of seeing to a specific historical point, hence even though anthropological evidence has shown that photography, as well as photographic reality, have been treated differently in various cultures and societies[14], the reception of Sontag’s argument on the distinction between discontinuity and continuity deserves to be reviewed with more caution, as both ways of seeing actually fell into a historically static state, which is problematic because it contradicted with the fact that the social conditions as contexts for interpreting works of art are constantly changeable and mutative.

Moreover, if we return to the wave of criticism against Chung Kuoin the 1970s, one detail may deserve further discussion, that is, while the authority, together with its mass communication channels including newspapers and radios, managed to define the ‘badness’ of this documentary forits people, the people themselves never truly acted as ‘audiences’, with the film being banned for years until its first public viewing during the academic review of Antonioni’s film-making career in Beijing, 2004. Therefore, the alleged furiousness of the Chinese people was rather a false expression and political rhetoric that misguided Sontag in distributing the binary model in her generalised treaties. Compared to this, perhaps the artist Li Lang, who also mentioned Antonioni and Chuang Kuoin his photographic installation 1974(2017), has provided us with an alternative way of deciphering photographic image’s role in connecting the historical narratives and future imaginations. First displayed in a group exhibition that investigated the experimental visual arts in southwestern China since the 2000s[15], it subsequently appeared in the artist’s solo exhibition held at the Lianzhou Museum of Photography in 2018[16] and the Abode of Anamnesisexhibition curated by He Yining under the support of the OCAT Institute in 2019[17]. According to the description of the Relations Media, in the Lianzhou exhibition, this photo-installation

‘consists of five projectors looping 390 film slides, a voice-over telling stories about the artist’s memories in 1974, the memorabilia from 1974 sorting out the affairs, and memory-based texts directly written on the wall. Through showing the family memorial photos projected and with the voice-over in the background, the exhibition reconstructs the imagination of Li Lang’s first year of memory.’[18]

It is a great regret that I have not yet been able to confront this work of art in person. However, I did encounter a video earlier with the same name 1974 made by Li Lang, in which the voice-over was repeated twice until the 390 pieces of 120mm film slides were displayed over one by one, accompanied by clanking noises simulating the shifting of slides on an aged projector[19]. Starting with the artist stating that the year 1974 was the first year he could ever memorise, I was suddenly caught by the narrator (i.e. the artist himself) saying that he could still remember a vehement voice of a female announcer from his father’s radio broadcaster, criticising a movie directed by a foreigner with a name that was hard to be remembered. Over twenty years later, the artist eventually knew that the film attacked by the announcer was Antonioni’s Chuang Kuoand he confirmed that in 1974, almost no one in China has seen this movie, yet it was ‘absolutely notorious.’ Following this, the artist continued to quote from Chuang Kuo’s narration, saying that it does not ‘pretend to explain China but only wants to start to observe this great repertoire of faces, gestures and habits,’ and he understood this as Antonioni’s personal perspective to represent the everyday life of common Chinese people (00:52 – 02:28). As a response to Antonioni’s perspective, the old photo slides collected from Chinese family albums looping one after another seem to demonstrate ‘how Chinese people then pictured themselves,’ (02:33) thus immediately acquiring their own ‘archival power’ beyond snapshots, which are often considered banal and indigenous, becoming the‘Abode of Anamnesis’ itself. Such archival power, as Schwartz and Cook argued, would impact on ‘the shape and direction of historical scholarship, collective memory, and national identity…[on] how we know ourselves as individuals, groups, and societies.’[20]On the other side, these historical images of ordinary people, which exactly showed a ‘repertoire of faces, gestures and habits,’ could also be deciphered as an echo to Antonioni’s perspective, sharing a similar ‘civil strategy’ of image-making that delineated the most common yet persuasive landscape of people’s everyday in the socialist China. I would say that many of the images Li Lang presented could easily embarrass Sontag’s idea of how Chinese people perceive themselves through photographs. Here, we see casual group photos with the subjects out of focus, a young lady laughing under political propaganda banners but with eyes closed, and a teenager with a cigarette in his left hand who did not look into the lens to show his face frontally (Figure 2). In a sense, they were the wild ones that could not be tamed, disciplined and classified by Sontag’s rules. In the meantime, however, they conferred Antonioni’s perspective a historical legitimacy by acting as a self-written visual ethnography.

Figure 2 Screenshots from Li Lang, 1974 (video), 2017

An even more intriguing fact about this work of art is that the dates written in white colour on the slides, which seem to have indicated that all the photographs were taken in some day during the year 1974, were actually randomly marked by the artist. In other words, these ‘excerpts’ from old family albums were not necessarily produced in 1974, which explains why the Relations Media concluded that the work ‘reconstructs the imagination’ instead of the factsof the artist’s first year of memory. Usually, a date on a photograph is either written by the photographer or someone who knows when and why the image was made, so that memories associated with the photographic representation, which often refer to a spatial accuracy, could further be crystallised with a temporal accuracy. As camera technology evolved on the road of digitalisation and automation, this habit has been inherited by cameras themselves, pushing the date of shooting to more precise units, such as the specific time (minutes and seconds) of photographing. But anyone who knows about a digital camera would also point out that if we deliberately set up a wrong time in the camera’s operating system or employ other methods to trick with the camera, this time error would also be applied to every photograph taken by this machine, making those small digits, often in yellow or orange on a corner of the photograph, unreliable. In this light, either the handwritten date or the automatically-inscribed digits cannot be guaranteed as historically evidential.

Nevertheless, what fascinates me here in Li Lang’s work is a genuine sense of historicity against these fictional time marks that should have deprived the film slides of their historical reliability. To me, it powerfully illustrates how a memory, or, a historical narrative, can be constructed by a future imagination rooted in our ‘visual habitus’ (to use a quite Bourdieusian expression), which defines the way we perceive the photographic reality within a set of photographic exorbitance and contingency, whilst such exorbitance and contingency, as examined at the beginning of this paper, are contextualised by social and relational conditions. This genuine sense of historicity reminds me of Christopher Pinney’s work on mirage as a cultural phenomenon, where he wrote:

‘Mirages…were part of an optical fallaciousness. Optically “real”, but not “true”, they disordered experience, tricked their beholders and provided proof that sense experience was not to be trusted.’[21]

In the 1974 video, these film slides are like mirages. They are indeed ‘real’ as an optical reflection of the past, but not ‘true’ as a 1974 product, as the date marks are forged by the artist. However, they are also slightly different, as I would not perceive them as something that leads to a fallacious sense. In contrast, I believe that the sense of historicity in this work of art is constructed and triggered when one’s personal memory is converged, or integrated, into a much greater collective memory that has run through the socialist and post-Mao eras. In this sense, Li Lang’s memory, which is embodied through memorial texts and looping film slides, could be seen as a conduit that guides each beholder to contemplate the ‘analogue propinquity’ between the past and its future. Eventually, it also explains why I used the term ‘archival power’ instead of ‘power of (actual) archives’ when I argued about the film slides’ capacity of linking the beholders with the artist’s personal interpretation of the History through a mechanism called memorisation.

At this point, I also need to point out that it is in the context of artistic creation that the boundary between the truth and fiction seems less important in the work 1974. In other circumstances, for example, if not in an art museum or gallery but a museum of natural history, we might need to take the mirage metaphor more seriously when assessing the problems of historical reality and truth. As a work of art, however, such image manipulation can be understood as a way of interaction that encourages the audience to develop some critical thinking on how senses and memories can be fabricated through images, a question explored in a larger project on an anthropology of memory and imagination conducted by Carlo Severi. In his book The Chimera Principle(2015), he reflected on Jerome Bruner’s idea that ‘no memory can be imagined outside a narrative structure…any memory, even a visual one, is an account,’[22]and on Paul Ricoeur who ‘defends an even more radical position, maintaining that telling a story is a way not only of evoking it in our memory but also of reconfiguring temporal experience.’[23]While both Bruner and Ricoeur’s viewpoints shall reinforce the feasibility of the 1974’s endeavour of bridging the memory and the historical narrative, it is Aby Warburg’s exploration on the relationship between images and memory that offers a striking parallel to the compound of the forged date marks and film slides. In a bird-like image Warburg collected from Alexander Stephen’s first catalogue of Hopi pottery (Figure 3), he found that ‘in order to represent supernatural beings in their pottery art, the Hopi used an iconographic schema which, like the chimera of the Greeks, associated the images of different elements within a single body.’[24]In this way, the Hopi inscribed their social memory within images that integrate various narratives. In Li Lang’s work, if we regard the white-coloured dates, which all include the shape of ‘1974’, as not only a numeric sign but also an iconographical one, could these compounds, too, be perceived as a chimera that integrates visual signs and narratives, ‘lead[ing] us from an analysis of the evolution of aesthetic forms to a comparative study of the arts and techniques of memory?’[25]And perhaps, this chimera is one of the keys to the understanding of our contemporary visual arts. After all, the hybridity of images, texts, materials and mediums has become an increasingly common way of presenting visual inquiries on issues of identity and memory.

Figure 3 A bird-shaped image on a Hopi Pottery, cited from Carlo Severi, The Chimera Principle: An Anthropology of Memory and Imagination, trans. Janet Lloyd. Chicago: Hau Books, 2015, p. 36. Original caption reads: ‘A Hopi snake-bird, polychrome ceramic, style D.’


[1]Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard. London: Vintage Classics, 1993, p. 32.

[2]Susan Sontag, On Photography. London: Penguin Books, 2008, p. 154

[3]See Christopher Pinney, Photography and Anthropology. London: Reaktion Books, 2011, pp. 17-62

[4]Barthes, Camera Lucida, p. 43

[5]Christopher Pinney, ‘Bruises and Blushes: Photography ‘beyond” Anthropology,’ Documentary Across Disciplines, eds. Erika Balsom & Hila Peleg. Berlin: Haus der Kulturen der Welt, pp. 24-27

[6]Ibid. pp. 27-35

[7]Christopher Pinney & Yang Yunchang, ‘Photography and Anthropology: Exorbitance and Richness Making Photography Interesting – Interview of Anthropologist No. 86,’ Journal of Guangxi University for Nationalities (Philosophy and Social Science Edition), 2018, 40(5), p. 43 [杨云鬯/问, 克里斯多夫·皮尼/答. 摄影人类学: 历史叙事与未来想象——人类学学者访谈录之八十六. 广西民族大学学报 (哲学社会科学版). 2018年第5期]

[8]See Yang Yunchang. ‘Anthropological Photography and Photographical Anthropology,’ Journal of Guangxi University for Nationalities (Philosophy and Social Science Edition), 2018, 40(5), p. 15 [杨云鬯. 摄影人类学: 图像、媒介、身体、社会. 广西民族大学学报 (哲学社会科学版). 2018年第五期]

[9]To study photography’s social biography is inspired by Elizabeth Edwards. See Elizabeth Edwards, Raw Histories: Photographs, Anthropology and Museums. Oxford: Berg, 2001, pp. 13-16

[10]Susan Sontag. On Photography, pp. 169-179

[11]See Gu Yi, ‘What’s in a Name? Photography and the Reinvention of Visual Truth in China, 1840-1911,’ The Art Bulletin, 2013, 95(1), p. 122

[12]See Wu Hung, ‘Inventing a “Chinese” Portrait Style in Early Photography: The Case of Milton Miller,’ Zooming in: Histories of Photography in China. London: Reaktion Books, 2015, pp. 35

[13]See Liu Xin, ‘China’s Reception of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Chung Kuo,’ Journal of Italian Cinema & Media Studies, 2014, 2(1), p. 29

[14]This can be found in Pinney, Photography and Anthropology, pp. 69-75, as well as many other ethnographies about photography. See also Karen Strassler, Refracted Visions: Popular Photography and National Modernity in Java. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010; Christopher Wright, The Echo of Things: The Lives of Photographs in the Solomon Islands. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013

[15]Li Lang, ‘1974,’ Photography and Video Experiments in Southwestern China since 2000, curated by Li Jie & Cai Liyuan, 2017, A4 Art Mueseum, Chengdu

[16]Li Lang, 1974, curated by Duan Yuting, 2018, Lianzhou Museum of Photography, Lianzhou

[17]Li Lang, ‘1974,’ The Abode of Anamnesis, curated by He Yining, 2019, OCAT Institute, Beijing

[18]Relations Media, Lianzhou Museum of Photography – programmation, March 2019

[19]The video was shown as a part of the recommendation article published by the OCAT Institute’s Wechat Official Account on 22 March 2019. Apart from the video, the article also included photographic records of the 1974installation look in the Abode of Anamnesisexhibition. See March 2019.

[20]See John M. Schwartz and Terry Cook, ‘Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory,’ Archival Science, 2002, 2, p. 2. The authors have defined three ways of power-wielding of archives and archivists, but the second one (i.e. archives as records) is the most relevant in our discussion.

[21]Christopher Pinney, The Waterless Sea: A Curious History of Mirages. London: Reaktion Books, 2018, p. 31

[22]Carlo Severi, The Chimera Principle: An Anthropology of Memory and Imagination, trans. Janet Lloyd. Chicago: Hau Books, 2015, p. 26

[23]Ibid., p. 26-27

[24]Ibid., p. 36

[25]Ibid., p. 87

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