Re-enacting the Spencer & Gillen photographic archive
(Temporal Dialogues #1)
In May and June 2014, I was working in Central Australia, trying to creatively re-enact elements of the renowned photographic work of anthropologists and photographers Frank Gillen and Baldwin Spencer, who produced one of the most influential records of aboriginal life over a period of 40 years between 1875 and 1912.
I wanted to revisit their cardinal work, and use it as a point of departure for a contemporary dialogue about how we see and represent ‘the Other’. This idea was not so much born from a desire to critique their somewhat dated evolutionary views, but rather from the discomforting discovery that my own photographic work is also marked by what I have come to understand as a stereotypical view on ‘the Other’.
Having researched the Spencer & Gillen archives held at Victoria Museum in Melbourne, I went into the field with a selection of photographs divided into three categories or figures: the portrait, the monument and the landscape, which I used as the basis for extended photo elicitation with descendants of those people engaged by Spencer and Gillen. The photographs from the archive served as templates for the production of new images. Together with inhabitants of the central desert, I wanted to re-enact the old images creatively in the places where they were originally made. I wanted to invite those portrayed to bring their points of view and ideas into the process.
One of the main themes that grew out of the initial archive work and subsequent photo elicitation was that of mourning, in particular as expressed in what is commonly referred to by Aboriginal people as ‘sorry business’. Spencer & Gillen’s photographs of women, individuals, and groups, engaged in mourning practices, were the ones that evoked the most personal and elaborate responses by the Aboriginal people I came to work with. Mourning, I came to understand, was a particularly apt metaphor for the deplorable life conditions for Aboriginals in Australia today. On average, their life expectancy is 20 years lower than that of their fellow Australians. Hence, rituals and practices surrounding death are abundant and woven into the fabric of everyday life to an extraordinary extent in Aboriginal Australia. By examining the old photographs and talking about them, the women I met and later photographed described the meaning of ‘sorry business’, then and now, and through analytical juxtaposition invited me to take up the theme of mourning in a contemporary context. One of my main informants herself suggested the title ‘The Wake’ for the set of re-enactments of ‘sorry business’ photographs we did together in the settlement Amounguna outside Alice Springs.
Much as I had expected, the portrait re-enactments I ended up making with my interlocutors were curious bastard images, a kind of aesthetic ‘mongrels’, as it were. They did not mirror the originals, but rather distorted them and opened them up to new interpretations. This was part of the idea in the first place: the images and image-production was a part of a dialogical process, which my interlocutors and I engaged in with the original archive material. The original photographs were material and methodological vehicles for detailed elicitation and discussion in the field, and the production of new photographs a practical and evocative instrument for engaging with my interlocutors.
Contrary to the practice of most photographers, my main ambition was not to simply produce ‘good images’ but perhaps more so to employ photography as a collaborative and improvisational practice for opening up dialogue and, ultimately, produce or generate qualitative knowledge in the dynamic junction between the archive, the field, my interlocutors and I. Ultimately, I wanted to create a space within which the people in front of the camera were invited, even encouraged, to perform themselves – or a version of themselves, thus making themselves into contemporary archetypes or even stereotypes, but not of my fantasy alone. What emerged were both dramatic moments of discussing and subtle gestures of hands, ambivalent gazes and the unforeseen gifts of improvisation and coincidence, as I would discover later in the editing process when comparing originals and re-enactments.
What I hope to eventually facilitate, once forthcoming comparative interventions involving re-enactments of archival photographs in the Brazilian Amazon (April-June 2015) and Far Eastern Siberia (October 2015) are completed, is an ‘ethno-aesthetic’ technique for cultural critique, which merges the disciplines of artistic practice and ethnography in a way that acknowledges the crucial importance of experimentation and ‘mistakes’ as productive elements in contemporary art and knowledge-production. The end product is a three-volume publication containing material from the three journeys, including a series of anthropological essays and a collection of video works. The first international exhibition of work will be at the 2015 Landskrona Fotofestival in August 2015. The project is mentored by the Swedish photographer J.H. Engström as part of Atelier Smedsby, and part of the research project Camera as Cultural Critique (Danish Research Council Grant) at Aarhus University.