In a Pic's Eye: Interpretive Strategies for Deriving Significance and Meaning from Photographs.
BY JAY RUBY
Afterimage (March 1976). Note original pagination preserved for citation purposes.)
This paper is a progress report of continuing research on the role of still photography in anthropology. The work is grounded on the relatively common-sense notion that people make photographs because they want someone to know and feel something about the world.
For my purposes, this assertion has been broken down into two researchable and related questions: 1) for what reasons do anthropologists take photographs?; and 2) in what ways do the viewers of these photographs derive the intended significances and meanings? This particular research was generated from two larger interests: 1) the role of pictorial statements-still photographs, motion pictures, and video-in anthropological research and presentations; and 2) on a more fundamental level, the role of culture in the development of meaning and significance in all pictorial statements made by anyone for any purpose.
In a 1973 paper (Ruby 1973) I hypothesized that anthropologists take photographs in the field and subsequently use them at home not primarily as a means of generating analyzable data or even as illustrative evidence to support their ideas, but rather as a means of establishing and maintaining a social role and identification with the anthropological community. As Goffman might put it, the camera is an identity badge for anthropologists. Picture taking is a way of being an anthropologist, but rarely a means of doing anthropology.
When I began to design research to test this hypothesis-which would have entailed doing the ethnography of anthropologists as picture takers and users-I discovered that a series of more fundamental questions were as yet unanswered. Before I could deal with the somewhat parochial questions of photographic statements within the confines of anthropology, I needed to understand more about the communicative process of photography in general; that is, the socio/cultural process of creating photographs and extracting significance and meaning from them for any purpose.
If we wish to discover how it might be possible for an anthropologist to produce something called an anthropological photograph which will in some way cause a viewer to derive the intended anthropological significance from that image, we must first address ourselves to the question of how photographs function communicatively for any purpose. It is this question that I wish to discuss here.
Since this paper partially revolves around a discussion of something called an anthropological photograph, it is important that I convey precisely what I mean by that term. I wish to maintain a somewhat narrow definition. An anthropological photograph is a photograph taken by or under the direction of a professional anthropologist because he/she wished to convey an anthropological statement pictorially. That anthropologists may take "snapshots" in the field for personal reasons or that non-anthropologists may take pictures of exotic peoples-the traditional subject matter of anthropology-is basically irrelevant to this argument. Anthropologists have for years produced snapshots of their travels, but no one seriously regards these pictures as a professional scientific/humanistic product.
In addition, all kinds of people for a variety of reasons have been imaging the world around them for some time. In order to apply the term anthropological to those pictorial statements it is necessary to broaden the connotation of the term anthropology to include all pictorial statements that deal with people or are produced by people. To do so would cause the term to virtually become meaningless.
I am excluding from consideration for the moment the use of photography as a technology for generating data. There is a minor tradition within certain fields of study such as non-verbal communication of generating some types of data photographically and of utilizing those data for analytic purposes. Occasionally some of these photographs are published as partial evidence to support or illustrate a research finding and, in some rare cases, such as Bateson and Mead's (1942) Balinese study, the analysis of photographically generated data is the focus of the research and of the subsequent publication.
In these cases, photographs are used because of our cultural assumptions about their iconicity; that is, our assumption that photographic sign-events are primarily, if not exclusively, made up of iconic signs. By iconic signs I simply mean signs that bear a strong resemblance to their referent. In the case of photographs we assume that they are the most accurate representations possible. I will argue later in this paper that using a photograph in this manner can lead viewers into making ethnocentric judgments and is therefore questionable from an anthropological perspective.
The use of the photograph as published data is different from the construction of a photographic statement about anthropology. The former asks the viewer to interpret the behavior represented in the photograph in the same manner as they would interpret the behavior if they were experiencing it in person. In otherwords, the viewer is asked to regard the photograph as having no more significance than as a window into the world. The latter asks the viewer to infer concepts from the photograph, that is, assume that an anthropological photographer constructed the image utilizing a socially shared symbol system because that photographer wanted the viewer to know something about anthropology. It is this latter use of photography that is the major concern of this paper.
While my earlier paper (Ruby 1973) concentrated upon the sender-the anthropological picture-taker and user, and the creation of anthropological images, this paper focuses upon the receiver and the interpretive processes that people use to make sense out of a photograph.
I wish to argue that two basic interpretive strategies currently exist-one which leads us to make inferences about photographs as art and as aesthetic objects, and a second strategy which causes us to deal with the photograph as a record of reality and to make ethnocentric judgments about its content. Furthermore, I suggest that both strategies are at odds with what migbt be called a fundamental purpose of an anthropological communication-namely, to make scientific/humanistic, non-ethnocentric statements about culture. Finally, I will argue that because these two strategies appear to dominate our interpretation of photographs, anthropologists have experienced limited success in utilizing photography as a means of communicating anthropology. Consequently, few people-
Many anthropologists and viewers of anthropological photographs seem to tacitly accept a phenomenal absolutistic theory of perception, and hence see the camera as an objective recorder and not a creator/ generator of images. The idea that culture organizes experience for people seems to be more frequently applied to the cultures anthropologists study, while anthropologists naively labor under the assumption that they can somehow transcend their own cultural limitations and objectively study and present someone else s culture without the culture bound biases of other reporter/observers.
Therefore, I would argue that any condition which leads people to employ attributions as the primary strategy for interpreting photographs perpetuates a theory of perception that is indefensible anthropologically as well as psychologically.
The argument against making attributions in order to interpret anthropological photographs has a second thrust - namely, that the folk models currently available for the construction of these attributions are ethnocentric. At the present time, most anthropological studies are attempts to understand someone else s culture-the people that we imagine are exotic to the majority of our viewers. With the possible exception of those few of us who are professionally trained in the logics of anthropology, most people in our culture make attributions to pictures of exotic people based upon the folk models of either the Noble Savage - the Rousseauan, invincibly ignorant, natural man-or his opposite-the Primitive, underdeveloped, culturally deprived, illiterate beast who is sorely in need of the benefits of civilization. It is hardly necessary to belabor the anthropological inappropriateness of either model.
It would appear that I have now argued myself into a corner. On the one hand, I suggest that if inferences are made from a photograph, it becomes an aesthetic and not a scientific object and that the alternative-to make attributions to photographs- causes ethnocentric judgments to emerge and, in addition, is based upon an incorrect theory of perception. It would appear that the logical conclusion to be made is that it is, therefore, impossible to generate anthropological meaning from a photograph, and anthropologists should stop taking pictures.
I am willing to concur partially with those conclusions It is difficult to derive an anthropological significance of meaning from the majority of photographs that I hay' examined that were authored by anthropologists. I do not believe that the development of more skills photographers in anthropology will solve the problem We must begin to think differently about the problem and no amount of technical/aesthetic sophistication will change our conceptualizations.
Regardless of the intention-that is, whether the photograph was originally created as a means c generating analyzable data or as a vehicle for conveying an idea - photographs have not played a very significant role in anthropology thus far. I submit the reasons for this lack of contribution are to be found in two places: first, our cultural notions above photographs being either records of reality or aesthetic objects have prevented the development of a tradition scientific interpretation; and second, anthropologists failed to recognize these cultural limitations and respond to them by attempting to create anthropological systems for interpreting images.
To conclude, let me briefly discuss some approaches which might lead us toward a more fruitful use of photography in the communication of anthropology. -
It appears to me that there are two primary tasks:
1) We must explore ways of creating and displaying photographs which instruct viewers to regard these images as constructed pictorial statements and not as mere records of the world. We must remind the viewers that they are seeing the world through eyes of the anthropologist. (2)
2) We must explore ways of establishing pictorial systems of inference which are based upon anthropological or scientific paradigms.
Both of these research problems revolve around a question which has not thus far been touched upon- namely, the conditions which cause or suggest that one should attribute to rasher then infer from a photograph. If one regards a photograph as a sign-event-that is, an organized set of signs-then there are three logical possibilities: 1) the individual signs themselves, 2) the organization or structural relationships between the signs in the photographs, or 3) conditions exterior to the photograph; that is, the context within which the photograph appears. Worth and Gross suggest that meaning is not inherent within the sign itself, but rather in the social context... (1974:30). Sekula concurs . . The photograph is an incomplete utterance, it is a message that depends on some external matrix of conditions and presuppositions for its readability. That is, the meaning of any photographic message is necessarily context determined, (1975:37).
Let me give an example. At the turn of the century Lewis Hine, a socially concerned photographer, took photographs of children working in factories. The National Child Labor Law Committee used these pictures in their pamphlets to advocate laws regulating child labor. in this context the photographs were intended to be interpreted politically and morally. Their meaning was created by viewers reading the pamphlet and making attributions about small, pathetic children working in dark, dirty factories instead of playing outside or going to school. More recently, the Museum of Modern Art in New York displayed Hine's compositional style, use of light, and the juxtaposition of textures- that is, aesthetic considerations.
Photographs taken by anthropologists appear in four contexts: 1) as illustrations in books, articles, and monographs; 2) as slides used to illustrate lectures; 3) in galleries and museum displays; and 4) in published photographic essays such as Gardens of Wars (Gardner and Heider 1968). Numerically the first two contexts are the most frequent.
In order to increase our understanding of the current place of pictorial statements within anthropology and to open up the possibility of developing and expanding the place of this visual mode in the communication of anthropology it is necessary to explore the ways that these contexts cause viewers to derive significance ant meaning; that is, to pursue the first of the two research problems stated earlier.
This research entails two methodoiogical approaches: 1) participant observation, and 2) experimental. Gallery shows, museum displays, ant lectures are public social events which lend themselves to naturalistic observations. Examining a photograph o' a printed page is a private act. The observation of the act reveals little that is useful for our purposes. It is therefore essential to construct controlled experiments which cause people to respond verbally to questions about a photograph.
At the present time, I have conducted some pilot experiments and plan to engage in some observation of people in galleries, museums, and classrooms where slides are being show. The initial results of the pilot study and the development of the research design have formed the basis for this paper. While very tentative, these findings seem to confirm the importance of context for the generation of meaning and significance. It would appear therefore that anthropologists interested in using photographs to communicate anthropology will have to concentrate upon the creation of contexts which are conducive to the generation of their intended meaning.
Whether additional research confirms or negates the importance of context is not ultimately important. What is important is the development of a scientific/anthropological pictorial code, which is dependent upon the broadening of our understanding of the processes of photographic communication in general. If photographs continue to be regarded as either aesthetic objects or records of reality when they serve a very limited fuction in anthropology. By doing the anthropology of visual communication we not only gain an understanding of the role of pictorial statements in culture but we open up the possibility of providing anthropologists with a pictorial medium of communication.
1. This paper is a revised version of one presented at the 1975 American Anthropological Association Meetings in San Francisco.
2.1 concur with Jarvie's assertion that ". . .seeing the world the way the actors do is emphatically not the aim of anthropology. It is at best a means, sometimes useful, sometimes not, for furthering the true aim, which is to solve some problems of the tradition of inquiry known as anthropology," (1975:26). The assumption that we as ethnographers can somehow present the cultural realities of other people is a doubtful, almost pretentious assumption. The best we should hope for is, I believe, a sensitive and honest translation.
Agee, James, and Walker Evans. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1939.
Bateson, Gregory, and Margaret Mead. Balinese Character. Special Publications of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol. Ill. New York: New York Academy of Sciences, 1942.
Byers, Paul. "Cameras Don't Take Pictures." Columbia University Forum 9 (1966):1, pp. 27 - 31.
Gardner, Robert, and Karl Heider. Gardens of War. New York: Random House, 1968.
Jarvie, I.C. "Epistle to the Anthropologists." American Anthropologist 77 (1975):2, pp. 253-266.
Ruby, Jay. "Up the Zambesi With Notebook and Camera or Being an Anthropologist Without Doing Anthropology. . .With Pictures." SAVICOM Newsletter 4 (1973):3, pp. 12-15.
Sapir, Edward. Culture, Language; and Personality: Selected Writings of Edward Sapir. Edited by David Mandlebaum. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1949.
Segall, M., D.T. Campbell, and M. Herskovits. The Effect of Culture on Visual Perception. New York: Bobbs- Merrill, 1966.
Sekula, Alan. "On the Invention of Meaning in Photographs." Artforum 13 (1975):5, pp. 36-45.
Worth, Sol, and Larry Gross. "Symbolic Strategies." Joumal of Communication 24 (1974):4, pp. 27-39.