Anthropology and Photography

The Royal Anthropological Institute began its life as the Aborigines' Protection Society in 1837, its inception neatly coinciding with the birth of photography. We went to visit the Institute to speak to its archivist Sarah Walpole and the anthropologist Chris Pinney who introduced us to the photography collection. As Chris explained, the Institute's archive is strong in the early years of anthropology in the 19th century. In this period photographs were seen as a source of data that could be sent in by colonial administrators to be studied by armchair theoreticians. This is also the period of sinister anthropometric studies, photographing and measuring subjects to an evolutionary programme.

This was replaced by a fieldwork-based anthropology that often continued to include photographs. However, during the 20th century photography was seen (partly because of the troubling legacy of the early photographs) as problematic and has become less important to the work of contemporary anthropologists. The Institute (partly also due to shortage of space) does not actively collect contemporary photographs although some other institutions do.

Chris Pinney notes that, in some ways, this practice has been displaced elsewhere and that documentary photographers have adopted the methods of anthropologists (such as establishing a relationship with their subjects). There has also been a growth in interest in 'indigenous media', how the subjects of anthropology represent themselves. Nevertheless, Pinney predicts a new photographic anthropology will appear. He says it will be 'much more interventionist and much more experimental'.

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