Photographs as Relational Objects

Elizabeth Edwards

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This article acknowledges agrowing recognition of the importance of the material and sensory in the communicative power of photographs. My objectives are methodological—to explore the way in which photographs operate as objects in the telling of history, occupying the spaces between people and people, and people and things. My focus will be the way in which sensory modes beyond the merely visual are integral to the constitution of photographic meaning and usage. I explore this through photographic meaning and usage as they pertain to Australian Aboriginal communities. At the same time, however, I will be concerned with broader methodological issues which, one hopes, might have wider application[1].

The central tenet of my argument is that photographs are not merely images but social objects, and that the power of those social objects is integrally entangled with the nature of photography itself (Edwards 1999, 2003; Edwards and Hart 2004; Wright 2004). Following Miller (1998:9), I shall argue that it is only by engaging with the mundane and taken-for-granted that we can see what photographs actually do in social terms. My argument also draws on Gell’s suggestion that “action-centered” approaches to material are more “anthropological” because they place objects in a “practical mediatory role (...) in the social process” (Gell 1998:6).

Thus, rather than seeing photography as an abstract formation or a solely instrumental practice (e.g., Tagg 1988), such a strategy places photographs as image-objects in sets of relationships in which they are made meaningful through different forms of apprehension. Materiality is central to this because, I shall argue, it is the fusion and performative interaction of image and materiality that gives a sensory and embodied access to photographs. This places photographs in subjectivities and emotional registers that cannot be reduced to the visual apprehension of an image, and positions them strongly as what I shall term “relational objects.”

The shift toward a more evocative and experiential anthropology, and thus the possibility of sensory knowledge, is a concern which has inflected visual anthropology for some time. This shift acknowledges “the plurality of modes of experience and cognition by which we may both visualize theory and theorize visuality” (Taylor 1994:xiii), while Taussig argues for the necessity of rethinking the term “vision” in relation to other sensory modalities (Taussig 1993:26). It is precisely from this concern with performative embodiment within the everyday usage of images that Pinney has developed the term “corpothetics” as “the sensory embrace of images, the bodily engagement that most people…have with artworks” (Pinney 2001:158), and Stafford has drawn attention to the way in which the Saussurean “linguistic turn” of textualism, which has impacted on photographic theory, has “emptied the mind of its body, obliterating the interdependence of physiological functions and thinking” (Stafford 1997:5).

In a similarly framed argument relating to embodiment of experience, Csordas has argued that the dominance of semiotics—and hence concern with the problem of representation over the problem of being-in-the-world is evident in the relation between the parallel distinction between “language” and “experience” (Csordas 1994:11). Indeed, the relationship with disembodied “history” as opposed to an “experienced past,” might be similarly characterized. Drawing on such ideas, I shall argue that in the engagement with history, photographs are tactile, sensory things that exist in time and space, and thus in embodied cultural experience.

A critique of western photo theory
Western notions of occular centrism and the primacy of the visual in thinking about photographs has elided the sensory and emotional impact of photographs as things that matter. I use the word “matter” intentionally for it suggests the emotional and sensory. As Miller has argued, “importance” and “significance” are distancing, analytical words, whereas “matter” “is more likely to lead us to the concerns of those being studied than those doing the studying” (Miller 1998:11). It is a concern that becomes especially pertinent in an Australian context, where family photographs and snapshots have assumed a central role in articulating suppressed, submerged, contested or fractured histories (e.g., Aird 2001).

Constructing photographs as relational objects is particularly persuasive outside the confines of Western photographic theory, which has dominated analysis of photography, and more generally in anthropology. “Dominant Western concerns of realism, subjectivity and individual and in Western modes of historical truth, narrative and identity” (Edwards 2003:86), are grounded in certain assumptions about the nature of photography, often characterized in terms of death and loss. Such assumptions have thus inflected the relationship between photography and history. While the recognition of the link between the photograph and “having-been-there” (Barthes 1977:44) is probably universal, how people use that link in their own constructions and performances of history is culturally inscribed at a very profound level (Poignant 1996:10). Photographs are not only about loss[2], however, but about a grounded empowerment, repossession, renewal and contestation. 

If, as visual anthropologists, we are to understand the significance of photographs in the telling of history, it is necessary to destabilize those dominant theories and find other tools and methodologies that draw on indigenous categories and practices of image use. Such strategies belong to the broader move away from the grand narratives toward the localized and particular, and from formalist models of analysis, such as psychoanalysis to the study of practices on the ground (Finnegan 1992:50–1). In recognizing this position, we can find ways of thinking about the specifically cultural and the culturally specific nature of photographs that will open new theoretical and analytical spaces; these do not necessarily have to answer to the rationalist, positivist or unproblematically evidential, in the way that photographs have been linked to historical documentation in the past. The material, relational and sensory approach can open up the emotional and subjective. There are, of course, a number of approaches one might take to subjectivities—for instance, the psychoanalytical. However, my approach owes more to the phenonemological with its sense of “being-in-the-world”, or Bourdieu’s notion of “habitus” which positions feeling not only in the interior subjective space but in the space of everyday engagement with the world (Bourdieu 1977:78–87; Ingold 2000:162,169). As Jackson has argued, many of the leitmotifs of anthropological analysis which have been used in relation to the sociability of objects and that resonate through my argument here— “practice, embodiment, experience, agency, biography, reflexivity and narrative” —are drawn from the phenomenological tradition of Husserl and Heidegger (Jackson 1996:vii).

A fluid sense of experience within the cultural allows an experience of the past that is both constituted by and constitutive of photographs. This is not only in terms of discourses of representation, but, more particularly, as a phenomenologically apprehended existence in the physical world that gives equal weight to all modalities in the immediacy of human experience (Jackson 1996:2). If, as Pinney has argued, the “concern for the political consequences of photographs has effectively eroded any engagement with its actual practice” (Pinney 2003:14), then the material and sensory approach implied within the “relational” moves us away from the form of visual analysis in which photographs are simply the result of abstract concepts vested in power relations or semiotic codes. Instead, it allows us to think about the complex and shifting relationships through which photographs as experienced are cre- ated and endowed with meaning and purpose (Dant 1999:124). Thus, photographs not only represent but also evoke.

Images, in their many material forms, are active objects with the whole range of sociality with which other classes of material culture are now endowed (see Appadurai 1986, Miller 1987 and 1998, Gosden and Marshall 1999, Edwards and Hart 2004). In this context, photographs operate not only simply as visual history but are performed, I shall argue, as a form of oral history, linked to sound, gesture and thus to the relationships in which and through which these practices are embedded. In many ways, this article picks up Paul Stoller’s challenge that we require a “sensuous scholarship” that tacks between the sensual and the analytical, embodied form as well as disembodied logic and academic analysis (1997:xiv). As such, it might be said to explore photography beyond the visual: photogra- phy whose social meanings are not necessarily dictated exclusively by the visual but also by their perception as objects through which the visual is performed and understood.

Importantly, this way of thinking about photographs in relation to history strengthens their integral position in constituting alternative histories, which are embodied in objects, song, movement and bodies (Stoller 1997:xvi). As Seremetakis has argued, “the interpretation of and through the senses becomes a recovery of truth as a collective, material experience” (1994:6). This resonates with what David MacDougall has called “social aesthetics” which reunites the sensory, feeling and emotion with the cultural landscape (1999:3–4) and where “unconscious strata of culture are built into social routines as bodily disposition” (Taussig 1993:25). Within such a framework the understanding of the ways in which photographs are made to tell history can be extended beyond the visual in ways that heightens the understanding of the visual itself.

Photographs as social objects
It is necessary first to explore the materiality of images as related to the nature of photographs then to consider how this operates within sets of relationships before finally extending these ideas to look at the relationship between photographs, orality and sensory registers of photographs beyond the visual. However photographs are not merely a result of social relations but active within them, maintaining, reproducing and articulating shifting relations. This reflects the model developed in actor network theory, in that we might see photographs as “intermediaries,” or as Callon writes, “something passing between actors which defines the relationship between them” (Dant 1999:124).

Dobres has taken this further arguing that people experience their technologies as materially grounded arenas in which interactions of all sorts—social and material—occur, constituting, shaping and being shaped simultaneously through the social and cultural. This is not simply in terms of the physical actions of artifact production and use, but “the unfolding of sensuous, engaged, mediated, meaningful and materially grounded experience that makes individuals and collectives comprehend and act in the world as they do” (Dobres 2000:5). The recent studies of Australian Aboriginal experience to which I am referring have all stressed the relational and material qualities of photographs: photos are material evidence of connectedness to what is now “past”. The more photos connect, the more they are valued. Photos are stories about connections through time, affirming the existence and significance of the past in the present. [Macdonald 2003:236]

But the relational qualities extend beyond the image itself. The promise of recent material culture studies lies in the concern with the way in which “things” are actually used by people and thus how their sensory apprehension impacts on, and is impacted by, objects (Myers 2001:5). Indeed, it is possible to argue that photographs, like other classes of material objects, “are bundles of sensory properties which respond to specific sets of relationships and environments” (Edwards, Gosden & Phillips 2006).

While readings of photographs may, on the surface, be a forensic extrapolation of content—“This is my grandmother”; “This is the camp that was cleared when I was a child”—the social systems of telling histories into which images are absorbed are socially grounded, embodied and expressed through subjective relations with photographs. Thus, we need to consider the network of relationships surrounding particular photographs or groups of photographs in interactive settings (Gell 1998:8). As Latour has argued, it is non-humans (photographs) as well as human actants that offer the possibility of durable social cohesion (Latour 1991:103); indeed, given the indexicality of photographs, there is a sense in which the non-human/ human divide is blurred, a point to which I shall return.

This impacts on the way photographs are used in telling history: Gell’s position echoes Tonkin’s suggestion that, in order to “understand how history-as-lived is connected to history-as-recorded, we have to look at the actors concerned, who are living and developing in times that also change”; indeed, memory might be seen as “the site of the social practices that make us” (Tonkin 1992:12). If photographs are central to the recuperation of Aboriginal identities and histories (Taylor 1988; Aird 2001, 2003; Driessens 2003; Peterson 2003; and Stanton 2003 to cite a few), they become central to the relations inherent in those social practices.

Photographs as objects of history emerge from multiple sets of relationships at many levels. Photographs as sets of relationships are, like all relationships, subject to negotiation, exchange, trade and multiple performances and meanings. Not only are they objects, produced through sets of social relations that can be collected, exchanged through sets of relationships. One should add here that this applies, of course, not only to photographs active in the social relations of the community but also those in “the archive”; indeed, a number of the photographs discussed by Poignant (1996) and Stanton (2003), for instance, involved photographs that have been moved back from the archive to the community[3].

Whatever the course and location of images, the photographs’ very existence—what they are—is embedded in a relationship that stays with the photograph forever—that is, the relationship between the subject and chemical trace of their existence that is the photograph itself. That relationship is projected into new spaces to perform within new relationships in different contexts as the image is re-engaged with repeatedly[4]: “So now I have this new relationship with any photographs that I view of Nancy Chambers who I can confidently say is my great-grandmother” (Driessens 2003:20). It is this powerful, original relationship with the referent—“the trace of bodily connection” (Wright 2004:76)—that inflects all other relationships in which the photographs might become entangled.

Similar to Barthes’ argument on the indissoluble relation between trace and referent (Barthes 1984:6), Gell has argued that the indexical trace, in making a representation, literally binds the index “fixed or imprisoned” to the prototype (referent). Thus, the agency of the person impressed in the representation for which Gell argues (1998:102) might be understood as the impression of social being. Even images emerging out of the profoundly asymmetrical power relations of the colonial period might be understood in this way in that, through tracing social being, such photographs carry a humanizing potential that allows the possibility of subjective experience (Edwards 2001:19). Reading images against the grain like this creates a powerful historical presence.

I have...often seen Aboriginal people look past the stereotypical way in which their relatives and ancestors have been portrayed, because they are just happy to be able to see photographs of people who played a part in their family history. [Aird 2003:25] Thus, clearly, relationships are contingent and mediated rather than necessarily systematic, because they comprise a contradictory layering of attitudes, sentiments and ambitions, through which photographs are both made and invested with value in the contexts of both shared and contested meanings (Edwards 2004)[5]. As Gell has argued, objects are “a congealed residue of performance and agency in object form, through which access to other persons can be attained and via which, their agency can be communicated” (Gell 1998:68).

Indeed, following Gell (1998), one can argue that relational and performative theories of photography stress analysis of the systems of production and consumption, which moves photographs away from Western categories of evaluation. This applies equally to assumptions about the relationship between photographs and history. For a material and relational approach to images allows a performative dimension that is central to the telling of histories, a point to which I shall return. The relational view is not simply different people bringing different readings to images. Rather, it is an engagement with the whole social dynamic of photographs over space and time, in which photographs become entities acting and mediating between peoples. The engagement with photographs as socially salient objects both encapsulates and defines relations between people.

As these considerations suggest, an important concept in considering photographs as relational objects is as a form of extended personhood. Smith, following Gell, has convincingly argued this position in an Aboriginal context (Smith 2003:11). Through their indexicality and reproducible form, photographs can be seen as “distributed objects” that initiate and act in social relations (Smith 2003:11). Photographs are a form of extended personhood in that they constitute a sum of relations over time. In this “the effect of images is not simply symbolic or the result of social relations” but “can themselves imitate and act in social relations” (Smith 2003:11). Engagements with photographs, linked to the sensory blur the distinctions between internal personal and external, and relational in that “any social individual is the sum of their relations distributed over biographical [or historical] time” (Gell 1998:222). Photographs distribute personhood “beyond the body-boundary” (Gell 1998:104), the indexical trace functioning as a kind of detachable part or exuvia[6].

This is very important in relation to telling histories, for it is through the agency of photographs and relations with photographs as objects that they are historically enmeshed. Thus, “photos can constitute relatedness as a social fact. They can create a form of subjectivity, bringing those distant in time and space into a present” (Macdonald 2003:236). This process can also remove photographs from assumed models of periodization. As Donna Oxenham has commented, indigenous identities are not necessarily locked into the periodization of past, present and future; rather, all three exist, like photographs, in the here and now (personal communication, 2002).

Photographs are thus relationships made visible: “the theme which came to dominate almost every photo-viewing session [was] the sense in which the photographs established continuities of self and families and made biographies and genealogies visible” (Poignant 1992:74). “They [photos] allow people to become known” (Poignant 2003:235–6). In other words, they are used to confirm and perform the photographs’ relationships.

Material manifestations, ownership and handling
As I have suggested, the material manifestations of photographs are central to the relational, for the affective tone of photographs cannot be reduced solely to the power of the image, but the performance of that image as a material object. As such, photographs assume a form of agency in the way they prescribe relations and the telling of history. The act of looking at photographs is itself embedded in social relations. Not only the restrictions of looking at photographs of the deceased apply in some Aboriginal communities, but equally so in relations with the living. Further, these processes cannot be homogenized, but constitute complex and sometimes contradictory contexts, within communities—as narratives inflected with age, gender or lineage for instance, are woven with and around photographs. [...] 

We have to consider how material forms hold images in certain configurations and bodily relations, giving cultural meaning and concreteness to intentions. Material forms of photographs prescribe responses to them because they demand specific bodily relations. These constitute specific presences and co-presences in spaces which “not only form an inescapable dimension of human interactions but are also regulated by complex communicative conventions” concerning the way bodies interact with one another in social space (Finnegan 2002:104). 

Loose photos induce perhaps a freer narrative, for albums structure time and space, retemporalize and guide narratives (Edwards 1999; Langford 2001). While loose prints and albums will generate multiple histories, shifting on their access with each viewing, the narrative structure of albums must be considered as an active element in the replaying of those histories. Albums also demand different physical and kinetic engagements: they demand that the viewers gather around one object, rather than pass single and successive objects from hand to hand, creating a differently inflected social-spatial dynamic (Edwards and Hart 2004:11; Bell 2003:115). Likewise, displays of photographs in homes create landscapes of relationships and state- ments of identity through the display and arrangement of material objects (Wright 2004:80–1)[7]. As such, we can see them “materially” located in a social world which established their personal identity and cultural legitimacy” which places them in a web of “meaning, relatedness and history” (Macdonald 2003:230).

[…] Ownership of photographs, and access to photographs is an important material consideration[8]. As Macdonald (2003:231) has demonstrated, photographs as objects of history-telling move through a community as images are shown, exchanged, reproduced and displayed. Likewise, Smith has suggested the way in which the social contexts of ownership and dissemination of visual records track the complex historical relations, including blurring of the divide of those between whites and Aboriginal people (2003:14). But ownership implies the possession of a material object and thus social expectations are both attached to and worked out through the material forms of images: “There are many fights over photos, reflections of communally understood breaches of rights or etiquettes, usually stemming from expectations of kin-relatedness” (Macdonald 2003:231). Photographic objects are entangled in a system of social rights, obligations and values: “The value of an object is relative in terms of its potential to influence and determine the nature of various social outcomes” (Macdonald 2000:96).

This position would seem to extend Deborah Poole’s well-known model of “visual economy”, whereby photographs acquire meaning and value through the social uses of photographic objects and commodities: “It becomes clear that the value of images is not limited to the worth they accrue as representations seen (or consumed) by individual viewers. Instead, images also accrue value through the social processes of accumulation, possession, circulation or exchange” (Poole 1997:11). As Macdonald has argued in relation to Wiradjuri use of photographs, this places photographs and the telling of history into a set of demands and expectations: “Photos are a form of capital whose value is determined within the social relations of which the photo itself is a part” (Macdonald 2003:231).

If preciousness of photographs in most communities is premised on the aura of the perceived direct link with the past and the presence of the extended, distributed person, the force of this can be understood in relation to the social act of destroying photographs. Not only is there the symbolic and actual violence of tearing or burning the indexical trace, but, the destruction of photographs points to a breakdown or secession of social relations. Macdonald reports that in the Wiradjuri community, as in many places, it was not unusual for new lovers to tear up the photographs of partners’ old lovers or cut them from the image (Macdonald 2003:234), yet, at the same time they rarely throw the photographs away (Macdonald 2003:227).

Conversely, photographs are often handled gently, with care as if a living entity. Photographs here are extensions of relationships: we suffer...from forms of agency mediated via images of ourselves, because as social persons, we are present, not just in our singular bodies, but in everything in our surroundings which bears witness to our existence, our attributes, and our agency. [Gell 1998:103] This position again points to the way in which we have to understand images not simply in visual but in sensory relations in which they are enmeshed as social objects.

Photographs as sensory objects: visual, oral, accustical, tactile
Through the premising of photographic effect on the visual and the forensic alone, we not only limit our understanding of the idea of images as relational objects. We also limit our understanding of the modes through which histories are transmitted and maintained. For photographs, as will have become clear, both focus and extend the verbal articulation of histories. If photographs both extend the person and stand for relations between persons—past, present and future—the oral, tactile and haptic component of telling histories becomes crucial here. It is to this that I now want to turn and consider photographs as sensory objects and consider how their operation within broader sensory worlds impacts upon the social relations from which histories emerge. I would argue that sensory engagement—handling, touching, talking, and singing—is integral to the “idea of personhood being spread around in time and space... a component of innumerable cultural and institutional practices” (Gell 1998:221).

A shift toward oral, tactile and embodied ways of thinking through photographs is part of a broader response to concern about the way in which marginalization of the senses which has resulted, objectified, and textualized analyses of the body rather than a way of being-in-the world, saturated with intentionality, inter-subjectivity and existential immediacy (Csordas 1994:4,10; Howes 2003:29–32). This position is paralleled by recent concerns about the “decarnalization” of objects and, the way in which the analysis of material objects is often premised solely on the visual, and its linguistic translation. As Pinney has argued (Pinney 2003:82), “the stress on the cultural inscription of objects and images has erased any engagement with materiality except in linguistic terms.” As I suggested in my concern over the dominance of the semiotic, discourse around objects—and certainly images—has been inflected through textual metaphors of “reading,” of the signs and symbols to be decoded. Indeed, Stafford argues that “visual culture,” with its dominant metaphors of “reading,” merely reproduces the dominance of textualism (Stafford 1997:5). 

This position reflects the values attached to Western understandings of the hierarchy of the senses where seeing and hearing stand for the production of rational knowledge—and touch, smell and taste for the lower, “irrational” sensory (Claessen 1997:405). Significantly, in the context of Aboriginal histories considered here, Serematakis has suggested the ways in which seductive imported or imposed theories, such as visualism, can hide sensory dispositions of the cultural periphery, suppressing subjectivities—including the sensory—which are struggling within world systems of discourse and knowledge (Serematakis 1994:x).

[…] In the everyday use of photographs as conduits of historical consciousness, photographs are spoken about and spoken to—the emotional impact articulated through forms of vocalization. Just as there has come to be a greater awareness of the interaction between oral and written forms of history (Finnegan 1992:50), there is a sense in which we should consider photographs not only as visual history but, as a form of oral history, and, by extension, the way in which the oral constitutes an embodied vocalisation[9]. The oral penetrates all levels of historical relations with photographs to the extent that spoken and seen cease to be separate modalities. Orality is not simply the verbalising of content, a playing back of the forensic reading—“this is where we had a fishing camp”—but the processes and styles in which photographs have dynamic and shifting stories woven around, and through them, “imprinting themselves and being played back repeatedly through different tellings” (Edwards 2003:89). Photographs and voice are integral to the performance of one another, connecting, extending and integrating ways of telling histories. As Poignant has reported of the response to photographs at Maringrida, not only was the community view that photographs were like bark paintings in that they had stories (Poignant 1992:74) but,

Sometimes, an elder’s use of the photographs to transmit his reflections of a past time and a way of doing things to the young who had gathered around took on the character of storytelling, so that the in- tegration of photographs seemed no more than an extension of traditional oral modes of representing the past. For others in the community, some of whom were already involved in the integration of traditional forms of visualising the past in present-day recording systems, the introduction of the photographs—an additional resource—sparked notions of history that went beyond a genealogical patterning of history. (Poignant 1996:8) 

Photographs are therefore enmeshed in oral stories—personal, family and community histories. They are performed through the spoken or sung human voice telling stories to an audience—formal or informal. Martha Langford, in her interesting analysis of Canadian photographic albums, has positioned series of photographs in terms of the oral in and around them—the narratives they engender (Langford 2001:122–57). Her analysis draws heavily on the work of Walter Ong and, as such, she positions photographs within formal definitions of oral literature. It thus shares the problems of Ong’s characterization of oral culture as overly ahistorical, undymanic, totalized and technically determined. However, her stress on the orality of photographs, the specificity of oral consciousness, and the way in which “an album’s oral structure and interpretive performance will bring us closer to understanding the photographic work” (Langford 2001:122–3) is pertinent, and instructive in the contexts we are considering here.

My argument here extends Langford’s notion of the oral dimension of the photographs by placing oral responses to them in the active sensory, experiential reiterations of history-telling and in the social embeddedness of photographs, rather than in formal terms. Contemporary Aboriginal communities should not, of course, be characterized “oral societies” in the sense that anthropologists and linguistic theorists have talked about them in the past. Rather Aboriginal societies, on the whole, have a wide range of imaging and textualizing powers and experiences across a multiplicity of media, including the photographic and oral (Langton 1993:9), which makes such an analysis appropriate. What is important here is the way in which the links between the oral and the visual can counter and mesh with other forms in a contemporary society, shifting the balance and allowing “traditional” and multiple forms of history transmission to operate[10].

Yet this oral dimension is also highly regulated and will inflect responses to photographs. This is because the oral expression of photographs embeds them in local structures. For instance, in traditional Australian contexts speaking rights are carefully controlled, knowledge itself being a form of property. Violating those rights of speaking is a form of theft (Michaels 1991:260). There are rights to stories and histories and the control of photographs as objects is integrally related to the social patterns of the transmission of knowledge[11]. Thus, the articulation of stories themselves, as an act of oral transmission and communication, are inflected and constrained through sets of relationships. 

However vocalization and performance must not be thought of simply in terms of “writable” words. If the “gaze of Western thought” has ignored the material, it has also ignored the dimension of sound (Stoller 1984:560). We need to see the oral expressions around photographs in a more extended acoustical form, which takes into account paralinguistic vocalizations such as sobbing, laughing or the production of melody. These, Finnegan argues, create the affective tone through which photographs are apprehended: Here is a subtle intermingling of individually-sounded and -heard creations, of specific context, and of patterns which are more or less enduring and agreed with others. In its own capacity to draw on auditory resources in thus versatile mix of ways, human vocal interaction makes up a remarkable, highly flexible and enormously farranging human-created tool for sonic communication. [Finnegan 2002:80] 

Indeed, it is, as Howes has argued a “curious fact that anthropologists, for all their concern with language and ‘discourse’ rarely pay much attention to the medium of speech, namely sound which is taken for granted” (Howes 2003:36). For if photographs are enmeshed in the oral, they are also enmeshed in sound—the sound of voices, spoken or sung, in rising and falling rhythms, tones and volumes. Sound creates the environment for viewing photographs and constitutes a social act in that it reinforces sociality of objects and the relations in which they are enmeshed and the sense of the social self (Tacchi 1998:25–7).

Feld has described the flow of sound as “the flow of poetic song paths, [which] is emotionally and physically linked to the sensual flow of the singing voice” as well as “a fusion of space and time that joins lives and events as embodied memories” (Feld 1996:91). Further, as Ingold has argued, sound communicates directly and immediately through hearing. Hearing forms a porous boundary between the external and the internal, which appeals directly to “the ‘inwardness’ of life” (Ingold 2000:245–7). But hearing also implies listening, which is an engaged intentional hearing (Carter 2004:44). Thus, one can argue that the heard sound of the oral, listened to, draws the visual apprehension of the photograph deeper into the world of the perceivers and their social relations, reinforcing and moulding the understanding of the photograph.

As performative objects, photographs create the frame for patterns of telling, or reinforce extant ones, reinforcing memory not simply through the image but through the structure of repetitions—both the shape of telling and the contests of telling. Sound utterance, like the photographic moment is fugitive (Langford 2001:122), but repetition, the continual re-performance of photographs within the oral dimension, ensures the longevity of both. However, silence, the absence of voice or sound, is equally significant. Forgetting and loss are the silences or the non-functioning of the oral around photographs.

The power of this suggestion is demonstrated in the way that photographs are often described in oral metaphors. For example, an exhibition, Lost Identities: A Journey of Rediscovery (1999), curated by Shirley Bruised Head of the Peigan Nation, Canada[12], proclaimed on its website that “photographs can speak, they can whisper or shout” but they are also described as voiceless: “many photographs...are silent. When individuals, events or other details are not known, photographs do not have voices.” People were asked to “find voices and stories buried in the pictures” (Lost Identities 1999). Oral articulation, the naming of names, invests tellers with a dynamic power over their own history, breaking the silence (Langton 2001:122; Driessens 2003), articulating the interaction of photographs and people in historical relations; hence the importance of photographs in telling genealogies (Macdonald 2003:235–6) as photographs return or reinforce the power to speak of one’s history[13].

Oral expression demands the interaction of a specific audience at a specific time—that is it is lodged in relationships, creating the contexts for the transmission of stories. “Understanding […] photographs is a process of reaching out for what is finally absent, rather than grasping the presence of new ‘truths’” (Lippard 1992:20). The narrated story allows the audience to respond (Ong 1982:42) as stories are woven around photographs which are held, passed from hand to hand and caressed or even among groups clustered around the computer screen. These are not single voices of linear narrative but polyphonic, dialogic narrations in which the narrator shifts from point to point, adopting appropriate modes, effecting responses from the audience (Brown and Peers 2005:230–1). The rhythms shift from straight narration to song, lamentation, and laughter—all demanding different sets of responses from listeners. Responses are not necessarily ordered, but multi-layered and dynamic. Perhaps the sound is of more than one language, especially in situations where the younger generation does not necessarily have the local language.

Photographs allow people to articulate histories in interactive social ways that would not have emerged in those particular figuration if photographs had not existed. Photographs become a form of interlocutor. They literally unlock memories and emerge in multiple soundscapes, allowing the sounds to be heard and thus enabling knowledge to be passed down, validated, absorbed and refigured in the present. They can “reunite communities which are fragmented by the disparities in generational experience and knowledge” (Peers, personal communication, 2005). Thus, the oral entanglements of photographs render them truly multi-vocal.

As this suggests, orality does not exist outside the broader patterns and practices of embodiment. As discussed earlier in the contexts of materiality, photographs are viewed in groups—bodies touching, a proxemic sense of an interpreting community. As such, proximity is not only constituted through “presences and co-presences” (Finnegan 2002:104) to which I have referred, but also within that space. Proximity brings into play nonverbal channels of communication—facial expression, gesture, even smell (Howes 1991:171)—all of which contribute to photographic meaning in that they create environments for the affective experience of images. 

There is a strong tactile and haptic component in oral expression of photographs as persons must be in the presence of one another to communicate. Touch is, in many ways, the most intimate of the senses, for it registers the body to the outside world. It is arguably the touch on the photograph that mediates the presence of the ancestor, confirming vision, in that touch and sight are bridged to define the real (Ong 1982:168–9) as the finger is run over the images. It creates what Taussig, following Benjamin, terms “optical tactility”—“the plane where the object world and the visual copy merge”—fulfilling the desire to get hold of something very closely (Taussig 1993:35). Touch gives solidity to the impressions of the other senses (Jay 1993:35), and connects people to things.

The interpreting community: photographs as distributed persons
Photographs are held, caressed, stroked, sung to. In this sense the distributed personhood invested in the photograph is made material, in that the photograph, through its indexical trace, becomes an extension of the person—the ancestor performed through physical engagement. As Macdonald records of her own response to watching and hearing people respond to photographs, “I see them as real people rather than simply images” (Macdonald 2003:231). As Finnegan has argued, touch itself is not disconnected to the telling of history. If the tactile qualities of photographs, with their smooth surfaces and delicate paper bases, are secondary to visual, they are none the less highly significant in the transmission of shared values and memories. As a number of commentators have suggested, history and memory are embodied and materialized (Fentriss and Wickham 1992; Connerton 1989; Forty and Kuechler 1999). “Human memory [and thus history] is extended and embodied through tactile as well as visual and auditory experience” (Finnegan 2002:213). 

Not only are photographs touched, but they are enmeshed in a fluid continuum of touch and gesture cohering groups of interlocutors. Touching is one of the most expressive gestures that both links the personal, idiosyncratic and context specific to socially regulated aspects, and frames the pragmatic content of the oral image, marking the story (McNeill 1992:2, 183). By gesture, I mean not a formal sign language[14], but the “spontaneous creations of individual speakers” (McNeill 1992:1)[15]. I am marking it here only as the articulation of touch and embodied responses to photographs. However, it is worth noting in our relational concerns here that, in Aboriginal sign-language, kin and social interaction is mediated through the body (Kendon 1988:330–68). Gesture coexists with speech, in that we should “regard the gesture and the spoken utterance as different sides of a single underlying mental process” (McNeill 1992:1), closely intertwined with the oral in time, meaning and function, and thus, the telling of history. Even small movements reinforce both voice and image and thus narration, making it more vivid and revealing the speaker’s conception of the discourse (Finnegan 2002:111; McNeill 1992:217). 

We see photographs as embedded in gesture just as they are in oral expression. This link between body, gesture and historical narration has, of course been widely recognized by oral historians (for example Finnegan 1992:106–7; Tonkin 1992:51–2), however, it is equally important to recognize that the presence of the photograph will elicit specific gestural and haptic forms which shape the communication of history. Bell records how, in Purari, photographs inspired women to demonstrate dances, and men to pound the floor in the rhythm of hand drums (Bell 2003:116).

The fact that touch and gesture become so important in the unspoken relations with photographs can be linked back to the nature of the photograph and its indexical quality. It would seem to enhance our argument for photographs as “distributed persons”, and the way in which the communication with the photograph/person at a subjective level cannot be easily disentangled.

Touch and gesture bring us back to relationships, because they operate in the “immediate bodily presence of interacting participants” (Finnegan 2002:212).

This important point is demonstrated by Poignant’s description of Frank Gurrmanamana, the principle Anbarra owner of the Jambich Rom ceremony, singing a series of Jambich manikay songs[16]. This he does in response to a series to Axel Poignant’s photographs of the rom ceremony, and he does so by matching the appropriate verse in the series of the image. The verbal imagery of the songs mirrors the visual imagery of the indexical trace of the rom pole motifs (Poignant 1996:23). But the embodied interaction is extended beyond the visual as Frank Gurrmanamana uses the photographs themselves as clapping sticks to accompany his singing (Poignant, personal communication, 2003), holding them in his hands, beating them rhythmically with his fingers, recalling the sound of the clapping stick and its significances. The experience of the photographs, their meaning and impact cannot be reduced merely to a visual response but, as I have argued throughout this paper, must be understood as a corpothetic engagement with photographs as bearers of stories in which visual, sound, and touch merge. […] What I have argued for here is for a more sensory way of thinking about photographs if we are to understand their true impact in the making of histories. […] My aim has been to consider, with an increasing emphasis in visual anthropological research of the practices and processes of visuality and photography in many cultures, that maybe it is time to extend visual anthropology beyond the visual, and to explore the ways in which visual practices, such as the use of photographs, are integrally related to other sensory forms through which the past is articulated.

Macdonald has argued that as photographs become reproduced and performed in different contexts, the value attributed to personal collections of photographs diminishes and the power of keepers of memory shifts (Macdonald 2003:241). This may be so, but, I would argue, only up to a point. New forms, such as published books and websites might constitute different performances of those images and prescribe different embodied and relational dynamics through their material performances. However, there remains, even in the digital age, an emotional desire to own photographs as material objects. To hold them, display them, stroke them, pass them around and tell stories whether those photographs are produced as analogue, printed in a book, recorded as digital pseudo-photography, or pulled off a website. We must see them as part of ongoing social biographies of images that remain entangled with dynamic sets of sensory and social relations beyond and in excess of the image itself.


Elizabeth Edwards, professeur émérite d'histoire de la photographie et directrice du Photographic History Research Centre, De Montfort University Leicester



[1] This article is an abbreviated version of my contribution ‚Photographs and the Sound of History’, in Visual Anthropology Review (2006) 21, Issues 1 and 2, pp. 27-46. The subtitles have also been revised for this version. I am most grateful to my colleagues Chris Gosden, Laura Peers and Roslyn Poignant for discussing many aspects of this paper with me and for their invaluable comments. I should also like to thank colleagues from across the world who took part in the Wenner-Gren Research Symposium on material culture and the senses in Sintra, Portugal, 2003. Our stimulating discussions on that occasion started me thinking in this direction. The paper draws largely, but not exclusively, on the writing on the subject in Australian contexts, namely Roslyn Poignant’s work with Axel Poignant’s 1952 photographs at Maningrida, Arnhem Land (1992, 1996), Benjamin Smith’s study of the Aboriginal community at Coen, Queensland (2003), and Gaynor Macdonald’s study of Wiradjuri/Koori use of photographs (2003), as well as the works of scholars such as Michael Aird (1993, 2003) and Jo-Anne Driessens (2003). However, since the paper was originally published there has been extensive work in this field. The intention here is to pull some of these ideas together and explore them in the contexts of visual anthropology and its methodologies. Throughout “history” is used in the broadest sense of engaging with and narrating pasts.

[2] The role of photographs in addressing the sense of trauma and loss of identity and histories of the “Stolen Generation” in Australia has been of major importance, especially in the wake of the 1997 report Bringing Them, Home. There have been a number of important archival projects, for example, that with the Kimberley community, Western Australia (Stanton 2003) or those around the historical collections of the Queensland Museum (Aird 1993). The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in Canberra runs a family history advice service for Aboriginal people (see,, accessed December 28, 2016).

[3] The material and sensory qualities of “the archive” and its disruption of those qualities of photographs as “a massive exercise in dehistoricisation and decontextualisation” (Hayes et al. 1998:6) is beyond the scope of this paper. However, the practices of archival arrangement and dissemination impact upon community uses. (See Fourmile 1990; Edwards 2003; Sassoon 2004; and Brown and Peers 2005 for examples).

[4] Significantly, in all the case studies from which I am drawing, portraits, formal and informal, constitute the main focus of attention.

[5] Poignant has demonstrated the way in which a commercially produced photograph of a group of Aboriginal people taken in London inscribes Aboriginal relationships, as they stand according to their kin groups and people, rather than—despite appearances—a grouping arranged by the photographer (Poignant 2003:58).

[6] Batchen (2004:40) has made this point in the discussion of Western practices and the 19th Century predilection of placing photographs in conjunction with other detachable parts of the body, especially hair.

[7] Bell records how in private viewings in the Purari region heirlooms were brought out and shown alongside photographs, both merging into personal histories (2003:115).

[8] This again has impacted on archival practices, with increasing demands for access and sometimes control over images in institutional environments (e.g., Powers 1996; Fourmile 1990; Edwards 2003; Brown and Peers 2005).

[9] My concern here is with the condition and process of the oral—orality—rather than the specifics of language itself.

[10] The precise dynamics of this will, of course, vary across different kinds of communities, whether “remote” or “settled” (Langton 1993:11–13).

[11] Isaac has explored ways in which access to photographs was controlled through the structures of traditional knowledge at Zuni, New Mexico (Isaac 2002).

[12] In collaboration with the Alberta Community Development project. Lost Identities: A Journey of Rediscovery, Exhibition Information Kit, Edmonton: Alberta Community Development, 1999.

[13] “Giving voice” has also, of course, had a literal and metaphorical meaning in reflexive anthropological practices in recent years, including in visual anthropology. (e.g., MacDougall 1998:93–122).

[14] Kendon’s argument is that in formal Aboriginal sign language not only is kin articulated in gesture and sign by pointing to a part of the body, but that “The body-articulated character of kin-signs appears to be a reflection of how social interaction, within a given relationship, is mediated by way of the body.” This, in its turn, is reflected in language (Kendon 1988:330–1).

[15] There is an extensive literature on gesture (e.g., McNeill 1992; Kendon 1997). There are also formalised sign languages; see for example, Kendon (1988). A special issue of Visual Anthropology Review, “The Third Eye: Deaf Visual Traditions” (1999–2000, 15:2) marks the established interests of visual anthropologists in gesture and sign.

[16] Significantly, in the context of my argument here, the Rom is a ceremony about making and consolidating friendly relationships and the sharing of special knowledge (Poignant 1996:21).



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