Complicating Portraiture and Ethnography in a Photograph from National Geographic, August 1926

Ethnography and Portraiture
A MAKU SQUAW AND HER HUSBAND: PARIMA RIVER (two photographs printed at the bottom)

Whilst flipping through a copy of National Geographic from August 1926 as part of my PhD research, which examines globalization and the representation of Brazilian dress in the magazine, I came across an intriguing image. It was of a man and woman of the Maku population, indigenous to the northwestern Amazon. On first glance, I interpreted it within the repressive protocols of an ethnographic study: a visual uniformity rendered by the full-body portrayal of the subjects, who were depicted one per frame, facing the camera in a bright, narrow space. The title of the photograph anchored such a reductive reading of the individuals depicted: ‘A MAKU SQUAW AND HER HUSBAND: PARIMA RIVER’.

Yet the caption, by contrast, set in motion a dialogue that oscillated precariously between passive objectification and subjective agency. The caption read: ‘the woman has decorated her shoulders with an old piece of cloth for the purpose of having her photograph taken’ [my italics]. The caption humanized the subject through the use of dress which rendered her as active and encouraged the viewer to interpret the photograph in terms of a self-aware and consciously styled portrait. Inherent is the suggestion that the previously marked and classified subject has deliberately and self-consciously fashioned herself for the photographer; this act suggests not simply an awareness of being on display, but a knowing and consensual performance that undermines a deterministic reading of the image.

Tamar Garb has delineated this slippage between the tradition of portraiture and racialised ethnography in her examination of the 19th-century colonial application of photography in South Africa, which she uses as a locus around which to discuss several examples of 21st century South African art photography:

‘Where the ethnographic deals in types, groups and collective characteristics, portraiture purports to portray the unique and distinctive features of named subjects whose social identities provide a backdrop for individual agency and assertion’.

Garb outlines the stipulations of ethnographic photography and portraiture and draws attention to the noticeable parallel between the characteristics that indicate the authoritarian measures of the former – full frontal exposure, visual uniformity, the minimization of light and shadow – with the individualizing tendencies of the latter. In National Geographic, this photograph can be viewed as a collaboration that reflected the choices of the individual, who was clearly a willing participant in the image-making process, choosing her own props, pose, expression and style of presentation. This willing and collaborative aspect, highlighted through the subject’s self-fashioning, displaces the institutionally imposed objectivity characteristic of ethnographic images of others, and complicates a straightforward reading of the image.


T. Garb, Figures and fictions: contemporary South African photography, (London: V & A Publishing, 2011), p. 12