Inessential views of art and photography.
Summary of the book
“The Echo of Things” is the result of an ethnographic study of photography in Roviana (Solomon Islands) carried out by Christopher Wright between 1998 and 2001. The book starts with a prologue in which the aims are stated and the research located within the field of visual anthropology. By studying how Roviana people are entangled with photography, Wright questions the normative value of Euro-American models of photography and re-contextualizes our understanding of the medium. He uses a small collection of nineteenth- and twentieth-century photographs of New Georgia “as a collaborative means of gathering oral histories and biographies” (p. 5). The employment of conversation as a method of inquiry is central to Wright’s argument; thereby, photography and history become plural nouns and a resonance chamber emerges in which to listen to the echoes of personal and social stories in interplay.
Chapter by chapter
The first chapter is dedicated to the relationship of Roviana people with photography mediated and imagined by others, including Europeans. The practice of headhunting strongly shaped visual representations of Roviana people made by others. It also demonstrates the firm distinction between us, modern people, and them, savages. Within the colonial project of the time, anthropologists understood, and consequently employed, photography in terms of scientific development and archival value; whereas missionaries brought photography into the community as a mean of conveying the greatness of religion.
At the end of the first chapter we are briefly presented with two photographs. The first depicts a Roviana warrior and was taken by anthropologist Robert Wad Williamson in 1910. The second was taken by Faletau Leve using a Brownie camera in the 1970s. His son and wife are in it along with Boaz Sisilo, an old man who decided to take the gele aranga pose, used both in fighting and dancing, to make him “come out strong” (p. 57). The juxtaposition of these two images demonstrates Wright’s recontextualization of photography in Roviana and takes the reader to a further level of analysis to answer the question of how photography is made and understood by Roviana people.
Amateur photographic production, the story of studio Stael and practices involved in distribution and storage are discussed in the second chapter. Humidity and corrosion cause photographs to fade quickly in Roviana. The preoccupation with non-lasting paper copy resonates with contemporary Euro-American anxieties about the ephemerality of digital files. Wright acknowledges the lack of discussion of the digital impact in Roviana in the book, and indicates that this should be addressed, possibly framed by an ethnographic study of mediatisation in cross-cultural contexts. Although the reception of photographs is strongly linked to group interactions and oral accounts, Wright concludes that the use of photography in Roviana has led to increasing individualization of memory.
In the third chapter key concepts involved in the Roviana people’s relationship with photography are discussed and framed within the broader debate on materiality of the photographic image (Batchen; Edwards and Hart). For Roviana people, there are two types of photographs: from shoulders up and full body. The latter is preferred because it makes one “come out good”. Accessories and elaborate backgrounds are seen as distractions that interfere with the clarity of the photograph and potentially damaging the self.
Photographs are a way of keeping in touch and contacting the shadow/soul. They are bakiha (sacred objects of ancestors used for communication, pp. 121–5) and they are alive. Photographs are objects with agency for Roviana people. In the same way as a beku (spirit), photographs become what they represent, thereby impacting people and events. Photographs talk to their viewers, but only because they have a history with them. Although Wright does not mention this, the notion of phatic communion (Malinowski) could explain the umbilical cord which connects the photograph with the viewer through the interplay of mimesis, magic and embodiment.
The last chapter gives an account of how the Roviana people understood the colonial project and how a particular event and its photographic representation, “the time of Royalist” (p. 165), have been incorporated into the local vocabulary as a metaphor for change when things are bad. Drawing on Ong’s theory of orality, Wright pleads for a shift in the Euro-American understanding of photographic archives because, only when photographs enter other spaces, do they open up other histories. In the epilogue, the author insists on the connection between photography and “previously existing visual and memorial formations” (p. 193), as well as the similarities between Roviana and Euro-American understandings of the medium. Its fantastic and magical character haunts us all.
*Final draft of a review published in EASA Social Anthropology Journal Vol.23, 2, pp. 259-261*
Batchen, Geoffrey. 2001. Each Wild Idea; Writing, Photography, History. Cambridge: MIT Press. ____________. 2004. Forget me Not: Photography and Remembrance. Princeton: Princenton Architectural Press.
Edwards, Elisabeth and Hart, Janice. 2004. “Introduction: Photographs as Objects”. In Photographs Objects Histories: On the Materiality of Images. Elisabeth Edwards and Janice Hart, eds. New York: Routledge. Pp.1-15.
Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1923/1960. “The problem of meaning in primitive languages”. In The meaning of meaning: A study of the influence of language upon thought and the science of symbolism. Ogden,C. K. and Richards, I. A., eds. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. Pp.451-510.
Ong, Walter. 1982. Orality and Literacy. London and New York: Routledge.