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Images, Selves, and the Visual Record: Photography and Ethnographic Complexity in Central Cape York Peninsula

Benjamin R. Smith

Keywords: Aboriginal Australians, photography, intersubjectivity, anthropology, colonialism


This essay addresses anthropological engagement with photography

in indigenous Australian contexts. Following the work of Gell and

Edwards, and drawing on the history of photography and ethnography

in central Cape York Peninsula, I explore some ways that photographs

may exceed relations of objectification and exoticism. Many

ethnographic photographs have continued to circulate within and beyond

Cape York Peninsula, while others have been returned to the

descendants of those portrayed. This process of circulation may be

accompanied by shifts in the meanings drawn from images, and

increasing numbers of photographs are being taken by Aboriginal

people themselves. Both these photographs and the engagement of

earlier photographs by Aboriginal people demonstrate differences

with the ways that photographs are dealt with in ‘Western’ contexts.

Whether as ‘social things’, as objects, or as distributed aspects of the

agency of those taking or featuring in them, photographs remain

active in their interaction with viewers and demand a more nuanced

analysis of colonial relationships.

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