by Anna Morales
I am a junior at the University of South Carolina, studying to become a visual anthropologist. This summer, I interned remotely with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources’ Heritage Trust program, which allowed me opportunities to learn about various aspects of visual anthropology within archaeology.
Using visual platforms, such as photography, to capture and share anthropological stories is a passion of mine. With this project, I researched an abundance of photographs from home, picked out a few that I believe best represent anthropological artifacts, and shared them with you! I hope you enjoy and can be inspired in some way after reading this, as I have definitely been inspired throughout the process of creating it.
The article below is a reprint of Anna Morales’ blog. Click here to view her original blog post.
A Photograph as an Artifact:
Rethinking Anthropological Boundaries
When you think of an artifact, what do you imagine? Maybe an earthenware vessel, stone tools, or ancient jewelry and beads? All of these answers are correct, but what happens when we begin to look beyond the traditional definition of an anthropological artifact?
After asking myself this very question, I decided to explore how a photograph can act as an artifact. By examining several photos and photographers, both well-known and unknown, I have discovered that photographs don’t just qualify as artifacts, but they are one of the most valuable types of artifacts to exist. Photographs have the potential to document both the story of their subjects, and the eye of the artist to provide greater insight into the story of those involved. These patterns of light can tell stories of finite existence and capture narratives of life across time and space, whether they intend to or not.
With this project, I have gathered and analyzed what I consider to be exceptional examples of photos that are artifacts. Through these, we learn about the planet, its people, and its places…
Artifacts give us insight into our fleeting history, and our planet is experiencing environmental degradation and extinction of species at exponential rates. Photographs hold the ability to help us remember what is disappearing from the Earth and, more importantly, they can also help spread awareness to prevent further neglect and inspire action in a crisis.
In this case, National Geographic photographer Ami Vitale used her power as a photographer to beautifully capture the tragic death of the last male northern white rhino on Earth.
We can learn about Ami, Sudan (the rhinoceros), and his caretakers through these two distinguished photographs. The photograph displays one of Sudan’s caretakers with Sudan. Ami describes watching the caretaker give Sudan one final rub behind the ear before the rhinoceros’ death. A sense of tenderness is felt in the captured visual of Sudan’s tired eye and the caretaker’s comforting hands. The photograph on the right exhibits caretaker Joseph Wachira and Sudan leaning into one another moments before the rhino’s death. The heavy burden of letting go of a dying species and the strong bond between Sudan and his caretakers are actively communicated through these visuals.
“I took a photo of two old friends together for the last time,” says Ami.
Ami’s emotional connection with the rhino can be discovered through [these] photographs as well, as her thoughts are echoed in the meaningful placement and composition of her visuals. Ami claims that “meeting Sudan in Czechia changed the trajectory of [her] life,” and that it inspired her purpose as a journalist.
She explains this professional shift while writing on this experience: “Today my work doesn’t focus only on the human condition. Rather, I tell stories about nature, and in so doing, I tell stories about our home, our future, and the interdependence of all life.” This personal influence that Ami’s subjects have on her are expressed through the intimate perspective from which these photographs are taken. Through the documentation of a life-changing experience, the photographer is part of the photograph’s story too.
Similarly, photographs allow us to learn about other cultures. Photographer Edward S. Curtis dedicated his life to living alongside and documenting the North American Indians from the late 19th century into the early 20th century. Throughout his 30-year journey, he was able to capture photographs that have acted as artifacts to many historians and anthropologists throughout modern history. Curtis’s passion and dedication to what he believed to be a vanishing race are revealed through the success of his images.
We can gain some insight into what it meant to be a North American Indian at the time by examining these photos captured by Curtis. We can also discover the photographer’s relationship with his subjects. The photograph (Placating the Spirit of a Slain Eagle, 1926) shows a man performing a traditional ritual to honor and settle the spirit of the eagle after its killing for the symbolic use of its feathers. Through this visual story, we can learn about the values of a Northern American Indian in the early 20th century; perhaps a devotion to nature and appreciation for its offerings. Similar conclusions can be drawn while analyzing other photographs captured by Curtis.
It is necessary to take into consideration the relationship between Curtis and his subjects [in his photographs]. Curtis inevitably had to thoroughly integrate himself into these communities before capturing authentic projections of their culture, as an American ethnologist and photographer rather than a member of the community. How might this dynamic be reflected in his work? Curtis’ photographs are artifacts that give us an unmatched understanding of North American Indian culture of the early 20th century and a glimpse of the photographer’s dynamic with his subjects of interest.
Photographs serve as visual witness to the continual transformation of the lands that surround us. The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources’ Heritage Trust Program works to preserve the natural and cultural properties under its care. Photography is just one essential tool that the organization utilizes to document and communicate the importance of preserving these properties to the public. Photographer Jamie Koelker was able to effectively capture the pressing story behind one of these properties: Pockoy Island, located on Botany Bay Plantation Heritage Preserve in Charleston County, S.C.
South Carolina’s Pockoy Island Shell Ring Complex is one of the many archaeological sites around the world that is falling victim to coastal erosion and rapidly rising seas. Pockoy is considered a “heritage at risk” site, meaning that it falls within a category of cultural resources threatened by natural and human impacts. Looking at this photograph, we can see environmental degradation in action as the water sweeps away the island’s trees and soil.
Through his aerial imaging, Koelker was able to display and communicate a bird’s-eye perspective of the landform that is rarely accessible to the human eye. This vantage point not only allows for sweeping coverage of the land, but it also suggests a new mentality while considering this land; one that looks at Earth from an otherworldly perspective. Aerial photographs such as this act as valuable artifacts of archaeological sites, as they are tools for analyzing the rising seas, erosion of land, and other geographical data.
“Photographs visually preserve the traces of past human habitation for analysis before they are lost.” – Meg Gaillard, SCDNR Archaeologist
Photographs, being artifacts, carry evidence of human life. Hence, they also bear the emotions, actions, thoughts, and behavior that have shaped our human history. Today, as in the past, photographs serve as essential forms of documentation during the pivotal times in our lives that will go forth to shape our future. As a pandemic sweeps the globe and social justice movements awaken, photographs are tools that have the emotive power to inform new ways of thinking … a power that words and numbers often lack.
Consider portrait photographs taken by Columbia, S.C. photographer Daniel Hare at a Black Lives Matter protest. They effectively convey human emotion during a critical moment in American history. This photograph, for example, illustrates a barrier between two identities that is symbolic of the greater struggle that African American communities have faced with our country’s systems of power. The photographer’s choice of black-and-white portraiture illustrates a sense of tension and strong emotion in the photo’s subjects. These timeless photographs can be compared to similar photographs taken during the 1960s civil rights movements in America to investigate how history repeats itself.
These few examples only begin to graze the abundance of photographs that are channels to vast information on this world and its people. The overwhelming capacity for a photograph, or “drawing of light,” to communicate moments of ever-changing life is one that is often overlooked. Tapping more frequently into photographs as academic resources for the studies of anthropology, history, archaeology, and other fields within the humanities could take us to new heights. So, consider a photograph as your next artifact when you are looking for a story to investigate our past, shape our future, or look into our present.
“About This Collection : Fenton Crimean War Photographs : Digital Collections : Library of Congress.” The Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/collections/fenton-crimean-war-photographs/about-this-collection/.
“ARTIFACT: Definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary.” ARTIFACT | Definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary, dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/artifact.
Curtis, Edward S., and Joseph Epes. Brown. The North American Indians: a Selection of Photographs by Edward S. Curtis. Aperture, 1991.
Pixabay.com, Pexels, 16 Apr. 2016, www.pexels.com/@pixabay.
Shasta.com. “Large Prints: Edward S. Curtis Gallery.” Large Prints | Edward S. Curtis Gallery, www.edwardscurtis.com/prints/large-prints/.
South Carolina Department of Natural Resources – Heritage Trust Program. “Protecting South Carolina’s Natural & Cultural Heritage Since 1974.” Heritage Trust – South Carolina, heritagetrust.dnr.sc.gov/index.html.
The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. “South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.” South Carolina Department of Natural Resources RSS, www.dnr.sc.gov/.
“What I Learned Documenting the Last Male Northern White Rhino’s Death.” Ami Vitale, www.amivitale.com/photo-story/goodbye-sudan-the-worlds-last-male-northern-white-rhino/.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed on South Carolina Wild are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect official policies, positions, or endorsements of activity or products by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.