Re: Reading images

Martin Cohen (mcohen@UCLA.EDU)
Wed, 3 Jan 1996 19:36:47 -0700

stacey a ayeh wrote:

>The hypothesis is this:
> Humans "only see" what they can understand. (i.e. someone
>who has never
> seen an image (photograph, film, video..) will not
>recognise themselves
> if they were suddenly confronted with one).
>The question is this:
> If a member of a tribe which has never come into contact with
>photographic images is shown a photograph of his/her chief will s/he be
>able to identify the image as a representation of the chief?
>Do we learn to read photographic images?
Reflected images in standing water are recognized by most all people
throughout the world. This is one of those questions that has the premise
that "primitive" peoples are both quaint and incredibly different than us.
Although benign in intend, it is similar to the kind of subtle racism that
was the underlying theme of the South African film "The Gods Must be
Crazy". No offence to you, Stacey, I am not accusing you of racism; you
are just questioning one of the ideas that anthropology poses.

The problem is that sometimes we anthropologists, by emphasizing real
distinctions, perpetuate the image of strange and almost unbridgeable
differences between us and the people of small-scale societies as badly as
colonial explorers did. Fortunately only sometimes. I know from
experience when I have taught at CSULB and CSUN, that undergrad students
are much more interested in how the people we study are different from them
than in how similar they are, and it is tempting to just please and
entertain a class with anecdotes and examples.

I have also learned that I have a responsibility to convey that there is
both a shared humanity and equal intellectual capacity among the various
peoples of the world. When an anthropologist tells his/her class that the
people of (fill in the blank - a tribe in New Guinea for example?) do not
fear death the way we do, I am reminded of General Westmoreland describing
the Vietnamese during that horrid war. Benign racism is still racism.