Photo recognition

Tue, 25 Jul 1995 10:15:11 EDT

I did field work with a Dani population in West New Guinea (Irian
Jaya) in 1961-63. People never objected to my taking photos--which I
did daily--and they were not interested in the process. I deferred
showing them any results for several months. When I did they initially
did not recognize or interpret the photographs (small,roughly 4x5 inch
and some contact sheets) "correctly". Initial reactions were ones of
puzzlement, non-interest, or guesses that the images might be of spirits
or ghosts. Adults and children could easily be taught to recognize
images, however, and they carried over this skill to new, previously
unseen images. People tended to recognize others before they recognized
themselves. Parallel reactions occurred in Dani encounters with images
in magazines and books. Many of the images in these were, of course, of
phenomena totally outside their ken, such as an automobile or a skyscraper.
In the pre-contact period art, in the form of either drawing or
carving was almost non-existent among the Dani. There were a very few
charcoal drawings, on interior house walls or exposed rocks, of human
"stick figures", animals, and insects. Children made incised drawings
on bare earth, usually of gardens or human genitalia.
Image manufacture or recognition was not a prime focus of my
research so the photo information was gathered casually rather than
systematically. When I returned briefly in 1976, reaction to cameras
was more pronounced and "Western"; i.e., people lining up/"posing" to
be photographed.
While I would not encourage wide generalizations from these
observations, I doubt that they are unique.
Denise O'Brien

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