Re: Recognition of photos

Mike Salovesh (t20mxs1@CORN.CSO.NIU.EDU)
Tue, 25 Jul 1995 11:05:50 -0500

Also FWIW:

Once upon a time (around 1960) the Chiapas Project, U of Chicago, tried
to do cross-community psychological testing with our own variant of the
Thematic Apperception Test (TAT).

We knew two things: 1) Our artistic conventions, hence the ambiguous
drawings that are the essence of the TAT, are not the same as those of
the Tzotzil- and Tzeltal- speaking people we were interested in. 2)
Photographs are well known, and there are photographs pinned to the walls
in many houses.

So some of us (not me) went through stacks of field photographs, and
actually posed some more, to come up with a set that we thought would
provide ambiguous stimuli for people to react to.

Trouble was, the whole game was alien to our informants. Some of the
things that happened to me when I tried to get people to "tell me what is
happening in this picture" or "tell me a story about what the people in
this picture are doing" turned out to be typical of our experience across
the board. Here are a couple of not unusual answers:

"Well, I don't know who this person is. Who knows what he might be doing?
We are like blind people in this world. There are some people who have
their eyes open maybe a little. Perhaps they could tell you what this
person is doing. But I can't even tell you who it is."

(MUCH later in my fieldwork, I finally realized that I was being told
that interpreting photographs is something best left to curanderos. To
claim to be able to tell a story on just the evidence of a photo would be
to claim illegitimate witchcraft power.)

"Oh, I could tell you about THIS one. This looks like old Bartolo Ch'uch.
Well, one day Bal Ch'uch was on his way to his milpa in Yuchen Grande when
he saw Shab Ni' going the other way. So he greeted him, and they stopped
and talked. When they had smoked a cigarette, then Bal said . . . "

(The only connection between the story told and the photo I had shown, as
far as I could see, was that my informant thought the guy in the picture
looked sort of like Bal Ch'uch.)

I guess the point is that my informants played according to their rules,
not according to mine. I could have concluded that they were incapable
of narration on the kind of stimuli we were offering, if I were really
stupid about it. Instead, I concluded that the deficiency was in US, the
anthropologists. We were trying so damned hard to use something that has
a reputation for producing interesting data when used with people in our
culture that it took as a while to realize how inappropriate the
instrument was, at least in the way we tried it. It didn't take a LONG
time to realize that!

Side data: I did notice, again and again, that the people I was working
with didn't share my ideas about how to orient a photograph when looking
at it. When I showed them photos of themselves and their families, they
would hold them whichever way they received them. That meant they often
looked at pictures "upside down"--as I perceived it. It didn't seem to
make that much difference in their ability to identify people in the
pictures, or to identify where they had been taken. My conclusion: even
how you attend to the orientation of a picture, right side up or upside
down, is a matter of cultural convention. (There's more to it than that,
but I'll leave it there for now.)

If there are people out there who supposedly "can't recognize objects in
photographs", I'd bet that the problem is in cross-cultural
communication, not perception. It's probably the anthropologist's fault
for not knowing how and what to ask within the informant's framework.
Most of the time, OUR QUESTIONS are weird, off-the-wall, and outside the
context of normal human interaction, as far as our informants are concerned.

-- mike salovesh <>
department of anthropology
northern illinois university