Danny Yee >> People >> Mike Salovesh
Date:         Wed, 15 Mar 2000 03:00:55 -0600
From:         Mike Salovesh <t20mxs1@CORN.CSO.NIU.EDU>
Subject:      Seeing and believing?

Ron Kephart said:

>>Perhaps it was because your drawing had little real >>resemblance-content in either case (no reflection on your artistic >>ability intended), but in your Spanish class, unlike for the >>Aymara, the drawing had much convention-content: the children were >>accustomed to stick-figure representation. > > Not exactly. In Aymara, even a photograph doesn't work. >

For comparison with what Ron reports, let me describe a case where photos didn't work with Tzotzil and Tzeltal speakers in Chiapas, Mexico. What turned out to be interesting was that the reasons photos didn't work turned out to have nothing to do with "resemblance-content" or whether the informants were accustomed to photographic representation.

Background: Three universities (Chicago, Harvard, and Stanford) cooperated in ethnographic projects in Highland Chiapas, Mexico in the late 1950s early 1960s. Design of the Chicago Chiapas Project called for parallel studies conducted in a string of communities where the predominant language was either Tzeltal or Tzotzil, languages of the Mayan family.

Part of the design called for collecting materials for comparative psychological evaluation. One of the tools proposed for this task was a variant of TAT, the Thematic Apperception Test. Photographs of individuals wearing clothing that approximated local Indian costume, in settings that would be familiar to people living in Highland Chiapas communities, were substituted for the standard drawings of the TAT. The photographs were selected so as to show scenes that were open to ambiguous interpretation; the kinds of ambiguities paralleled those depicted in standard TAT drawings.

The idea was for project workers to hand the photographs, one at a time, to an informant and ask the informant to tell a story about what the people in the pictures were doing. The plan was to tape record as many of the responses as possible; the recordings would be transcribed, translated if necessary, and given to specialists for standardized TAT evaluation. Where local conditions made tape recording impossible, field workers were to transcribe the responses on the spot. With standard eliciting stimuli, and with fieldworkers trained to set the framework of each interview in a standardized way, the whole procedure was supposed to . . . well, at this point, I can't remember what we had in mind. Some kind of culture and personality study as one feature among many in the whole comparative study of Tzeltal/Tzotzil communities, I guess.

The attempt at collecting TAT materials with photos was a total flop.

Before anyone suggests that maybe our informants weren't used to photographs, or to telling stories about what could be seen in a photograph, let me save you the trouble. People have been taking photos in these communities for more than a century. (I just ran across a photo taken in this general area that was published in National Geographic in 1915. I've seen older ones in the field.) Every local fiesta is likely to have itinerant photographers offering the chance to pose for and purchase a picture, and many homes have photos pinned to the walls or standing on the tables that support house altars.

I have shown older informants copies of photos taken 10 to 30 years earlier in their own communities, and they have eagerly identified those who appear in the pictures. Sometimes discussions got pretty lively when there was some uncertainty about the identity of some individual in an old photo -- and sometimes those questions were settled by sending for someone recognizable in the picture, or for a relative of a known individual appearing there. Once people were pretty well agreed as to the identity of those who appeared in the photos, they would turn to guessing when the pictures might have been taken and who the photographer might have been. Then people would tell stories recounting what was happening in the lives of those people back when the picture was taken, or what they must have been doing that provided the occasion for the photo.

What went wrong with the attempted photo-based TAT equivalents was that people did not react to those pictures in ways we expected. A typical reaction to a picture might go like this:

"Can you tell me a story about the people in this picture?" "No, I don't know them." "Well, can you tell me what you see in the picture?" "It looks like a man is standing there, and a woman, and they are in front of a house." "What are they doing?" "I don't know. I have never seen them before. Who knows what they could be doing?"

Once in a while, there would be a markedly different reaction.

"Ah. That looks like old Bartolo X, not the one who is here today but the one who died maybe ten years ago. One day he was coming home from the milpa, it was a long time ago, when his son Mikel was still at the breast. It was a hot day, so Bartolo sat down to rest when he came to the Rio Seco. It was the rainy season, and there had been so much rain up in the hills that the Rio Seco was flowing as it does when it rains, not dry as you might see it today. . . "

In a sense, the photo had served as a stimulus to telling a story -- but the only element in the photo that had anything to do with the story told was the slight resemblance between the photo's subject and someone the informant had known in the past. The standardized stimulus produced no responses that could be used as planned. (They did produce lots of information anyhow, mostly by accident and the good luck of one fieldworker or another.)

I'm not sure I know why our careful plans failed. I observed, on lots of occasions, that when Indians in Chiapas talked about those whose likenesses they saw in a photograph, they didn't mention individuals they didn't recognize. Nobody volunteered any explanation. I wasn't smart enough to ask, either.

Nonetheless, I may have an explanation. I learned it this way:

In the field, I took the advice of more experienced investigators and tried follow strict rules about giving away copies of my pictures. One of those rules was never to give a copy of a photo to someone who did not appear in it. (I made exceptions when asked to take a posed photograph of an individual who agreed to it. When the developed pictures came back, I would give a copy to the person who posed and another copy to the person who had asked that the photograph be taken. But I would do so only if I had explicit permission from the photo's model, and the model was present when I passed on the copy.)

I had many reasons to be glad I followed such rules. For example, young Andres, one of my informants, kept pressing me to take a picture of a girl named Angelita and give it to him. Something felt out of kilter about the urgency of his requests, so I decided to ask Andres' mother, Tia, what she thought of it. (Tia was an old friend and one of my best informants.) Tia explained that Andres was enamored with Angelita. But Angelita was raised by Tia's half-sister, Lola, who was said to have taken her in as an abandoned infant. (Although both Tia and Lola vehemently denied it, there were rumors in the town that Tia's father had incestuously sired Angelita with Lola.) Tia asked me not to give any photographs to Andres, because it would not look good. She had arranged for Andres to marry somebody else to put an end to any possible relationship with Angelita.

I concluded that what Andres had in mind was some kind of love magic involving a photo of Angelita. I never got direct confirmation of that, but the interaction suggested that there might have been some local beliefs that there are things you can do with photographs that will affect the person depicted. The implication would be that photos have someting to do with witchcraft. It's very hard to get information on witchcraft in the community I studied, so it took some time to confirm my hunch. It does turn out to be true. It's also true that there is a great deal of fear of the possibility of witchcraft, and a belief that talking openly about witchcraft powers often leads to supernatural attacks on the speaker. (Another belief is that the only defense against witchcraft or other supernatural attack is to acquire the power to do it yourself. Curers can only cure those diseases they know how to cause. Thus someone who talks too openly about witchcraft is, ipso facto, claiming to have strong witchcraft powers. There is a whole spectrum of social consequences that can follow being accused of having such powers. Ritual assassination is one possible result -- a kind of killing that happens almost every year. That sure puts a damper on any attempt to dig deeply into witchcraft beliefs in anthropological interviews.)

Here's a different kind of case illustrating the same principle.

There is a report, in an old issue of American Anthropologist, that speakers of Isthmus Zapotec have no generic word for "bird". That remarkable information was elicited by handing photos of a variety of birds and other things to Zapotec-speaking kids and asking them to do alternative sortings, then describe what the pictures in each stack had in common. No general word for "bird" emerged from this procedure.

There was a great weakness in the whole setup. The bird pictures included an owl and an eagle, among others. Pick up practically any ethnography of the Isthmus Zapotec and you'll see why that throws the whole article into question.

Zapotecs tell their kids that owls are evil, and that they have great powers to harm children who do wrong. "The owls will get you if you do that!" Eagles are the animal companions of those with strong supernatural powers. (Only those whose companion spirits are jaguars or hurricanes are said to be more powerful.) In the sorting situation, kids gave laconic responses through their bilingual schoolteacher, who translated for the investigator. I'm not surprised that ten or twelve year old kids whose first language is Isthmus Zapotec said very little about stacks of pictures that included depictions of an owl and an eagle. I'm not surprised that they didn't come up with a card-sort including the eagle and the owl with all the other birds. I'm not convinced, on that evidence, that Zapotec doesn't have a generic word for "bird". I think those kids, talking to an outsider through the mediation of a major authority figure, were just scared and didn't want to talk.

What I'm suggesting is that when people "don't recognize" what's in a picture, it doesn't have to be because of unfamiliar resemblance-content. Some content can be so inherently threatening that it's better to look stupid for not recognizing a representation of that content than to be forced to deal with the threat it represents. There can be strong rules against talking about what appears in a picture.

All I've dealt with here is one kind of reason for "not recognizing" the content of a picture. I can easily dream up others, but I leave that to the rest of you. Why should I have all the fun?

-- mike salovesh <salovesh@niu.edu> PEACE !!!