Stereotypes and Navajo

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Photography’s Other Histories, edited by Christopher Pinney and Nicolas Peterson, is a well-researched work covering a lot of ground on two broad issues – the mainly European/Western use of photography with a mindset of colonialism, and the early use of photography in a few selected non-European countries. Pinney and Peterson add much to the conversation about the ethics of photography.

The book illustrates many examples of both conscious and unconscious ‘colonial gaze’. This is shorthand for the way that photography has been used almost from its beginnings to maintain and extend imperial power by treating the people of colonies as objects and possessions for observation, including dehumanisation and the pictorial separation of people into US (the so-called civilised colonials) and THEM/OTHERS (the colonial subjects in need of civilisation).

‘Colonial gaze’ is not just a ‘western’ perspective, as Pinney and Peterson show how  Japan used ‘scientific colonialism’ (including photography) to justify its takeover of Manchuria. Misguided attempts at the use of photography in anthropology were legion – for example, the taking and then distribution of photographs of sacred (and secret) Australian Aboriginal ceremonies.

In the essay Supple Bodies, by Christopher Wright, Captain Francis R. Barton’s (1865-1947) photographs of mainly young, semi-nude Papuans was analysed. Barton was an amateur anthropologist, and his work is in the Royal Anthropological Institute. His photographs featured in a comprehensive anthropological study of Papua New Guinea by Charles Seligman, published in 1910.

Extracts from the British Museum biography of Barton offers this:

Captain Francis Rickman Barton (1865 –1947) was an army captain serving in Sierra Leone and Barbados, who went to New Guinea in 1899 … In 1904 he met the British anthropologist, Charles Seligman – part of the Cook Daniels expedition – carried out field research for him and contributed to his book ‘Melanesians of British New Guinea’ (Seligman: 1910). 

Barton donated 257 artefacts to the British Museum in 1919 (part of the Christy collection), all from Papua New Guinea. … The collection includes numerous arrows and bows, lime spatulas and pottery vessels as well as axes, body ornaments and tobacco-pipes. Sixteen photographs taken by Barton in British New Guinea – nearly all of women in the Central Division with geometric body tattoos (and indicative of Barton’s interest in producing an anthropological survey of tattooing) – are in the British Museum Pictorial Collection‘.

In pursuing his research, Barton went so far as to draw on the girls bodies to make sure the tattoos stood out on photographs. This detracts from the objectivity of his methods.

Francis R. Barton. 1907. Motu Girl, Fairfax Harbour, Port Moresby.

Barton’s Motu Girl is perhaps one of the more extreme of his photographs. Whilst a technically strong image, with (to be charitable) an ‘art pose’, frankly it is hard to see that this image was taken and presented purely as a scientific record. It has been posed, including the removal of all of the girl’s garments except jewellry. The result is a voyeuristic, manipulated image which is a perfect example of colonial gaze. The photograph, both in its nudity and full frontal pose,  also has overtly sexual overtones.

Google this image on the web and see for yourself the contexts in which it is displayed today.

Chuck Bowden. 2004. Motu Girl in a Canoe. /

Barton’s work should be put into historical and cultural context, of course. Time makes a considerable impact on how we view and value images, as does cultural and political progression. There is evidence that Barton shared his work with local Papuans, in some sense of collaboration, and there is no doubt that his partnership with Seligman included a scientific spirit.

One also reflects that as tourists we take photographs of what we find, and sometimes the resultant images could be misconstrued. We all tend to be more careful about the respect we offer to our subjects in our homeland than we do when visiting tourist centres. Cute children, the tribes in Papua and so on. Any modern-day image search of the indigenous peoples of Papua will show many topless women and semi-naked children in a pastoral environment.

Of course, the highland people make money by catering to tourists in this way, so one can argue that consent is freely give. Yet it is hard to imagine this happening in the UK.

Mick Yates. 1994. Woman of Wabia Tribe. Papua New Guinea.

Christopher Wright noted that, for presentation purposes, one of Barton’s photographs of Luikama, a Hula girl, had been ‘isolated’ for close study. Barton drew on the image in an effort to make it easier to see the armpit (kadidiha) tattoo.

But this also objectifies Luikama’s breast.

Francis Barton. 1904-1907. Hula girl, Luikama. Royal Anthropological Society.

Wright notes:

This, then, is another of the photograph’s trajectories, a movement that links the events of one afternoon in Port Moresby with the royal institutions and gentleman’s clubs of London, with a group of men sitting in a  darkened room watching images projected on a wall‘. (Pinney, 2003: 156)

So, the eternal triangle of subject-photographer-audience must always be considered. This includes the intention of the photographer in making the work, engaging with his or her subject and then preparing it for consumption by the eventual audiences.

The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) has published Guidelines for Ethical Research. This is being updated, although it is probably already a ‘best in class’ statement whose aim is to:

‘… ensure that research with and about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples follows a process of meaningful engagement and reciprocity between the researcher and the individuals and/or communities involved in the research’.

Digging more into the Pinney & Peterson book, there is a chapter by James Faris, Navajo and Photography. He conducted longitudinal studies of how the Navajo have been portrayed – from the times of the US attacks against Native Americans to the present day. I am not going to get drawn on the politics of Genocide – though the case is compelling.

I was taken by Faris’ framework for looking at photographs, reproduced here.

James Faris. 2003. Registers in the photography of Navajo.

Faris’ framework suggests that the images studied range from the relatively banal and good-intentioned, to the crass and politicised. What is very clear was how photography was used to perpetuate and distribute stereotypes.

The header above is Edward S. Curtis’ (1868-1952) Vanishing Race, a posed photograph showing both a romantic view of the Navajo and their ongoing demise. Time magazine notes:

‘Fearing the imminent disappearance of America’s first inhabitants, Edward S. Curtis sought to document the assorted tribes, to show them as a noble people – the old time Indian, his dress, his ceremonies, his life and manners.  … Curtis turned these pictures and observations into The North American Indian, a 20 ­volume chronicle of 80 tribes. No single image embodied the project better than The Vanishing Race, his picture of Navajo riding off into the dusty distance.

Theodore Roosevelt, a contemporary of Curtis’s and one of his most fervent supporters, wrote the following comments in the foreword to Volume 1 of The North American Indian:

‘In Mr. Curtis we have both an artist and a trained observer, whose work has far more than mere accuracy, because it is truthful. … Mr. Curtis in publishing this book is rendering a real and great service; a service not only to our own people, but to the world of scholarship everywhere’.

There are not many words here about Navajo culture, and their plight as they adjusted to the ‘new world’. Indeed, some of Curtis’ photographs were of westerners in tribal dress, and others were posed.

It seems clear that this is much more a story told for Westerners about the demise of the Navajo, rather than any attempt to document (or even celebrate) the uniqueness and importance of the Navajo culture. Colonial gaze, in fact.

In my opinion, Curtis’ contemporary, Adam Clark Vroman (1856 – 1916) did a more objective job.

Adam Clark Vroman. 1900. Indian Mother With Her Child.

All photographs carry the intention of the photographer, as well as aim to represent a subject and a  story to an audience. Vroman’s work has always struck me as respecting the dignity of his subjects, whilst aiming to be as indexical and objective as photography would allow.

On the other hand, a case can be made that Curtis was complicit in the long-term stereotyping of the Navajo, however unwittingly, in the sense of reflecting on the past rather than celebrating a vibrant culture with a future.

Julia Dolan, curator of photography at Portland Museum commented:

‘It’s clear that Curtis, whatever the impact of his images, viewed the project as an homage. But his work did little to raise consciousness about the conditions of Native life in early 20th-century America. “He wasn’t someone who was, let’s say happy, or fine, with Native Americans being moved onto reservations and their traditions and religious ceremonies made illegal, their language made illegal,” says Dolan. “But he wasn’t trying to stop that change. He was trying to make a monument, I think, to a people or multiple cultures that he believed would be gone. By the end of the project you can see some of his anger start to seep into the writing. He’s quite disgusted by the U.S. government as he goes on’. (Thackera, 2016)

Faris also notes that:

It should be clear that these sorts of photographs are an early pastoral version of advocacy or victim photography, such as represented today by people like S. Salgado or S. Meiselas – the aestheticising of misery‘. (2003: 93)

Whilst I do not agree with him about either of those photographers, (see one of my Salgado posts), the general point that he is making about the early Navajo photographs is valid. Curtis was funded by J.P. Morgan (a $75,000, 3 year grant), was published by Harvard University, and was well regarded by the US Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Today, it seems clear that his work is as much political as photographic.

A good example of Curtis’ ethnographic work is one of his many ‘deadpan’ portraits of Navajo women.

Edward Curtis. 1904. Navajo Woman.

This is technically a very strong, beautiful portrait. But it is clearly posed, without context or environment. The woman looks concerned. The jewellery belonged to Curtis, so the portrait was manipulated rather than an ethnographic record.

On the other hand, Curtis also took this beautiful, relaxed image of the same woman

Edward Curtis. 1904. The Smile.

A lovely image and quite modern with some interesting insights into the woman’s life and environment. She seems at ease with Curtis, and there is no sense of ‘past’ here, only of the present. In effect it seems a two-way gaze, without ‘us’ and ‘them’.

This suggest two summary points to me. First, what has been chosen to represent Curtis’ work (the header, for example, featured in Time Magazine’s Top 100 Images list) is at least as much to do with editorial and political considerations as it is to do with the photographer. And it has little to do with explaining either Navajo culture or helping educate others on the issues the Navajo were facing. Rather, it renders a narrative of ‘noble savage’.

Second, when dealing with the ‘colonial / white’ gaze, it is possible to take respectful photographs which both record the ethnographical details and shine with humanity. That is where I see both Salgado and Meiselas situated, and something I aspire to.

Stepping back to Faris’ Registers, whilst a good list he seems to take a determinedly negative view of the possibilities. I think it is missing some key ideas.

First, politics. This should be overt in any analysis of photographs, and can reflect either the negative gaze and intent of the coloniser, or the positive work of indigenous (or other artists) to fight against the injustices of such gazes. In simply calling these ‘alternatives’ Faris misses the point.

Second, humanity and respect. I am sure that Curtis considered that he was taking photographs in this way, and it is only with the benefit of time and social advance that his methodological issues become clearer. Yet I would argue that Vroman almost always had this in mind. There is nothing to prevent a good ethnographical image also having deep respect for the subject.

Third, discovery. This refers to both the subjects of the work, and the eventual audience. This requires an awareness of the possibilities of collaboration and participation ay every step.

There is a quote on the AIATSIS website referring to the acceptance and power of its mission amongst indigenous peoples.

‘We understand ourselves through places like AIATSIS. Through places like AIATSIS, we can wake up the people with knowledge … There might be precious mysteries to help us understand ourselves again. We can look to the past to find our way’.

Wanta Jampijinpa Pawu-Kurlpurlurnu (Steve Jampijinpa Patrick), Lajamanu, NT.

There is a lot written today about ‘collaboration’ and ‘social engagement’ in photography. (see Anthony Luvera). But it seems to me that is nothing new in the history of the medium. It is just we now vocalise it better. Yet, sand rather sadly, as is often the case, sometimes the basically good ideas get vocalised with much self-importance on behalf of the photographers who make the claim.

Fourth, consent. Whilst hard to get consent clearly in place (and from the right people), that does not eliminate the need for it. And in ethnographic and anthropological work, it is essential. The AIASTIS principles suggest a way forward.

I will be developing these points further as I research the ethics of photography.


Edward S. Curtis. 1904. Vanishing Race. Available at: (accessed 08/08/2019)

Edward S. Curtis. 1904. The Blanket Maker. Available at: (accessed 08/08/2019)

Edward S. Curtis. 1904. Navaho Smile. Available at: (accessed 08/08/2019)

Edward S. Curtis. 1904. Navaho Woman. Available at: (accessed 08/08/2019)

Time Magazine. Edward Curtis Vanishing Race. Top 100 Photographs. Available at: (accessed 08/08/2019).


Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. 2002. Guidelines for Ethical Research. 2012 Edition. Available at: (accessed 08/08/2019).

CURTIS, Edward S. 1907. The North American Indian: Volume One. Available at:,&psec=nai.01, (accessed 08/08/2019).

HASSELBERG, Jan. 2014. The Hidden Treasure of Historic Photographs from Papua New Guinea. Available at: (accessed 08/08/2019).

HASSELBERG,  Jan. 2018. The Visual Inheritance: Collections of Historical Photographs from Papua New Guinea. Available at: (accessed 08/08/2019).

LOBO, Susan, TALBOT, Steve & MORRIS, Traci L. 2010. Native Representations, from Native American Voices Reader. New Jersey: Prentice Hall. Available at: (accessed 08/08/2019).

PINNEY, Christopher & Peterson, Nicolas. 2003. Photography’s Other Histories. Durham: Duke University Press.

PINNEY, Christopher. 2011. Photography and Anthropology. London: Reaktion Books.

SELIGMAN, Charles. 1910. The Melanesians of British New Guinea. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Available at: (accessed 08/08/2019).

THACKERA, Tess. 2016. Challenging America’s Most Iconic (and Controversial) Photographer of Native Americans. Available at: (accessed 08/08/2019).

WATTS, Jennifer and SMITH, Andrew. 2004. Adam Clark Vroman: Platinum Prints. Santa Fe: Andrew Smith Gallery. Available at: (accessed 17/09/2017).