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  • Rick Rohde with Sian Sullivan

Outsider photography/insider ethnography: writing ourselves out of the picture?

In November 2016 the Contemporary Ethnography Across the Disciplines (CEAD) Conference took place in Cape Town. The conference focus was Ethnographic Imaginings: Place, Space, and Time. In response, Sian Sullivan, Rick Rohde and Chris Low of the Future Pasts research team developed a panel with the title Encountering Each Other: Agencies, (Im)possibilities, and Reciprocities in Dryland Southern Africa – A Sharing of Co-created Works and Experiences.

A key intention of our panel was to reflect on and involve the collaborations of Khoe and San participants and collaborators in our southern African research endeavours over the course of the last twenty years. We asked ourselves,

is it possible to write ethnography as a shared experience of long-term relationships and collaborations, while attempting to refract the seemingly intractable postcolonial structures of inequality?

In this enquiry, our starting position is that we cannot erase either History – that mesh of mercantile, colonial, apartheid and gendered trajectories structuring all our encounters – or the personal and contingent histories that inform our relationships, yearnings and endeavours. We ask: how might we work in ways that both acknowledge and redress these shared pasts?

For those of us on the ‘European’ side of our field research equation, should we simply write ourselves out of the picture in our respect for the violent pasts that haunt present inequities? Or does this ‘writing out’ further discount the multiple agencies at play as ethnographic practice and co-generated materials participate in the ongoing making of worlds? Is it possible to work collaboratively to mobilise skills and resources, and to share voices and experiences that tend to be occluded, without falling into either naïve, liberal paternalisms or a perpetuation of problematic mutual dependencies? We sense that these are questions that many of us struggle with daily as we pursue a politicised ethnographic awareness and practice, questions that are heightened in the polarising dynamics so characteristic of the contemporary moment.

In this blog we focus in particular on one of our CEAD conference panel presentations (by Rick Rohde and Siona O'Connell) to describe a process of ‘writing’ visual ethnography through foregrounding images and associated narratives created by untrained photographers. This becomes a means of these photographers ‘writing’ themselves into the ethnographic picture. Whilst these photographers have also been ‘subjects of’ ethnographic study in which photographic representation is a key methodology, the images and narratives thereby created have also thus engendered a writing out of the picture of ‘the ethnographer’ as empowered author and expert. In reflecting on these ‘insider/outsider’ dynamics for two specific field contexts, this post offers an ‘auto-ethnographic’ account that is multi-vocal and spans these experiential divides.

What follows is an account of two photography projects initiated by one of us (Rick) that attempted to overcome the potentially polarising dynamics posed by ethnographic practice. These projects took place in two small southern African villages: Okombahe in western Namibia, and Paulshoek in Namaqualand, South Africa. The former culminated in an exhibition of the work of sixteen individuals at the National Gallery of Namibia in 1996. The latter showcased photographs made by one young woman over a fifteen year period and exhibited at the District Six Museum in Cape Town in 2013 and now published in book form. In both cases, the photographers were amateurs with no training or exposure to traditions of visual representation.

The story of these photography projects delineates an experimental approach to writing ethnography where cameras were given to people who would normally have been the objects of ethnographic photo studies. The images open the possibility of rethinking the issue of distance and otherness, and directly address questions concerning cultural space, the sense of temporality and narrative authority. An attention to the process of the project as a whole, rather than to the photographs themselves, as artefacts, contributes to a resolution of some of the problems of writing ethnography and representing 'others'.


My first experience of organising an outsider photography project took place as part of my research into the environmental history of a Namibian ‘homeland’ shortly after the country’s Independence in 1990. I was based in a small communal village in Damaraland called Okombahe and decided to give disposable cameras to people as I extended my network of contacts and friendships: it seemed a good way to begin to engage with people that lived in and around the village and to see it through their eyes.

Aobhe & Dadu playing ||hus (photo: Maria Pietersen, 1995)

At the time of my fieldwork (1993-96), the typical 'ethnographic gaze' of the photographer was employed in the depiction of 'natives', 'ethnic groups' or exotic 'others' almost exclusively by

outsiders, usually by white, European males. I decided to turn this situation on its head by giving cameras to the Namibians among whom I was living. I hoped that they would show me something about how they looked at themselves and their world.

There was very little that could go wrong in operating the disposable 35mm cameras: a shutter button, film winder with frame numbers and a flash button are the only movable parts. Participants (who were chosen through friendship networks) were given between two and four weeks to complete the film of 24 frames and many were given a second camera after having discussed the results of the first film. Altogether I distributed twenty-four cameras to sixteen people, although it would almost be more accurate to say that twelve families participated: in many cases the cameras were shared either by a husband and wife or by several family members, but in all cases I credited the work to the person or couple responsible for the camera. Nine women and seven men took part. The ages of the photographers ranged from twenty-two to seventy with an average age of thirty-four.

As each batch of films were completed they were processed and the prints returned to the photographers. We discussed technical issues such as lighting and framing and I then recorded comments on each photograph. Discussion often took place in the context of a large family gathering where stories were told by and about the people depicted in the pictures - hilarity and jokes spilled over into serious considerations of the hardships of daily life; emotion and irony were intermingled in accounts of friends, family and personal histories. This viewing of the photographs became a social event in itself.

Poster from the exhibition 'Matida Sida ra Mûgu' (How We See Each Other) held in 1995 at the National Art Gallery of Namibia

The climax of the project was an exhibition at the National Art Gallery of Namibia and consisted of forty enlarged framed images along with several hundred snap-shots mounted on laminated panels with captions and grouped by individual photographer. The title of the exhibition translates from Damara as ‘How we see each other’. Implicit to the entire process of how we see each other, is a continual negotiation of meaning across social and cultural space, involving transitions from the personal to the public, between rural and urban, periphery and centre, all mediated by images and informed by ideology. This title refers literally to the photographers but obviously has metaphorical connotations about fieldwork, anthropological accounts and representation generally.

Okombahe photographers arriving at the opening of the exhibition Matida Sida ra Mûgu (How We See Each Other) at the National Art Gallery of Namibia in Windhoek, 1995 (photo: Rick Rohde, 1995)

The opening night of the exhibition was a chaotic mix of Namibian social and cultural worlds that met here on equal terms. I shall never forget the surprise and excitement on the faces of the photographers as they confronted the images and narratives of their personal lives in this distanced, genteel and sterile context - the safe mediated world of the urban art gallery. Issues of race, ethnicity, aesthetics, poverty, power and their representations were both implicit to the social occasion and explicitly reflected in the photographs themselves. This was one of the defining moments in a process which had initially been conceived as an experiment in fieldwork methodology but which took on a momentum of its own when it entered the public arena as a collective representation of contemporary rural Namibian life. The whole process of engaging with the photographers through to the exhibition in the National Gallery opened by the then Damara Minister of Foreign Affairs provided a rich narrative tapestry where the photographers became co-authors in their own ethnographic representation. The exhibition and its resonance in the present continues to feature in discussions regarding representation in Namibia.

Twenty years later, I revisited Okombahe and started the process of tracking down and making contact with the photographers. The text and images made in 1995 are a kind of ‘time-capsule’ and a base-line from which to form a diachronic ethnography tracing the lives of villagers over a generation. This might provide a counter-weight to the normative global discourses underpinning contemporary development and environmental policy rhetoric, although I am still unsure as to how to represent these personal histories.

Albert (|Eteb) Nuwuseb, photographed in 1995 (L) and 2015 (R) (photos: Rick Rohde)


My second engagement with outsider photography took place over a period of 16 years, with one photographer: Sophia Klaase. Her photographs comprise an intimate personal archive of South African rural life, a kind of street photography in a village without streets, recording a young woman’s transition from adolescence to adulthood in the context of Paulshoek, a remote Namaqualand village in the northern Cape region of South Africa. In many ways the people of Paulshoek (and Namaqualand generally) share similar cultural aspects with southern Namibians. Their ancestry and history have common roots and up until the early 20th century they shared a common mother tongue (Nama/Damara) although for most Namaqualanders today Afrikaans is their first language.

Sophia (Vytjie) Klaase in 1999 (photo: Sophia Klaase, 1999)

Sophia was sixteen years old when I first met her in 1999, although she looked younger because of her slender build, short hair and childlike demeanour. She had a vitality and adventurous spirit that was innocently captivating and at the same time slightly alarming, for underneath her irrepressible exuberance one sensed a wildness that had few if any inhibitions or limitations. Of the twelve young people from the village who took part in the photography project, Sophia made the most interesting and seductive images. Her photos stood out for their freshness, sensitivity, composition and candid portrayal of village society. Photography was one way she found to make sense of her life and the world she inhabits.

Namaqualand is generally considered to be a peripheral and marginal area in South Africa, with a very small, highly scattered rural population depending upon a few towns and mining centres for services and administrative facilities. Because of its history within a marginalised ‘coloured’ reserve, the village seems stranded in the landscape and in time, and even today, in the context of massive changes resulting from migration, tourism and infrastructure changes, it has seen little socio-economic transformation. Unemployment remains extremely high at over 75% and those who find work often receive very low wages. In common with many of South Africa’s communal areas, state welfare in the form of pensions or child and disability grants are the main sources of income. Illness due to limited health services, poverty and the HIV/AIDS pandemic are ever-present realities among the young and the old. And yet, in spite of the isolation and lack of opportunities in Paulshoek, Sophia Klaase’s visual archive reflects the way its residents manage to create a sense of cultural continuity while adapting to the influences of globalisation.

Extraordinary Lives – Portraits from a Divided Land. Photographs by Sophia Klaase. Exhibition at the District Six Museum, Cape Town 2013

Sophia travelled to Cape Town twice in 2013 in preparation for an exhibition of her photographs at the District Six Museum. Her preview of the show was overwhelming: there were over two hundred images in this public gallery illustrating a highly personal account of her life in a small Namaqualand village. This, combined with the crowds, speeches and praise at the opening was akin to the emotive drama of an episode of ‘this is your life’.

While Sophia was inspired by the accolades and public recognition, she was also at a loss as to how to build on this success. The idea of photography as ‘work’ or a serious endeavour is an alien idea to her. And yet, her archive of images is a unique ethnographic record that will live on through a book of seventy-five photographs.

Merchia Gouws (photo: Sophia Klaase, 2013)

Closing comments

Ethnography and photography have followed parallel and intersecting courses since their origins in the 19th century. Part of the richness of the photograph resides precisely in the indeterminacy of its meaning in the shifting context of production and consumption. Perception, sight and vision do not exist in isolation; they arise in a world of movement and behaviour, through interaction and exploration. Learning to see is usually achieved so unconsciously at an early age that its immense complexity remains hidden from us. It is this ocular unconscious which both enables and modifies our vision of the world in a way that naturalises what is in fact a cultural construct.

The two collections (or archives) of photographic images described above comprise a multiple, shifting text, embodying a variety of meanings and values depending on the context in which they are viewed, displayed and published. This is crucial, for the archive is not only the concern and domain of the academy and the state. The challenge is to acknowledge the everyday lives of rural society from which these photographs emerge, that have long been marginalised and excluded from mainstream culture. Both collections have found a place in contemporary visual culture and inspire fresh insights into otherwise hidden lives. As such, the traditional ‘European’ ethnographer may become simply a facilitator for the exposure of visual culture by outsider photographers, thereby (to some extent at least) ‘writing ourselves out of the picture’.

'Willemina and Queenie are going by donkey cart to collect the drought fodder in Okombahe. The donkeys are wanting to run!' (photo: Willem Hoeseb, 1995)

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