Potent images: emergent practices and shifting attitudes towards photographs of the dead in Arnhem Land

Deger, Jennifer (2006) Potent images: emergent practices and shifting attitudes towards photographs of the dead in Arnhem Land. In: [Presented at the 2006 Bilan du Film Ethnographique]. From: Bilan du Film Ethnographique: From Ethnological Films to Visual Anthropology, 1 March 2006, Paris, France.

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Until recently, Yolngu (along with many other Australian Aboriginal groups) have insisted that photographs be hidden from sight, or even destroyed, upon the death of the subject. This is now dramatically changing. New kinds of practices—and shifting ontological understandings of power and dangers associated with photographic images—are emerging as Yolngu actively explore the rich possibilities that photographs offer to evoke, remind and 'connect' the living with those who have 'passed away'. Such moments of mourning and memorialising enable a deepening ethnographic appreciation of the place of images and the senses in Yolngu lifeworlds.

John Berger observes that every photograph presents the viewer with a "shock of discontinuity". These material fragments of the past do more than freeze the flow of time—they puncture the present, confronting the viewer with the 'abyss' that lies between then and now. As Berger acknowledges, the shock of such an encounter is rarely consciously registered in our image saturated lives, unless, that is, the subject of the photograph is known to the viewer—and is either long-absent, or dead. In these circumstances, photographic presence renders absence visible. Before your eyes, the brutal inevitability of loss fills the frame, no matter what the pose or background vista. The oscillations this generates—amplified, perhaps, by the very stillness of the image itself—shake things loose inside. The wrenching open of heart-mind unleashes a torrent of feelings, thoughts and memories. In my culture we generally deal with this upset by turning away from these photos. We try to not look too long, to let go, move on. To do otherwise is to be maudlin, to become mired in grief. Instead, looking resolutely forward, we turn to images of the living. We keep photographs of our children, or, perhaps, our lovers, in our wallets, selecting images that can be glimpsed with pleasure in the course of a busy day, or pulled out and shown to admiring friends, even strangers, as occasions arise. The Aboriginal people with whom I work, as an ethnographer and collaborative videomaker, have different kinds of relationships with images of the dead. This paper explores changing attitudes and shifting practices in relation to these potent images in a small settlement in Arnhem Land.

Item ID: 34039
Item Type: Conference Item (Presentation)
Date Deposited: 09 Mar 2017 01:50
FoR Codes: 19 STUDIES IN CREATIVE ARTS AND WRITING > 1905 Visual Arts and Crafts > 190599 Visual Arts and Crafts not elsewhere classified @ 20%
16 STUDIES IN HUMAN SOCIETY > 1601 Anthropology > 160104 Social and Cultural Anthropology @ 80%
SEO Codes: 95 CULTURAL UNDERSTANDING > 9502 Communication > 950205 Visual Communication @ 20%
97 EXPANDING KNOWLEDGE > 970116 Expanding Knowledge through Studies of Human Society @ 80%
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