Reading Modern Ethnographic Photography
Written by Linje M. Mlauzi   

Reading Modern Ethnographic Photography: A Semiotic Analysis of Kalahari Bushmen Photographs by Paul Weinberg and Sian Dunn.

By Linje M. Mlauzi (2003)
Place: Durban, South Africa
Published: No
Type of product: MA dissertation



Indigenous communities, like the Bushmen of the Southern Kalahari, always attract visitors who ‘go there’ to experience the ‘life out there’. Travelling in their Land Rovers or other 4x4s, these visitors also bring cameras and take pictures of their interactions with subject communities as evidence of ‘having been there’. For academics and journalists, these pictures are meant to illustrate their presentations of ‘what is actually there’. Both types of photographs are known as ethnographic photography.

This study, therefore, asks and attempts to answer the question: how do we study ethnographic photography? As much as photographers attempt to portray their subjects realistically, their representations are often contested and criticised as entrenching subjugation, displacement and dehumanisation of indigenous peoples through ‘visual metaphors’ and other significatory regimes. This discussion (re) considers the concept of imaging others, by offering an analytical semiotic comparison between Paul Weinberg’s anchored and published photographic texts of the Bushmen, on the one hand, and Sian Dunn’s unpublished, inactive texts of the ¹Khomani Bushmen, on the other.

The discussion attempts to understand documentary photographers, processes of producing of images, the contexts in which they are produced and how the communities that are represented make sense of them. Concerns with the objectivity of representation go beyond the taking and consuming pictures of other cultures. This study is, therefore, grounded in cultural, social and ideological factors that shape the production and consumption of photographic representations of other cultures.


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