Occasionally one of my photos will surprise me. I’ve been uploading miscellaneous high-resolution photos online for over a decade, all licensed CC-BY, lots of archaeology and travel, and some even tagged with metadata. So they’ve been used all over the place to illustrate blog posts, travel websites, various and sundry. I’m a fairly rubbish photographer–well, the skill comes and goes as I go in and out of practice. I’d probably be even better if I could be bothered to photoshop my photos. I give them a couple of tweaks then release them online.
One of my admin roles in the lectureship is media creation for marketing the department. So a lot of my photos are used for various things, a prospectus, postcards, social media decoration. On weekends away with my family I inevitably drag them to a Local Heritage Attraction(tm), snap some photos and sometimes they’re reused as a nice background to a recruitment campaign, or textures in powerpoints. They’re mixed in with lots of photos of my kid…keeping a work/life media balance is a ship that’s long sailed.
I don’t find enough time to take photos, though it’s part of my role as a lecturer. It’s difficult to participate in events and have to photograph them at the same time. I had a fairly hilarious exchange with a condescending parent at the last graduation who asked if I was “just the photographer.” I was mostly annoyed at the diminishing of the role of photographer. I tell my students over and over, that old internet chestnut: “pix or it didn’t happen.” Anyway, the happy side effect of doing event photography and taking 100000 photos of my child is that I’m getting a little bit better at photographing people. Still not amazing though.
I still take most photographs with my phone, which does a fair job for Instagram, but I dusted off the 50mm and took the Big Camera into town today to try to take a photograph for the Cultural Heritage Management MA. I wasn’t able to get the specific one I wanted as the light was bad, but I took a few others that may get used for one thing or another.
It’s not a bad thing to ramble around York, taking photos and calling it “work.” It is, obviously, but it’s also work–it’s getting harder to see new and interesting angles in York. I just breeze by, headphones in, watching everyone else take photographs of the lovely city.
Visual archaeological depictions have long reified heteronormative representations of the past. Feminist critiques have destabilized the representation of people in the past (Berman 1999; Gifford-Gonzalez 1993; Moser 1992) and queer theory in archaeology has pushed this even further, finding “silences” in heteronormative depictions of families and activities (Dowson 2007) and identity and status in the past (Blackmore 2011). Though experimental visualization is increasingly available through the growing accessibility of creation and publication through digital tools, current depictions of archaeological practice and the past have remained largely static. People are largely absent from digital reconstructions of the past, and when they are present they are an afterthought. This is similar to depictions of current archaeological practice. There is a corresponding absence of discussion of digital tools for emancipatory practice in feminist and queer archaeologies (but see Joyce and Tringham 2007 and Morgan and Eve 2012). In this paper I discuss the potential for an expressive, queer digital archaeology that incorporates critical making, praxis and play.
And I have a new(ish) publication about the transition from analog to digital photography in archaeology:
Abstract: Archaeology and photography has a long, co-constructed history that has increasingly come under scrutiny as archaeologists negotiate the visual turn. Yet these investigations do not make use of existing qualitative and quantitative strategies developed by visual studies to understand representation in archaeological photographs. This article queries the large photographic archive created by ongoing work at the archaeological site of Çatalhöyük in Turkey to consider the visual impact of changing photographic technologies and of a shifting theoretical focus in archaeology. While using content analysis and semiotic analysis to gain a better understanding of the visual record, these analyses also unexpectedly reveal power dynamics and other social factors present during archaeological investigation. Consequently, becoming conversant in visual analyses can contribute to developing more reflexive modes of representation in archaeology.
WARNING, THIS POST FEATURES HUMAN SKELETAL REMAINS though you probably won’t mind!
Bones lead. Skeletons attract headlines, and have been displayed prominently in many, if not most Western (and some Eastern, Southern, and Northern) institutions, both religious and secular, for a very long time. The material remains of people have been used as icons, as reminders of past family members, for offerings, for decoration, for medicinal purposes, and shunned entirely, to never be seen by the living again. Pretty much any way you can think of, and many ways I’m sure you can’t, human skeletons have played a part in the lives of the living.
Yet this was before the internet. You see, the way human remains were treated before was contextual, was defined within the limits of a locality or culture. This started to go to pieces with, well, colonialism, archaeology and museums and has been wildly exacerbated with the widespread availability of images on the internet. Archaeologists have only just started to come to terms with when and where and why it may be appropriate to share images of skeletal remains on the internet.
It still comes up frequently though. A couple of weeks ago, I was extremely pleased to be an author on a joint publication, Genomic signals of migration and continuity in Britain before the Anglo-Saxons, in Nature Communications. Skeletal remains were not used to illustrate the article in Nat Comms, but were used in the roll-out to the press. This photo ran in the Daily Mail, BBC, the International Business Times, and IFScience, among others:
This is not my photo, but I’ve set up such shots before. I’ve told scientists to “lean in, get really close” to the object of their study. A young female researcher leans close to a skeleton of a young male “gladiator.” Her position as a boundary-crossing bioarchaeologist, one who can translate for the dead to the living is secure. (Zoe Crossland has a lot of great things to say about these boundary transgressions in her analyses of forensic literature.) The photo itself doesn’t really tell you anything about the research–it is not obvious that the skeleton was decapitated, or really much of anything except that there were scientists looking at bones.
Another one of the photos that ran:
This one was in Phys.org and National Geographic, but wasn’t quite as popular. This is the more interesting photograph to archaeologists, as it shows the skeleton as the excavator fully revealed it, decapitation obvious, skeleton on its side. You can see that the grave cut has been excavated properly, and the grave is not cut by any other later graves. It is, in the words of one of my excavator friends who saw these photos, “beautifully excavated.”
It is fully revealed, the bones look mostly present (though some of the ribs and an arm are unaccounted for–possible truncation?) and the position of the skeleton is obvious. This photo, to a trained eye, conveys a certain kind of respect–the archaeologist took care in excavating this burial. The archaeologist who did so is well-trained and reflects well on the heritage entity in charge, York Archaeological Trust, who made sure that this excavation was undertaken with expertise. This photo makes the resulting analyses appear more legitimate.
While there is a certain amount of theater to setting up a truly lovely excavation shot, publications with photographs that show messy excavations, improperly excavated remains (like skeletons or artifacts on pedestals of dirt), or horrible health & safety conditions undermine the resulting data, making the entire enterprise suspect.
Still, that does not fully address the ethics of having these bones used in the popular media to illustrate a scientific article that was about ancient DNA. I wondered though, what would be better? An analysis of these skeletons has revealed how monumentally beat up they were during their lives. They had lots of healed injuries, some old, some more recent, a pair of manacles so tight that they would have caused horrible pain to the man before he died. Any illustrations of these men right before their decapitations would have been fairly gruesome.
I brought this up on DigitalOsteo, asked about “fleshed” reconstructions vs. showing skeletal remains, and Sharon Clough pointed me toward this illustration by Mark Gridley:
Would showing the violence of their last moments alive through a “fleshed” reconstruction of events instill more empathy, a better understanding of the lives of these men?
Finally, I think about the context of these skeletons. There are many communities who object to the display and depiction of the dead, who would give a full-throated denunciation of the remains of their ancestors being subjected to DNA sampling and extensive scientific study. But who cares about the Romans?
You can do pretty much anything to Romans. You can make them into cartoons, use them to sell anything from condoms to van insurance, anything goes.
Is it because the Romans are known as conquerers and colonizers? I’m far from a classical archaeologist or an art historian, but it isn’t too hard to find the Romans themselves depicting such brutality, such as this example from Trajan’s column:
Am I using the Roman depiction of conquered Dacian decapitation to justify using skeletons to illustrate archaeological research? Of course not. The complexities of using depictions of human remains in popular media is an unsolved and unsolvable problem. Bones lead. But selecting images for actual content and showing the research context of the burials while being sensitive to the past and present cultural implications is a worthy goal.
We are also looking for contributions from people living in Doha. We don’t have a seamless citizen science solution quite yet (involving tedious server complications, etc), but for now we are taking georeferenced media here:
Last week I submitted my CAA paper, The Death (and Afterlife) of Archaeological Photography, for publication in the proceedings. It’s the second paper on photography and archaeology that I’ve submitted this month; the first was Archaeological Photography as Dangerous Supplement and covered the analog to digital transition, with some added content/semiotic analysis thrown in for good measure. It’s nice finally submitting some of this stuff for publication, and I still have a fairly large unpublished chunk to go. Let’s hope it gets through the peer review process relatively unscathed.
The Death & Afterlife paper deals with a second “wave” of digital photography in archaeology. I argue that the first wave was essentially skeuomorphic–that it replicated composition and content from film photography, just more and faster. The second wave has moved into what has been termed the post-photographic, and I explore what this means in terms of 3D photogrammetric reconstruction, drone photography, and geomedia. Though photography in archaeology is becoming increasingly algorithmic, with more layers processed and varying results at the end, the output at the end still points toward photography. For example, your nice 3D Photoscan model is still presented as a 2D image in your report. What will be truly revolutionary is when publication no longer flattens archaeology.
Photography in archaeology is, as Martin Lister states, “a residual cultural practice…technically dead but still animate,” a trait I cite in the title of my article. Photography is incredibly useful to think with, especially as we try to understand the place of digital media in archaeological interpretation. Photography is deeply implicated in the history of archaeology, both as products and projects of modernity. In my conclusions, I discuss the post-photographic in terms of the post-digital; I cite the post-digital as a shift akin to the postcolonial, what Florian Cramer calls a “critically revised continuation” rather than a turn toward the analog. Jeremy Huggett has posted some thoughts regarding the postdigital as well.
I was still thinking of all of this when I came across Eron Rauch’s A Land to Die in, a momento mori for video games–photographs of all the corpses of other players that he came across in World of Warcraft. His photographs remind me of those taken on Mount Everest, of people felled in mid-adventure, “a constant reminder of the masses of other people and their stories; some who conquered, some who fell, a million virtual Beowulfs”. I think about this as I make avatars of past people and machinima of past landscapes that end up becoming still images in powerpoint slides. Not-quite-photographs of not-quite-right reconstructions of dead people, all coming together in pixels. Can we still ask: what does the archaeological post-digital photograph want?
I’ve been using Flickr for photographs since 2005, and have administered a group “Archaeology in Action” for almost as long. There’s 630 members and almost 4,200 photographs of archaeologists doing that thing we like doing so well.
Interestingly, being the admin for the group helped me define what it meant to be an “archaeologist in action”–what does our discipline cover? It also helped me define what an archaeological photograph is, exactly. HINT: NOT YOUR TRAVEL PHOTOS OF THE PYRAMIDS. I delete those mercilessly.
Why? Why should I censor the tourists? Aren’t their experiences of the site just as legitimate as ours? Perhaps. But it wasn’t archaeology. The Flickr group was cultivated to be a resource for educators, and to show a diversity of people doing archaeology. That last, active part was also important. Someone in the photo had to be doing something. Even if that someone was behind the camera. The photographer had to make archaeological seeing visible.
The group has been motoring on, attracting spam, but also, occasionally, surprising me with gorgeous, raw, photos from around the world of the incredible, strange, delightful tasks of archaeology.
Recently Flickr took away one of my most favorite functions–note taking. I loved this function as I was able to annotate maps and photographs to explain different features–it was great for outreach. I heard that they’ll add it back soon. Let’s cross our fingers!