Bristol Anthropology and Archaeology Research Seminars: Roy Dilley
Professor Roy Dilley, University of St. Andrews
G.10 Lecture Room, 43 Woodland Road
Recovering the Unseen and the Absent Presence: Henri Gaden's Photographic Encounters in West Africa, 1894-1907
This paper seeks to explore the relationship between the seen and the unseen with reference to colonial photography in West Africa from the end of the nineteenth century until the 1940s. The paper starts from the idea of the unseen in the framing of the photographic image, in particular the absence of the presence of the photographer who captures by camera the moment of an encounter with a subject.
Also unseen are the social relationships (sometimes fleeting, sometimes enduring) that constitute that photographic encounter. This is a kind of systemic invisibility of modernist photographic methods, and can be seen as an aspect of Benjamin's concept of the optical unconscious.
Analytical strategies are developed in the paper to try to recover both the photographic absence and the unseen social relationships between photographer and subject. While photography occludes forms of social and political relationships, it does nevertheless render its chosen subjects momentarily visible.
This fleeting visibility is juxtaposed, however, with the way the photograph renders its subjects mute. The interpretative potential of a photographic encounter – simultaneously partially visible, partially invisible and mute – is therefore asymmetrical.