Research point: Primitive typologies

The course handbook suggests that we research some of the work mentioned in this section, with the specific questions:

“Can you find any examples of work carried out amongst indigenous peoples that, in your view, honestly document the lives of their subjects without falling into some of the traps that we’ve been discussing here? If so, how has the photographer achieved this?” (course notes: 96)

It aided my analysis to parse out the ‘traps’ discussed in the notes:

  • Romanticism (e.g. the ‘noble savage’)
  • De/re-contextualisation (e.g. primitive nudity -> erotica)
  • Primivitism / infantilisation (projecting a lack of intelligence/maturity onto subjects)
  • Dehumanisation (treating subjects as specimens not individuals)

I certainly found all of these traps had, to varying degrees, been fallen into in the Tribal Portraits catalogue, but I have covered this already so will focus on the new artists introduced in the subsequent notes.

Peter Lavery comes in for some criticism for his decontextualised tribal portraits, and to be honest I think it is justified. He pretty much falls into all four of the above traps, notably the last: there’s an almost Victorian sense of ‘collecting specimens’ in his aesthetic, with the mono palette and the velvet backdrop.

Interestingly, his website explains his objective as quite the opposite of what I perceived: “to make portraits for himself of people he met in his travels and who interested him not as types but as individuals”.

The decontextualisation is explained thus: “I wanted to play down the exoticism of my subjects […] I knew that I was interested in the being under the body of paint or feathers and primitive weapons’” – yet to me the taking of the individual out of their environment enhances, not reduces, the exoticism. By presenting them against a plain black backdrop, Lavery is drawing attention to, not looking past, the ‘paint and feathers’. The fact that the portraits aren’t captioned with individuals’ names further strengthens the argument that these are types more than they are individuals.

The African work of Juan Echeverria has some parallels with that of Lavery, in as much as it decontextualises the subject from their environment and places them against a plain backdrop for examination. As with some of the work in Tribal Portraits (notably Lenhert & Landrock) the nudity takes on a different reading in the studio context; these subjects are not so much being observed as gazed upon.


I found the work of David Bruce to be more satisfactory and respectful, falling into fewer of the clichés. Yes, he uses black and white and that gives the images the ‘timeless’ look that encourages a romanticised interpretation, but on the whole he does less decontextualising and more shooting in the natural environment. Also, he doesn’t produce many gratuitous images of bare female flesh, something that other photographers can all too easily fall back on.

Researching contemporary practitioners in this genre, it seems that Jimmy Nelson has it all sewn up (or is a whizz at SEO) as he is every Google result on the first page for the term “photography indigenous tribes”…! This seems to largely be around Before They Pass Away, his long-term project he has undertaken to capture the world’s remaining indigenous tribes before they disappear.

This self-appointed chronicler of the soon-to-be-lost is unashamedly an art photographer more than a documentarian, and makes no bones about the aesthetic imperative in his work – his pictures are “intended to be aesthetic rather than factual”, and in his own words, “There is no sociology, no statistics. It’s how I see the world […] Yes, it’s idealistic.” (Guardian 2014)

Nelson has avoided some of the clichés by choosing a more positive and less patronising aesthetic than most – he makes the tribes look strong and proud. Ironically, he received much criticism (including the Guardian article quoted above) for the representations being “false and damaging” in their idealised, romanticised aesthetic. You can’t please all the people all the time.

Jacob Maentz is a good example of a photographer that has captured various indigenous peoples without resorting to clichés. He shoots in colour, which gives a more ‘real’ and contemporary feel to the work, and shoots unposed, observed scenes of the subjects in their natural environments.

He can sometimes veer towards idealised, beautifully-composed images and seldom shows particularly hard-hitting or problematic subject matter, but overall I think he does a better job than most of showing an ‘honest’ depiction of these primitive societies. For one thing, his detailed captions describe not only individuals but their circumstances, making this more of a set of images of people than of ‘types’.

For me there are a few criteria that might make a project on indigenous tribes more likely to be seen as ‘honest’:

  • Shot in the natural environment
  • Unposed/observed
  • Colour looks more ‘authentic’ than black and white for this kind of work (unlike the traditional view of documentary photography?)
  • Naming the subjects in captions leads to a more human connection with the viewer, and reduces the risk of seeing the subject as ‘specimen’

The insider/outsider debate

Looking at this from a particular school of thought – that of Abigail Solomon-Godeau in her 1994 essay Inside/Out – there is a fundamental dilemma within the question of whether an indigenous people can be accurately portrayed.

In the essay (summarised by La Grange, 2005) Solomon-Godeau contrasts the two approaches of documentary photography: pictures taken by ‘insiders’ (authentic, confessional but subjective, self-absorbed) and those taken by ‘outsiders’ (touristic, voyeuristic, exploitative, objective, sometimes unrepresentative). By definition, projects on indigenous people are by outsiders – because the insiders are sufficiently primitive as to not have the technology to make photographs.

Thus a true insider’s view is inherently impossible; once a society has the faculties to record itself, it is no longer primitive.

Therefore, the best that can be expected is a sufficiently empathetic outsider, self-aware enough to recognise reflexivity and authorship and stay as true as possible to a neutral observer stance.

One could make the case though that even being observed by an outsider, however respectfully, irreparably changes the community – classic ‘observer effect’ in action.

Thus I conclude that it is ultimately impossible for photographers to “honestly document the lives of their subjects”, unfortunately.


Peter Lavery (accessed 12/10/2016)

David Bruce (accessed 12/10/2016)

Juan Echeverria (accessed 12/10/2016)

Jimmy Nelson (accessed 12/10/2016) (accessed 12/10/2016)

Jacob Maentz (accessed 12/10/2016)

La Grange, A. (2005) Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Burlington, MA: Focal Press


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