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Touching Photography / Positions

The Ethnological-Anthropological Portrait

by Paul Hempel

The exhibition installation “Touching Photography” ventures to deal not with any kind of image, but precisely with a genre of scientific photography that from today’s perspective appears, more than all others, as problematic or at best outdated: the ethnological-anthropological portrait.

Portraits can be found in large numbers and diverse forms in the photographic collections of ethnological museums and archives. Yet these images often approach us in way that is even more “speechless” (if such a comparative exists) than other photographs. What is particularly outrageous is that, as opposed to shots of landscapes or objects, they depict humans. Women, men and children gaze at us more or less under compulsion, more or less clothed, and literally say nothing. This lack of address is most disturbing in the case of formalized type photographs or “race portraits,” the hybrid genre that so vividly embodies the permeable borderline between ethnology and physical anthropology in the long 19th century.

When browsing through the stocks of photographs, these pictures are usually brushed aside—as inherited burdens from a distant and at times inglorious past. They disqualify themselves above all for exhibitions, if they happen not to be testimonies to this past—and even then, they do (or may) not break their silence. Instead, they are preferably pigeonholed anew, stylized and reduced to icons of a colonial-chauvinistic worldview.

Such a capitulation to the doubtless difficult material is shortsighted in several respects. What is disregarded is that precisely these pictures expressed lively debates on adequate visual methods and issues already at the time, and some of the formulated problems needn’t appear all that wayward today: How can ethnological-anthropological data be defined, acquired and transported? What is the relationship between cultures and bodies, and can these concepts be projected onto each other? How objective, true-to-life, and authentic are these images? How autonomous and meaningful are they, after having been placed in other contexts? These are questions that the image producers themselves raised when dealing with and discussing their photographs. We needn’t adopt all the answers given at the time, but we should take the pictures seriously. This implies not only viewing them as the expression of fixed notions, but also always as the trigger of one of the driving forces of science per se, which is so rarely addressed in scientific exhibitions: doubt.

Why do we so often deny portraits, in particular, this creative potential? Probably because they appear so self-assured and authoritarian in their formal stringency. In order to break through this facade, it seems necessary to open up the pictures, as is done in the exhibition “Touching Photography” in several respects and different dimensions. Visitors are confronted with the diverse contexts of origin of the portraits, with touching biographical details, as well as with moments of disturbance and confusion when delving into the image material. The exhibition’s contemporary presentation of the images thus also succeeds in transporting the methodological doubt that many actors at the time brought into the field and back again with their camera.

Employing such exhibition concepts that focus not only on the product but equally on the process of scientific image production and utilization, an ethnological museum of science (the Humboldt-Forum) could distinguish itself more distinctly and aggressively as an inquiring rather than as a knowing institution.

Paul Hempel (M.A.) works at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich. Within the framework of his dissertation on the use of visual media during expeditions in Brazil between 1883 and 1914, his main focus was on the status of photography in the production and dissemination of ethnological knowledge. This commentary is based on a keynote address that he held as part of an an evaluation workshop of the Humboldt Lab Dahlem.

Transmissões e contato: Transmission and Contact

by Wolfgang Schäffner

Michael Kraus takes up the crucial challenge of considering how historical research on foreign cultures can be transferred to a modern notion of “working with” cultures based on collections of objects. He is especially concerned with revealing, within the objects and their focus on originality, the processes of transfer to which they owe their existence. The project shows this in the way it treats historical photographs: what “touches” in the case of the photograph is not the “originality” of the historical print, which, in the sense of the punctum of photography, “rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me,” (Roland Barthes1). Instead, the radical approach of “Touching Photography” consists in the photographs no longer being presented as historical objects. What is at issue is the path that the photographs from the Amazonian region have taken to reach us, covering a spatial and temporal distance.

The historical photographs are transferred to three different media formats: first, the bureaucratic registry of a dataset attributing metadata to the photos of indigenous persons (ethnic group, date of photograph, photographer etc.) presented via overhead projectors – a technological medium developed at the same time as photography. A particularly competent manufacturer of these projectors in the 1920s was the Düsseldorf-based firm Liesegang. The photographs are thus integrated into a presentation and transmission system that decisively alters their materiality: light turns the photographs into agents; they start shining and are transmitted through a new active medium. This activation of the original medium also determined, albeit in a different way, the animation of the photographs on the large scale of 1:1. The photographic stills are transformed into moving images through digital algorithms. Based on photographs, they simulate filmic movements by animating only the persons standing in the foreground. Hence, the photograph becomes an object attaining a new animated presence in the digital medium, something that the photo as a historical medium excludes. The tablets in the third scenario offer an altered ontology (“fear,” “empathy,” or “body,” instead of categories of identification), presenting a technological innovation of touching. The touch screen allows and necessitates that which historical photography indeed forbids: actual contact. “Directly” touching the photograph enables zooming into details and moving through and beyond the photos. The digital medium therefore excels customary touch precisely by avoiding the materiality and originality of the photograph. Moreover, the tablet, as a network-controlled medium, could simultaneously provide access to any kind of data and images. This would even allow transferring Amazonia to Europe in a topological network order in which original sites no longer exist. Once the presentation site itself becomes mobile, the separation between site of find and museum, which is inherent to European collections of non-European objects, becomes obsolete.

The historical sequence of media, which Michael Kraus and chezweitz present as transmission media based on photography, essentially determines and changes the way one works on a culture as it is documented in the photographs of ethnic individuals from Amazonia. This new way of working with the processes of transmission and their media alters the scenarios in a crucial manner—they are dislocated: they can visualize their own processes of transmission through space and time and thus dissolve their fundamental difference. These are the coordinates of a new method of working with a culture that symmetrically combines different sites. And what may then complete a presentation of transmission processes, alongside the photographs and objects, are the jaguar hides, the wood and the rubber, as things that were transferred to Europe and that, conversely, left their mark in Amazonia in the form of railways or telegraph lines as media of transmission.
The answer given by this experimental exhibition is that photographs touch, or, put differently: they only arrive in our media-technological present when their processes of exchange and transmission can visualize the distance they have covered in time and space.


1 Roland Bathes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York 1981.

Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Schäffner has held the chair for the history of knowledge and culture at the Institute of Cultural Studies of the Humboldt-Universität (HU) zu Berlin since 2009, he is the spokesperson of the excellence cluster of the HU “Bild Wissen Gestaltung. Ein Interdisziplinäres Labor” and has been the director of the Hermann von Helmholtz-Zentrum für Kulturtechnik of the HU since 2013. He is a honorary professor of the faculty of architecture, design and urbanism at the Universidad de Buenos Aires, where he is also the director of the Walter Gropius Research program. This commentary is based on a keynote address that he held within the framework of an evaluation workshop of the Humboldt Lab Dahlem.