Seeking people in their “natural environments”

Obviously I’m on a roll criticizing the press this month (expect an update on the CNN controversy soon).  Take this photo contest at Today Travel (part of MSNBC).  They requested photos from readers (presumably from the U.S.) taken abroad (presumably while they were tourists).  Then they titled it “Going Native” — even though the American photographers appear in none of the photos, and these are certainly not photos showing the integration of the photographers into local culture.

“Going Native” was a phrase which — long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away — representing something anthropologists (along with missionaries, colonial officers, and other migratory Europeans in positions of relative power) were supposed to avoid.  Getting too close to your informants — those people one interviews, lives with, and tries to understand — was said to interfere with the scientific objectivity required to draw kinship diagrams.  “Going native” meant one liked the food in the field so well that one neglected to apply for a tenure-track position in Springfield.  Or something.

“Going native” is no longer a serious concern of anthropologists (if, in fact, it ever really was).  Most anthropologists have a very different idea about objectivity — if they think that a useful analytic concept at all (personally, I don’t).  In a context where one can cook recipes learned in the field at home and become Facebook friends with informants, the field is always with you.  And so is home. While I am in the field here in Spain, for example, I can follow the news in the U.S., from major events to department issues.  The lines between home and field are still there, but technology can make them more porous.

I don’t think any of this was really on the minds of the folks at Today Travel, though.  In regards to this set of photos for “Going Native,” the editors gush:

You captured fascinating people around the world and showcased them in their natural environment. Such beautiful portraits!

This sounds like butterfly collecting. I spend a lot of time in Introduction to Anthropology arguing that humans don’t have natural environments, at least not in the western sense of nature vs. culture.  All people are just as cultural as all other people, because that is what it means to be human.  There are no environments that are more natural for (certain) people to be in, as implied here.

But let’s look at what some of these photos actually capture. The current front-runner in the online voting, and the lowest ranked, have a great deal in common when one looks closer.  (And yes, you can still vote if you wish if you want to mess with that ranking.)

Let’s start with this striking photo of an Ecuadorian ambulante in Quito.  An ambulante is a person who sells goods while walking around.  Based on my knowledge of La Paz markets (I have never been to Quito), these individuals are usually among the poorest of market vendors. They generally lack a permanent place (stall, kiosk, or an established part of a sidewalk) to sell, their inventory is usually limited, and the goods they sell are inexpensive and require little capital investment.  In this photo, the woman holds bags of oranges for sale.  She looks straight at the camera slightly suspiciously; she appears caught off guard. The camera is clearly inside a vehicle (note the out-of-focus dashboard on the lower left).  This photo is in last place in the online competition.

The front-runner is this dynamic photo of a Maasai dance performed by people in “traditional” clothes in a “natural” (i.e., no visible human-made structures) environment.  I suspect this is a photo of a performance for tourists, of the kind discussed by Edward Bruner in a chapter of his book Culture on Tour. As he discusses, what the tourists see (a Maasai dance) is a separate question from what the performers experience (in terms of pay equity, management, intended audience, message, etc).  Looking at this photo, we don’t know what these dancers were paid, what their expectations for the future are, or whether they would encourage their children to pursue employment dancing for tourists. We have no idea what the photographer is doing either — standing? sitting? sipping a gin and tonic?

Despite the very different popular evaluations of these two photos, both imply relationships of structural inequality.  One photographer has the resources to sit in the car while the photographed woman sells oranges.  The other photographer watchers the dancers who perform and are photographed for money.  Obviously these inequalities here are not natural; they are the products of human interactions and histories.

The photo that is “successful” in terms of popular internet acclaim is the one that best hides that actual human interactions taking place and creates an illusion of a “natural environment.”  The Ecuadorian ambulante is clearly engaging with the photographer, making her annoyance clear; his position as merely driving by is evident.  The winning photograph, in contrast, removes all evidence of the photographer (or any audience at all), presenting these dancers as acting in a social void.  They are in a line, facing in the same direction, but not looking directly at the camera — and dance for no obvious reason at all. There is nothing “natural” about this. What’s interesting is that it could be interpreted to appear that way.

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