Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 23, 2004
Corinne A. Kratz The Ones that Are Wanted: Communication and the Politics of Representation in a Photographic Exhibition Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. 316 pp.; 32 color ills.; 18 b/w ills. Paper $25.95 (0520222822)
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In November of 2003, the Society for Visual Anthropology awarded Corinne Kratz its first Collier Prize for work that exemplifies the use of still photography for research and communication of anthropological knowledge. Presented at the American Anthropological Association meeting in Chicago, this award makes clear that her work in visual anthropology is of great significance. Kratz’s commitment to the field also led her to study the process of exhibiting photographs. This book reports the results of that introspection and scholarship.

Kratz’s ethnographic fieldwork among the Okiek people of Kenya extends from 1974 to the present. She has taken thousands of images, as have many other cultural anthropologists throughout the twentieth century. The importance she places on these images, however, prompted her to produce a traveling exhibition of her photographs. Shown from 1989 to 1998 in both Kenya and the United States, Okiek Portraits formally opened at the National Museum in Nairobi in 1989. Because the Okiek could not get to Nairobi, the exhibit and photos, in albums, were shown to them in their homes at about the same time. Based on commentaries that the Okiek made while viewing these albums, Kratz developed her conversational commentaries for the captions that accompanied the photos in U.S. venues.

The first showing in North America was at the University of Texas at Austin (November 1989), the author’s alma mater. The venue turned out to be less than satisfactory, and for a number of reasons the images were displayed with no captions whatsoever. This absence caused some members of her audience to say that “this arbitrary manipulation of unidentified African images was offensive” (174). However, Kratz is forthright even regarding the failure of this first display of her photos and the academic debate it created in Austin. Other U.S. locations were more successful: the Fine Arts Gallery of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks (May–June 1990); the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. (June–November 1990); the University of Pennsylvania’s University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia (February–March 1991); the Michigan State University Museum in East Lansing (February–May 1993); and Emory University’s Michael C. Carlos Museum in Atlanta (September 1997–January 1998). Based on these venues, the author explains, “I trace the interpretive interaction between visitors and exhibition and consider various ways of learning about visitors’ experiences and understandings. I explore how visitors negotiate relations of cultural differences and ask what circumstances might enable and facilitate engaged recognition across cultural differences” (169). At Emory, the exhibit had the advantage of input from students of the author’s colleagues there, who built assignments into their anthropology course curricula based on the installation and its contents.

Kratz’s book, The Ones That Are Wanted: Communication and the Politics of Representation in a Photographic Exhibition, is divided into two main sections with back matter: part l replicates her exhibition with high-quality reproductions of the thirty-one color images, and part 2 examines the nature of museum exhibitions based on the reception of her exhibit in its various venues. The author discusses the various choices made about images, labels, and design, and the impact of these on visitors. Her two stated themes that run throughout the book are, first, the kinds of communications found in cultural exhibits and, second, the politics and history of representation. This book is infinitely readable, with scholarly details in the endnotes. Rounding out the volume are three appendixes, an essay on the politics of representation and identities, descriptions of the kinship relationships of the individuals in the Okiek portraits, and examples of the visitor surveys used in the final two exhibition venues. Endnotes give us information about portraiture, the history of photography, and stereotypes of African people, both historically and today. In Kenya, for example, the Okiek are often looked down upon by their fellow compatriots as primitive and inferior. Kratz writes: “When first producing Okiek Portraits, I left largely unexamined questions of how stereotypes work and how those known or held by exhibition visitors could be affected. [The book’s] discussion has highlighted issues and difficulties involved, with the benefit of hindsight. Yet even without this broader, more analytical understanding, I did explicitly try to use Okiek portraits (particular images of actual persons) to counter and speak to the visual icons of stereotypes (generic types of people)” (111).

The main title of the book, The Ones That Are Wanted, comes from recognition by the Okiek people that these images are photographs that “others” want to see of them. The author explains: “Photographs of people in ‘traditional’ dress would best please and fulfill the expectations of European viewers, [an Okiot man] said, while Okiek also liked to see pictures of themselves in other kinds of clothing” (1). The Okiek community enthusiastically supported the exhibit and, in fact, were pleased that the outside world would learn about them (101). The images were deeply personal and meaningful to the Okiek themselves, especially those scenes of initiation and seclusion. The photographs are viewed, the author states, very differently by Europeans and Americans, whose anticircumcision campaign “created a new slant on old stereotypes, demonizing practitioners in ways reminiscent of both colonial rhetoric and anti-abortion fanatics” (185).

The book traces the ideas, production, and audiences that brought this exhibition together. Kratz places in context the problems and necessity of representation through photography, the process by which the selection of photographs and multilingual captions (in Okiek, English, and Kiswahili, the national language of Kenya) were made, the multiple readings of images by people worlds apart, and how we might deal with such images cross-culturally. The author shares her own thoughts about this project from beginning to end, including a self-reflexive analysis of her own aesthetic on photography. She beautifully integrates quotes and references from historians of photography, visual anthropologists, and other scholars. She shares with us how photographs were chosen jointly with the Okiek subjects and how she integrated their comments into captions that then traveled with the exhibit. There is nothing that this books leaves to the imagination; it can beneficially serve as a blueprint for future photographic projects.

Many museums attend to established power structures and ideologies. To have an exhibit of this kind accepted by its venues was in itself a triumph. Okiek Portraits was considered neither a traditional art photography show nor a traditional ethnographic exhibit. Kratz gives reasons, for example, for why some venues decided not to accept the exhibit. Several university art galleries flatly said that ethnographic photography was not “art.” The American Museum of Natural History in New York found the exhibit “too existential” and judged that it did not meet their definition of illustrating scientific principles. Their decision “also underlines the often uneasy existence of cultural anthropology in natural history museums” (172). In hindsight, the reasons why some venues rejected it are as interesting as those of the ones that accepted it. In its final form, the show became both a transnational exhibition and a traveling exhibit in the United States sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. Kratz describes in her book the media attention at each venue, reviews in professional journals, and the learning experience she gained at each showing of the photographs. The book is the culmination of her experience in producing this exhibit, an experience that enriches us all. It is essential reading for anyone interested in the impact and importance of visual material in cross-cultural research, in the exhibition of these materials, and in how they are perceived and received by various audiences.

Joanna C. Scherer
Handbook of North American Indians, Department of Anthropology, Smithsonian Institution

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