Geismar took the colour photograph as part of a lengthy research project that reunited the people of the small islands of Malakula with photographs made there in 1914-1915 by the anthropologist John Layard. Geismar returned to the island three times within the course of six years and over that time he took over numerous images and copies that had different kinds of information about them, depending on the existing captions, or the information he collected to make his own captions.
The project was collaborative between Cambridge Museum and Vanuatu Cultural Centre and National Museum, hence my interest in the project. The project was formed because they wanted to encourage the inhabitants of Vanuatu to participate in the process of documenting and reflecting upon their own histories as well as actively engage with museum projects and archival research made within their own communities. The idea of the project was to facilitate and allow a reconnection between the communities and the collections, but allowed them to show an active role in photography and contemporary imaginings.
I found the project interesting because it was all factored around the idea of the archive and using existing images to understand a past. The museums involvement shows the importance of the archive not only to historical documentation but also to the people who got involved, because it enabled them to get a bit back about their own histories and discover who they were and what used to happen on the very land they were on. Through many mediums the project was explored, but the most fascinating to me is the use of photographs and seeing how they worked to actually show the life as it was.
I found it deeply interesting that the development of this project meant that for every image or recording made, there must be one copy that is deposited into the museum and one that is given to the people with whom they were made. This meant that an ethos of return is built into every international collaboration and nearly every research project, thus bringing more images into the framework to be preserved for future use.
Geismar has said that working in this manner and using archives is akin to working with a form of archaeology. He goes on to explain his role in the project :
Atchin and Vao men were eager to retrace Layard’s images onto the contemporary contours of the island. Complementing the archival research of Anita Herle, in Cambridge, my research was increasingly configured around the process of re-photographing Layard’s images, held up by the people of that place, where they were originally taken. Digging down with images, we uncovered, amongst other things, one of the last standing slit-drums on the island, at AmalTara, Senhar.
He has further talked about the process of actually going to the sites and recreating the images and the issues that he encountered as a result in some cases, which I find really interesting because it does engage with this idea of representation and ethics of photography. It also builds into the idea that photographers have certain rights but so do the general public and it is the way in which they go about this that can be the difference between getting a photograph and not.
Walking across the islands with Layard’s photographs and the process of re-photography this initiated had to be negotiated in each place that we visited—on occasion we were not allowed to photograph a site because the person who ‘owned’ the place, from whom we needed permission, was not present. We also encountered several dis putes about who had the right to have their photograph taken in particular places. In one visit to a dancing-ground on Vao we photographed an elder who had not been present during our first visit. He had been angered not because of any prior connection that he held to Layard but because he was the most authoritative person in that area, and should have had his photograph taken first as a matter of protocol. This highlights how photographic practice is always negotiated between the photographer and the photographed, and that the movement of pho tographic images is also a negotiable activity. Taking images back into communities is about layering informa tion within a contemporary political landscape, moving from ‘archive’ to ‘living entity’. It also shows us how the reproducible nature of photographic technology, in this case the photocopying and re-photographing of Layard’s images, has the power to respond to local meanings.
He also noted that as a result of the project, he became more aware of how ideas and evidence are matched with ideas about malleability in assigning meanings and memories to images. They act as pathways and impart a sense of ‘being’ in a particular place. The people he worked with not only matched the contemporary environment of the islands to Layard’s images but also used their own bodies to form connections between the two.
Layard’s images were consolidated as embodiments of connections between places, people and their ancestors, and the taking of a new set of photographs became an important articulation of these people’s connection to their ancestral land, and of the contemporary tracing of these histories.
The project is overall fantastic and such a clever use of a collaborative practise. I am really inspired by the use of the archive within the photographic practise and how it has been used to develop on into the future. I also really loved the way in which he was able to work with individuals and groups based purely on the fact that he has a photograph of that same area. I thought this was really interesting and such a great way to collaborate on a topic but not feel like there is added pressure to one person to show you what you want to see.