Research Point: Primitive Typologies

We are to do some research into the bodies of work discussed in this project (post-colonial ethnography project). 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?

The ‘traps’ mentioned in the manual are:

  • romanticism -> ‘noble savage’ and the ‘primitive beauty’
  • primitivism – ‘the reduction of subjects to their essential, external forms, and often the nude human figure is portrayed in harmony with the landscape or the environment, suggesting a sense of natural balance that countered industrialized and urban society’ (The Art Story, s.d.).
  • decontextualisation (considering something in isolation from its usual context)
  • infantilization (treating adults like children akin to patronisation)

It would seem that Peter Lavery‘s website has changed over the interim since the course manual was written and I am only able to find a small selection of his tribal images on his website under the My Tribe My People tab. I was unable to find the Independent magazine’s article on him either, apart from a few illegible thumbnails on his website. If we compare Lavery’s images to those of Edward S. Curtis (, one can see an immediate difference in approach. Curtis has photographed his subject in situ, going about their daily tasks, their living accommodation, their utensils, their immediate surrounds, as well as close ups of various cultural objects, clothing and headshots of the Native American tribal members. With Curtis’s work we have a full picture of how the various tribes live. Maybe there is a bit of romanticism involved in Curtis’s work in that he photographed his subject in a Pictorialist way – soft focus and always presented his subjects in Native American dress, but I find it to be a more representative narrative.

Lavery, however, has photographed his subjects in front of a black background, clearly a makeshift studio setting, and in so doing erases their individuality and renders them “as a generic type” (Orvell, 2003: 32), which definitely makes him guilty of decontextualisation and primitivism in my mind. If infantilization encompasses some of the rather strange poses some of the subjects have obviously been directed to take, then yes, that too; there is definitely nothing remotely romantic about his set of images.

Although quite a few of David Bruce‘s images of the Ju/’hoansi Bushmen in Namibia are posed in front of backdrops, he is has not succumbed to any of the ‘traps’ mentioned above, in my opinion. He has managed to convey the quiet dignity and irrepressible humour  of the San people. As Bruce explains in the video below, the old lady in the photo above walked into his little studio while he was photographing someone else and as soon as that person walked away, she jumped up in front of the camera and Bruce managed to fire off two frames before she wagged her finger at him and walked off again. Her mischievous essence does come across in that photo. Bruce has worked among the bushmen for more than twenty five years and understands some of their language (its one of the most difficult languages in the world). Bruce’s treatment of black & white does lend a timeless quality to the images, but as the Khoisan are probably the oldest population on earth (Schlebusch et al., 2017), I think that treatment is warranted.

Juan Echeverria’s studio portraits of the OvaHimba people tick all the ‘trap’ boxes. In the Himba publication, it seems that all the images have a dark sepia treatment and the photos are presented on black pages which connotes an aged quality. The subjects are mostly positioned in a subjugated position sitting on the floor on a bunched up sheet with a white draped sheet as a background. Clearly the OvaHimba have been decontextualised in these images, but not only that it has been done in a very untidy fashion too judging from the state of the “studio”. What is puzzling though is why Echeverria did this at all? In another publication under the Namibia tab on his website is a colour supplement. This supplement features a photo on the verso page from the first publication and on the recto side colour environmental portraits of the OvaHimba in their role as women, family, men, hunting for game, and shepherding their livestock. The colour photos show the unique characteristics of the OvaHimba women with their red dyed skins and braided hair. The second set of images is a truer representation of the OvaHimba, but the verso image in this set weakens the narrative and is out of place (as well as context).

Jimmy Nelson‘s photos are stunning, but are definitely more fine art than documentary. In Nelson’s own words he admits this: ‘I’m not a journalist. I’m not an ethnologist. I’m not an anthropologist. I’m an artist, … I’m provoking a discussion’ (Chakrabati, s.d.). The fine art slant to his work is quite obvious from some of the poses his subjects are directed to: standing on top of a jeep, and others standing on a rock for a front and back view. He has also muted his colour palettes (I can speak only for the African sections as this is what I know) and this actually creates a rather surreal affect for me. I come from Africa and Africa is not known for pastel colours. The colours are always vibrant, contrasty, full on and harsh in some aspects. It seems as if Nelson has boosted the colours of the clothing in the environment portraits and totally washed out the surrounding countryside. Even the treatment of the landscape images are done in this way. The sand dunes in Namibia have a reddish hue to them, not a washed out beige. The skies too – usually bright blue – rendered almost washed out. For the Himba portraits, Nelson has chosen to desaturate the tell tale colour of the paste the women use on their skin, allowing only traces of this to bleed out into the image – decontextualisation with a capital D!

Polish photographer Adam Koziol is another photographer who is trying to document indigenous tribes on the point of extinction. Koziol’s interest lies in the markings, jewelry, and costumes as symbols of success, bravery, and social status. Because of this interest he has chosen mainly to focus on the faces and cultural accoutrements, resulting in a more intimate viewing experience. I find his treatment of the Himba woman far more acceptable than Nelson’s version.

In an interview with Jessica Stewart of My Modern Met, Kozoil states that while he focuses on aesthetics, he is simultaneously presenting an authentic story of the individual and the tribe which he hopes will generate some discussion among viewers.



Bruce, D. (s.d.) Ju/’hoansi Bushmen. At: (Accessed  11/01/2020).

Chakrabati, M. (s.d.) Photographer Jimmy Nelson’s ‘Homage’ To Our World’s Indigenous Cultures | On Point. At: (Accessed  13/01/2020).

Curtis, E. S. (s.d.) Small Prints. At: (Accessed  11/01/2020).

David Bruce – the man who hears – speaks out! (2018) Directed by Maison, G. At: (Accessed  11/01/2020).

Echeverria, J. (s.d.) JUAN ECHEVERRIA Travel Photography | Namibia. At: (Accessed  11/01/2020a).

Echeverria, J. (s.d.) Namibia_Siete Leguas | Flickr. At: (Accessed  13/01/2020b).

Lavery, P. (s.d.) My Tribe My People. At: (Accessed  10/01/2020).

Open College of the Arts (2014) Documentary – Fact & Fiction | Photography 2 Course Manual. (PH5DFF120419) Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.

Orvell, M. (2003) American Photography. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schlebusch, C. M. et al. (2017) ‘Southern African ancient genomes estimate modern human divergence to 350,000 to 260,000 years ago’ In: Science 358 (6363) pp.652–655.

Stewart, J. (2018) Incredible Portraits of Indigenous Tribes Around the World. At: (Accessed  10/01/2020).

Tate (s.d.) Primitivism – Art Term. At: (Accessed  10/01/2020).

The Art Story (s.d.) Primitivism – Concepts & Styles. At: (Accessed  10/01/2020).

One thought on “Research Point: Primitive Typologies

  1. Pingback: Learning Outcomes | Lynda Kuit Photography: Documentary – Fact & Fiction

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