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Visual ethnography, stereotypes and photographing Algeria

Susan Slyomovics

“The imperial conquest,” Edward Said writes, “was not a one-time tearing of the veil, but a continually repeated, institutionalized presence in French life, where the response to the silent and incorporated disparity between French and subjugated cultures took on a variety of forms.”1 Based on access to technology, there were vast, institutionalized inequities and disparities between conqueror and subjugated peoples, since the camera and conquest overlapped chronologically, linking French photographic representations of Algeria and Algerians to the larger phenomenon of Orientalism in its enduring historical and visual aspects. The camera was not merely a device to capture images, and photographs functioned as more than “sensorially restrained objects: mute and motionless variegated rectangles.”2 Photography contributed to creating meaning and signification through the everyday, repeated and systematic practices of picture taking by the French in Algeria. For Said, whose corpus engages with the politics of Orientalist representation in the media, photography, and advertising, it is obvious that “[t]here can be no unilateral withdrawal from ideology. Surely it is quixotic to expect photographic interpretation to serve such a purpose.”3 He alerts viewers, readers, and especially photographers to the need for “a proper schooling in the visual faculties.” His insistence on the image as possessing an ideological point of view underpins his call for scholars of the visual to revisit the variety of imagined, pictured geographies of the Orient. To do so, I explore the visual, cultural form of biometric technologies that marked the French colonial bureaucratic presence through a set of colonial tourist postcards of Algeria, called Scenes et Types in French, and consider these images in relation to the parallel and coeval practices of French-imposed identity photographs and anthropometric classification systems. Such complex legacies of colonial French photography in Algeria re-emerge as Scenes et Types photographs and continue to circulate in Western museums and publications to this day, a century after their initial production and circulation. Moreover, since contemporary North Africans have become consumers of their former colonial visual histories even decades after Algeria’s independence, Said’s enduring question remains pertinent: “how does a culture seeking to become independent of imperialism imagine its own past?”4 Photographs were the pre-eminent popular media for France to know Algeria, following France’s 1830 invasion of Algeria and the camera’s appearance in the late 1820s (an invention claimed by the Frenchmen Joseph Nicephore Niepce and Louis Daguerre).5

The colonial photographer coded the photographs so that they were associated with certain meanings, often determined by the imperial agenda that was installed - consciously or unconsciously - in the photograph. Surveying a set of themes and ordering them into simple categories, photographers developed a “stock of signs” and “cognitive connotations” that enabled a shorthand identification of France’s most significant possession outre-mer. ... The immediacy of photography - which differed from other illustrative techniques - furthered the colonial endeavor by helping the French public assimilate Algiers into its consciousness.6

Photography produced knowledge about Algeria - a knowledge characterized by Malek Alloula as merely a form of “pseudo-knowledge of the colony”, spectacularly so in relation to the ways in which the French imagined Algerian women. In Alloula’s path-breaking work on French postcards of Algeria, entitled The Colonial Harem, he describes the reach of photographic image making:

Photography steps in to take up the slack and reactivates the phantasm at its lowest level. The postcard does it one better; it becomes the poor man’s phantasm: for a few pennies, display racks full of dreams. The postcard is everywhere, covering all the colonial space, immediately available to the tourist, the soldier, the colonist. It is at once their poetry and their glory captured for the ages; it is also their pseudo-knowledge of the colony. It produces stereotypes in the manner of great seabirds producing guano, the fertilizer of the colonialist vision.7

Alloula compares Western and settler-colonial photographic production to great seabirds hovering high above ground with their excremental output showering Algeria because colonial French photography similarly hovered high above Algeria to estheticize, exoticize, eroticize, and stereotype Algerians. Notions about the stereotype when applied to the native, the “indigene,” are best exemplified pictorially by Alloula and other critics under the rubric of Scenes et Types8 (Figures 7.1 and 7.2). Many of The Colonial Harem’s re-published and re-circulated French postcards depict photographs of Algerian Scenes et Types: exotic scenes and physical types mailed back to the metropole during the early decades of the twentieth century, when France’s hold over North Africa from Dunkerque to Tamanrasset appeared unchallenged. Scenes et Types belong to a visual genre in which an individual appears within the frame, with or without background, on location or in a studio, but always in visual contexts that masked urgent political and economic realities in the colony. Alloula’s focus on art history and the Algerian body passes lightly over political economy but acknowledges the colonial “double bind”, defined by David Henry Slavin, as the redoubling of the ways in which “‘picturesque’ Algerians depend on tourism which invented the ‘picturesque’, while tourism perpetuates the ‘backwardness’ that legitimated French domination.”9

“Algerian Photography,” Alary and Geiser Advertising Sheet

Figure 7.1 “Algerian Photography,” Alary and Geiser Advertising Sheet. Advertisement for colonial Scenes et Types postcards from the Alary and Geiser Studio, Algiers. Research Library, The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2008.R.3).

Figure 7.2

“Types Algeriens. Famille d’une femme des Ouled Nails.” Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC.

Captions are an additional characteristic of the genre of Scenes et Types that underscore transformations of the individual into a type, while announcing a priori an act of categorization. Thus, Scenes et Types postcards must be accompanied by a text that is brief, broadly generic, vaguely ethnological, rarely selfexplanatory, and sometimes geographically situated. Captions are conventionally placed as close as possible to the image or branded directly upon it. The text of the caption is a mini-narrative that is fragmentary and incomplete, with sentences deliberately not fully grammatical because minus the subject, verb, and object - for example, a Mauresque, a Bedouin woman, a Janissary, a Jewish woman, etc. Since photographs exist without captions but not the reverse - namely, a caption without a photograph - whatever image is considered photographable leads to what is captionable. Nonetheless, Scenes et Types captions are strikingly uninformative.10 Therefore, photographs can be made to say whatever the mini-narrative caption says it should. Critic Susan Sontag, who thought deeply about captions, declared: “All photographs wait to be explained or falsified by their captions.”11 Captions provide a specific kind of legitimacy and authority to an image that itself stands in for generalities and operates synecdochically - the corporeal part standing for the entire body politic. Consequently, both caption and image work together to reinforce interpretative extremes - at one end of a spectrum concerned with the visual expression of generalities, which is what we view in Scenes et Types postcards, and alternatively, a focus on physical details and physiognomic typologies to the detriment of the human content of an image.

Algerian anthropologist Malek Chebel points to the significance of the postcard’s visual practices by looking at its resemblance to inventories of races, peoples, and tribes. Chebel maintains that such photographs and postcards mask the deeper anxieties (I’angoisse) of the colonizer, who must depersonalize by speaking in terms of masses and crowds (Chebel’s terms are la masse, massifi- cationer). According to Chebel, each country of colonized French North Africa typified a different visual stereotype:

In Morocco, it is above all the architecture of cities (gardens, gates, fountains, markets, medersas) that intrigue and hold the attention of colonial painters and illustrators. In Tunisia, the landscape and artisanat were priorities. In Algeria it was the society: “scenes and types” rained down, mouk- eres (Arab women), demi-mondaines, professions (barbers), Tuareg chiefs (amenokals), dancers (nailiyate) were at the same time occasions that permit discerning the Other in the immeasurable challenge of the image. These tendencies were obviously not neutral: they reflected the contradictions of the moment, often the will [wish or desire (volonte)] to find some paradigms in an ocean of uncertainties.12

To assuage what Chebel terms above the colonizer’s “will to find some paradigms in an ocean of uncertainties”, the image-plus-caption protocols of Scenes et Types flourished alongside physical anthropology as a racial science. Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, projects to compare and contrast races were realized with the help of the camera. One important example was German photographer Carl Dammann’s 1876 album of approximately 642 small images entitled Ethnological Photographic Gallery of the Various Races of Man. Dammann adopted the use of the mug-shot protocol, consisting of frontal and profile portrait views.13 For French colonial ethnography, influenced by Dammann’s project in Germany, two key figures were Jean Louis Armand de Quatrefages de Breau and prince Roland Bonaparte (a great-nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte), both members of the Paris-headquartered Geography Society and Anthropology Society, with Quatrefages as the first holder of the chair of anthropology in France’s Museum of Natural History.14 Algeria was their scientific labo - ratory in what passed for scientific experimentations, also exemplified by Roland Bonaparte’s famous series of images entitled “Peaux-Rouges” (“Redskins”) that depict an apparently neutral scientific pose of the frontal and profile faces of Native Americans, uniformly photographed and displayed alongside a less famous series of Arab portraits.15

Quatrefages’ fellow French anthropologist Paul Topinard invested much effort in finding a scientific basis for European racial superiority. The latter’s 1876 anthropology text was influential in France, and again in England once translated in 1890. Topinard’s methodology can be examined by looking at charts that he established, for example, one to determine the “Berber type” by ranking the variety of different human ear shapes according to his estimation of a universal harmonious symmetry. He maintained that Algerian Kabyles (or Berbers) exemplified ear shapes with a “lobule ... wanting” and their typical ear type, he believed, was characteristically to “project out” in ways that defined the Kabyle physiognomy.16 Topinard’s descriptions were accompanied by a drawing of an Algerian Kabyle attributed to Emile Duhousset (1863-1911), a colonial army officer and man of action who happened to be present in the rarefied precincts of the Anthropology Society in Paris during Topinard’s presentation on the Kabyle ear. Duhousset’s drawing (Figure 7.3) provoked a fascinating exchange between Topinard, the theorist of anthropometry, and Duhousset, the soldier-practitioner. Records of the Anthropology Society meetings reveal that Topinard insisted on the importance of distinguishing the Berber or Kabyle from the Arab Algerian according to specific, scientifically documented physical attributes, among them the characteristic Berber protruding ears. In response, Colonel Duhousset, a military officer and published ethnographer of the Berbers, asserted that the Topinard’s caption of “Kabyle/Berber” in Topinard’s Anthropology text was incorrect. Duhousset declared that as this was his own drawing, he could assert that, in fact, it depicted an Arab.17 Topinard countered by pleading for all travelers, visitors, and military personnel to engage in the project of measuring Algerian native physiognomy with the appropriate scientific instruments. Furthermore, he asserted that anthropometry would prove that the Berbers/Kabyles were the genuine “Peaux-Rouges” (“Red Skins”) of North Africa.18 Colonel Duhousset retorted that neither his own artistic drawings nor Topinard’s observations and measurements were valid. Of interest to me is Duhousset’s conclusion as early as 1876 that only “photography imposes itself today as the most correct basis for all anthropological studies . the apparatus, instantly producing face and profile was less cumbersome.”19 Thus, photography documented and served as evidence

Duhousset drawing of a Berber type in Paul Topinard,Anthropology. London

Figure 7.3 Duhousset drawing of a Berber type in Paul Topinard,Anthropology. London: Chapman and Hall, 1890, p. 462.

for the very stereotypes that photography created. As this exchange between Topinard and Duhousset attests - despite evidence of a wrongly captioned image in which an Arab is mislabeled a Berber because of his ear shape - colonial anthropologists abstracted racial characteristics to create racial types, which were then given visual attestation through the drawings, photographs, and captions provided by photographers and ethnographers.

 
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