Using historical photographs as primary documents in anthropological research necessitates systematic study of ethnohistorical materials. Although photographs are often used uncritically as illustrations to supplement text, they are in fact primary documents that respond to analysis using the methods of anthropology and history. Through comparative study, images have the potential to provide a wealth of information.

In locating photographs, obtaining access to archives, historical societies, and special collections in libraries is critical. Discovering the location of relevant materials requires networking and research experience. With the development of the Internet, such networking and access have become easier.

The Artifact

Picture research starts with the artifact: the photograph. Nineteenth century images, first made on glass negatives and later film, include cartes de visite, cabinet card photographs, stereographic prints, and daguerreotypes, to name a few. Once one knows the type of image one can narrow down the time period of production and popular usage of the photograph.

After the time period of the photograph is identified, a content analysis of the image is necessary. Comparison with other identified photographs reveals similarities and differences. For American Indian photo research, this means locating photographs of the same individual or tribe.

The Subject

The subject of the photograph must be identified by name, family, group, or tribe. The subject is usually a primary controller of the image. In identifying the subject, ethnological knowledge of the people or tribe, the family, and even the individual must be sought out, as well as data on the historical time period (1).

The Photographer

The photographer must then be identified, as well as location where the photograph was taken, for he or she is another controller of the image (2). Help in establishing historical evidence of the photographer may often be found in local newspapers of the period.


As to ethical decisions involved in picture research and publication, the most pressing issue is the right of ownership, access, and use of historical (and contemporary) images. To some, these images are cultural property, not open to outsiders. In the United States, copyright laws grant photographers ownership of their works. Seventy-five years after a photograph is made, the image becomes available to anyone for any use. All nineteenth-century historical photographs are now, therefore, in the public domain. There is a right to privacy, but photographs taken in public places are deemed open to all (3).

The issue of use and whether academics should publish historical photographs (or other information) that the present-day descendants of these subjects do not wish to make public is a thorny subject. Western legal privacy and publication rules restrict commercial use, but in general grant the use of such materials for educational purposes (4).

The basic difference is the nature of knowledge among cultures. In Western culture, most knowledge is for everyone. Scholarly inquiry is acceptable on any and all sociocultural activities. Western scholarly responsibility for scientific inquiry demands that the results of research be made available to all, but with the obligation to respect the wishes and desires of the people who are represented in the research. From the point of view of many contemporary Native people, ownership of photographs, especially those that show ceremonial activities, should remain with the group. Such images are characterized as privileged intellectual property (5). According to some American Indians, access should be denied or restricted because knowledge found in historical images is often seen as carrying ritual power, and even danger, if not treated properly by the proper personnel (6), generally initiated members of their group. Today researchers routinely obtain "informed consent" from their consultants. Although consent and compensation were an issue in the periods of early photography, it is open to question whether full understanding of the photographer's objectives was possible.

The fundamental difference then is between scholars, who have had it in their power to determine the topics studied and the views presented, and Native peoples seeking to gain decision-making power over the past. The debate continues, though post-modern literature generally rejects the authoritative voice of the scholar to speak for or about the ÔÇťother"(7). This issue is becoming less of a problem as indigenous scholars take active responsibility for the academic studies being made. Scherer believes that the issue of cultural authority can be resolved by the acceptance of diverse voices. While we must respect contemporary American Indian sensibilities, at the same time presentist bias should not be allowed to rewrite history.


1. Alison Brown and Laura Peer's "Pictures Bring Us Messages" Sinaakssiiki aohtsimaahpihkookiyaawa: Photographs and Histories from the Kainai Nation, University of Toronto Press (2006) takes historical photographs back to the Blackfoot in Canada with outstanding results.

2. Joanna C. Scherer A Danish Photographer of Idaho Indians: Benedicte Wrensted, University of Oklahoma Press (2006) is an in-depth look at photographers of the Northern Shoshone, Bannock, and Lemhi Indians of southeastern Idaho.

3. A counter to that generalization is presented in Nigel Holman's 1996 "Photography as Social and Economic Exchange: Understanding the Challenges Posed by Photography of Zuni Religious Ceremonies." America Indian Culture and Research Journal, 20(3): 115. Holman makes the observation that even in public places private activities occur.

4. Thomas, David Hurst 1998 "Scholarship, Censorship and Sensitivity." Anthropology Newsletter, 39(1):9.

5. Martin Sullivan 1997 "Cultural Property Issues: The Unknowns and The Unknowables." Anthropology Newsletter, 38(1):1, 4-5.

6. Ira Jacknis 1996 "Preface." American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 20(3):1-14.

7. Jonathan Haas 1996 "Power, Objects, and a Voice for Anthropology." Current Anthropology, 37(special issue):1-22.


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