Photo Archives and Maritime Cliches

Kattumaram being launched on beach south of Chennai, Tamil Nadu, south India, 2007 (‘Traditional Boats in Context’ project, University of Southampton)

During last week’s Tweetchat @agi_mv asked about the use of satellite technology in identifying submerged sites and shipwrecks. The discussion that followed ended up on the beaches of south India about 10 years ago, beaches which Julian had identified kattumaram boats on from GoogleEarth images and on which Lucy, Julian and I (along with Dr Colin Palmer, Dr Selvakumar and a handful of other fantastically patient Indian colleagues) spent some weeks recording and researching fishing boats.

@agi_mv’s comment about the images that project conjured up and some of the romantic clichés of maritime archaeology got me thinking.[1]

We could probably all name a few of the clichés and visual tropes that surround maritime archaeology: the dives on intact shipwrecks in crystal blue seas; divers surfacing, breaking the waves with crucial artefacts in their hands; the technology pinging and effortlessly producing perfect surveys of exactly what is on and in the seabed.[2] Most of the time, however, it is largely about mud, mud and soggy wood if you are lucky, but definitely mud and laptops on desks in messy offices.

In maritime ethnography and ethnoarchaeology, which we’ll be discussing further in Week Four, the photographs we take are documentary. They form a core part of the project archive. They are also often a source of a different set of ‘romantic cliches’ and visual tropes: sandy beaches, rough-hewn boats, palm trees, local fishermen and boatmen, big skies… a timeless idyll or holiday paradise in which any researcher would want to work.

Kattumaram (foreground) on beach at Edava, Kerala, south India, 2006 (‘Traditional Boats in Context’ project, Uni of Southampton).

In the last few years, archaeologists have been increasingly interested in their project archives as an object of study in themselves. They’re no longer looked at simply as ‘neutral’ records of a project or site. We’re starting to recognise the people behind the archives – the choices that are made of what to record, what to include, what to disregard – and how those choices shape the apparently ‘neutral’ record. We’re looking for traces of the historical and social context in which they were made.[3]

Some of which might sound like a lot of navel-gazing – but it is very important to maritime ethnoarchaeology in particular. There is a lot to be found behind questions like: who is doing the recording? Who gets to choose what is important and should be photographed? How are these images used? And, who is viewing and commenting on them? And perhaps most importantly, are fishermen being recorded as ‘objects’ alongside their boats?

The assumptions we make as viewers of photographs are of particular importance. What do we see beyond boats on a beach? Do our ideas about ‘traditional fishermen’, Indian lives and culture shape what we see? What historical, social and cultural ideas do we unconsciously draw on to understand the image? Do the fishermen (or the researcher) have any say in how they are represented?

In postcolonial contexts, the power dynamics at play in idyllic images like the one above are striking. Ideas about the tensions between ‘modern’ and ‘ancient’, between urban and rural, about race, postcolonial dynamics and even economic and intellectual power, are swirling around these photos and in the ways in which we use and look at them.

This is a problem that ethnographers and maritime ethnoarchaeologists still grapple with. How can the people (researcher and fisherman alike) within the photographs be more than stereotypes? How can we make sure the people we study are able to represent themselves within our work? How can projects be collaborations, shaped by both the community and researcher?

These are complicated methodological and philosophical problems for researchers, particularly if they are interested in intangible heritage, like boat building and maritime traditions.

There’s an awful lot at stake within some of those ‘romantic’ images of maritime ethnoarchaeology.



So, in readiness for tonight’s Tweetchat (between 8-9pm tonight, #FLShipwrecks), I have a few questions for you:

  • What do you think are the biggest clichés of maritime archaeology?
  • Have you ever thought of any of them as destructive or dangerous?
  • And, what image or photograph best sum-up maritime archaeology for you?



[1] In fact, there is a photo essay and research paper being formulated as we speak as a result – thank you @agi_mv.

[2] I’ve written about some of this from a different angle here.

[3] There was a very good ‘Archives Issue’ of the Archaeological Review from Cambridge in 2014. The introduction to the volume can be found here.

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