David Bruce and his rendering of indigenous people
Is it inevitable that a white middle class European photographer will re-enact the trope cliché of indigenous peoples? Is there another way to represent these people?
David Bruce in his images of the Ju/’Hoansi Bushmen takes us down a familiar visual road with the depiction of the semi-naked frontal posed looking into camera portraits of a tribal peoples so far away to the Western concepts and customs. To be fair however, more of his images are contextualised that others that I have seen.
A Cherokee writer Rayna Green commented of Curtis, the 18th century anthropocentric American documentarian of the American Indian indigenous that his images have given: ‘sepia kings, shot through with spit and petroleum jelly, Lords of the plains […] quit taking your fantasies out on us‘ […] (Green, cited in Kozloff 2007.) This bare statement of address seems to highlight an interesting set of feelings from the side of the natives being photographed. Maybe, the general tone of natives being projected onto in this way simply left the indigenous peoples non-plussed rather than feeling in some way incorporated into the general scheme of the photographer’s plans and the institutional agenda behind them.
Looking at Bruce’s images I have much the same feeling. In a sense the feeling is exactly the same as the American Indian group: I know nothing about these people looking at the photos. Whilst I have a basic appreciation for their sturdy appearance and wild looking hair, something which we know people in the globalised world have lost touch with, sadly, there is a sense the photos leave it entirely up to me to guess the plot, making things up in my own imagination.
So what is the value of such images? I feel that at best, we are seeing some evidence of the existence of a group of people that I may well never meet face to face. As Curtis was accused of ‘inventing Indians’ (2007.) perhaps in some way also, Bruce has invented the African tribe that he depicts in his series, according to the white notions of how we wish to view these people in the West. One gets the sense that we are always evaluating ourselves in relation to others. As Bruce himself admits : ‘All art is a kind of exploring, to discover and reveal. Every new project means learning to see all over again.’ (Bruce, website.) If Bruce here is answering my question then perhaps this is enough of a motive. And for the viewer then it needs to be the same.
Bruce, D. African Landscapes Official Website [online] https://davidbrucephotography.co.za/african-landscapes/ [accessed, May 2020]
David, B. Juhoansi Bushmen (Date unknown) [online] https://davidbrucephotography.co.za/juhoansi-bushmen/ [accessed, May 2020]
Kosloff, M. The theatre of the face, Portrait photography since 1900 (2007:33) Phaidon Press Ltd.