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If archaeology is the key that opens the door to the past and anthropology is the key to understanding the evolution of humanity, then photography could be considered the key to bringing awareness and appreciation of the work of those disciplines to the grateful attention of the public. 

Above all, photography has a close and strong link to anthropology. By definition anthropology is the science that deals with the origins, physical and cultural development, biological characteristics, and social customs and beliefs of humankind. It is the analytical study of the nature and essence of humankind, their activities and their culture. And it is precisely the aspect of culture that unites the passions of anthropologists and photographers.

The similarities between the anthropologist and the photographer are abundant. They both engage in exploring the cultural manifestations and rituals of a community or society in the capacity of outsider, witness and reporter. They both record for prosperity. They both exhibit inquisitiveness and passion and create insights, not only into the human aspect but also into the environment in which these humans operate. Anthropology as well as photography can be an ideal context for studying issues of cultural identity and expression, political economy, social change and development, and natural resource management. Through their camera’s lens, photographers seem to answer as many questions as they ask. They record play, culture and ritual and influence how culture is represented and perceived.

In his book Photography and Anthropology, author Christopher Pinney presents a provocative and readable account of the strikingly parallel histories of the two disciplines, as well as a polemical narrative and overview of the use of photography by anthropologists from the 1840s to the present. Pinney explores photography as a conjectural practice that prompted anthropologists to capture the “primitive” lives of those they studied.

Photography has always been the handmaiden of serious anthropologists. That is how they have recorded and documented the essence of the humanity they studied. Prior to the advent and development of photography as a recording medium, most anthropologists relied on sketches, paintings and drawings to illustrate their findings and share them with the world at large.  Many explorers and anthropologists engaging in fieldwork had talented illustrators on their team. Published books and papers on their explorations and archives in colonial museums all over the world hold a treasure trove of these drawings and illustrations. These were the early “photographic” evidence of other cultures, civilizations, tribes and nations. That’s how the western world was able to picture and gaze at the noble or ferocious savages, the heathens, the other-world beings in need of religion and civilization.

The success of early photographic works stemmed from the public’s desire to see what these savages or exotics looked like, to assuage the innate curiosity about other worlds and other beings, so alien to their own. The exotic and the different were big attractions. Witness the continuing success of a book like Bali Paradise by German doctor Gregor Krause who published his photos successfully in Europe in the 1920s and significantly contributed to the stampede of tourists to Bali. He may be one of the earliest known examples of photographer as incidental anthropologist. His book not only records people in their natural environment, it also informs us of the local religious and cultural practices of the time.

Bali has been a favourite subject of study and recording for both anthropologists and photographers. Margaret Mead and George Bateson took on both roles in their work and left us with some valuable insights through their pictures. The earliest recording and documentary evidence of Bali culture has been through the famous lontar manuscripts, some of which also contained detailed drawings. But for the purpose of this article we will stick with photographic documentation which has become prolific in our time. To keep matters tidy and contained we will also limit ourselves to the art of anthropological photography as practiced in Bali by a few expat and local photographers who have explored these issues with an inquisitiveness and passion that does honour to their role as accidental anthropologists.  In no small measure do they contribute to our understanding and appreciation of this unique culture. It’s a given that they create insights. But do they also construct ethnic stereotypes?

Stephanie Brookes and David Metcalf with one of Bajau people. Photo by David Metcalf/NOW!JAKARTA

Though there are many similarities between anthropologists and photographers, it should be noted that the use of photography by professional anthropologists is necessarily slanted to the theme, topic and focus of their studies. The main difference between them as professionals is that photographers try to capture a moment, one small part of an essence, whereas anthropologists try to capture more general proclivities of the culture or object in their visor.

Contrary to anthropologists, photographers allow themselves a far broader mandate. Because they are free-roaming and liberated from the constraints of thematic studies or projects as ordained by the institutions which direct anthropologist fieldwork, they can capture moods, spontaneous happenings and genuine snaps much more readily. Most develop a specialty or niche.  Well-known photo-journalist Rio Helmi is a recognized photographer, blogger and creator of the much liked Ubud Now @ Then website. On a frequent basis, Rio publishes images of local people, landscapes and events.  His photos represent a snapshot in time, offer glimmers of bucolic life and constitute valuable vignettes of life in and around Ubud. He records the passage of the seasons, the evolution of rural practices, and the development of Ubud town in the face of massive tourism. His is a transient Bali where traditional rituals are not immune to change with the onslaught of modern day life.

Travel writer, author, editor and photojournalist Jill Gocher feels the need to bring the taste and feel of a country and its culture to her pictures, to share the wonders and the special places and things that make each place unique before the blitz of mass tourism irrevocably tends to change places like Bali forever. In her frequent travels through Indonesia, India, Tibet and other countries, she seeks to capture the tangible and intangible, the seen and unseen to make the viewer a bit more drawn into each exotic culture. Her work has been published in international media like National Geographic, Time, International Herald Tribune and various inflight magazines. Based in Bali, her main focus right now is Bali culture and her most recent book Secret Bali is a telling example. Jill’s trademark is a collection of pictures that portray the ancient cultural practices of Bali, the devotion to religion and the people and places that make Bali very unique. She is a regular contributor to local magazines that focus on present day Bali culture and traditions. Her pictures evoke a mood that is at once sensual, esoteric, ethereal and nostalgic, favouring people shots, especially children, to capture that genuine, unposed moment.

When asked why she is so intrigued with Bali culture, Jill explains that when she started traveling, she discovered that her own Australian culture has lost the link to its deep European roots. Her experiences of exploring amazing cultures like those of Borneo, Tibet and more recently Bali have revealed how religion and culture are so entwined and deeply rooted in the people’s daily lives. Her travels throughout Asia have confirmed that Balinese culture is one of the stronger surviving cultures. As a photographer, rather than a focused anthropologist, she can look at the culture from the outside and gain a much broader perspective. One of her goals is to record living cultures, before the influence of politics and other religions change them forever. Her personal vision is imposed on her pictures, not only to record, but also to extract the essence of the subject, the essential being, in the lenses of her camera.

Bali-based New Zealander David Metcalf is an unusual and talented photographer whose superbly evocative photos provide a deep link to the people, objects and landscapes he photographs. He styles himself as a cultural photographer and as such he concentrates on documenting, not only the usual spectrum of what can constitute culture, but specifically the ethnic angle. David is mesmerized by ancient tribes and traditional cultures and has travelled extensively throughout Indonesia, Asia and the USA to capture moments of revealing lore. His nickname is Dayak Dave, bestowed on him by a Dayak elder as a tribute to the efforts David has made to reveal the remnants of the old traditional Dayak culture to the world. David was part of a team that filmed a documentary in Borneo called Long Sa’an that was screened at the last Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. The film tells the story of a Dayak Elder’s journey back to his ancestral homeland deep in the jungles of Borneo. It is a film that exposes the environmental threat to the pristine forests and jungles of Kalimantan and raises awareness about the need to preserve, while at the same time it links us to the ancient ancestral wisdom of Dayak culture.

David’s passion for photography started in his early 20’s when he was traveling to far off places like the USA and was enraptured by the American Indian tribal cultures and the incredible wisdom of their elders. Serendipity jumped in to turn his hobby into a profession. In 2000, while working a corporate job in Jakarta, he had a chance to travel up the Mahakam River in Southeast Kalimantan and experienced his first encounter with Dayak indigenous tribes and their culture. This venture sealed his fate and it was not long before David jumped fulltime into professional photography. “Traveling around Indonesia is an eternal fascination and inspiration” says David, “and the camera is a huge motivator.”  Cultural photography became his mark in trade and set him on a path that emphasizes natural, unposed and unstaged moments that capture the essence of his subject. “I cannot explain all that I photograph”, says David, “so I leave it up to the viewer to interpret the mood and the nature of the photo.”

David has 3 cultural photography books to his name, teaches professional photography workshops, and organizes cultural photography tours throughout Indonesia, Asia and the USA. He has frequent exhibitions of his work and is very involved in Dayak cultural revitalization programs.  David teams up with other professional photographers to offer many faceted learning experiences. His upcoming venture is The Essence of Place, a unique 6-day Story Telling Photo Workshop starting on April 20th in collaboration with Suki Belaustegui, who has made his professional reputation as a National Geographic photographer and whose work extensively documents the existing heritage of native indigenous communities in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Check out details of this and other workshops and David’s beautiful photographs on or his Face Book page.

Readers of Bali Buzz, the Bali supplement to the Jakarta Post, know that photos and articles of Bali cultural and traditional events feature prominently in this weekly publication. Young photojournalists like Anggara Mahendra, Agung Parameswara and Kartika Suadana are a talented team, superbly positioned to capture and explain those perfect Bali moments to an expat public. Their illustrated articles are brief but illuminating and the photos do justice to their culture. Their assignments allow them to interpret their own customs to their readers while at the same time extolling the beauty and uniqueness of their island home and culture.

Some people may say that these photographer-anthropologists create stereotypes, or at least do not attempt to dispel them. This is an unjust and prejudiced view. Photographs, by their very nature, are visual and non-judgmental recordings. The assessment is in the eye of the beholder. How we react to a photo tells more about ourselves than about the person who created the photograph.

Published 2016 Bali Advertiser

You can read all past articles from Bali Advertiser at; BA Feature Article at







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