Thursday, December 29, 2016


Back in 2008 Clay Shirky flagged the en masse arrival of the digital photographer in Here Comes Everybody. I’ve been thinking again recently about my daily obsession with walking the streets and taking photographs. I take photographs and I’m therefore a photographer, but I’ve never been comfortable with that tag. To me photographers are people who have fancy equipment, have studied or mastered the art of composition, know how to compensate for poor light, when to focus close-in or retreat to the panoramic level and so on. I can do some of these things – as far as a top of the range digital camera will allow – but the fact is I’m not really interested in mastering the technical side of photography. I take photographs sure, but I take them mostly for other reasons, and technical excellence is low on my list of priorities.
I have been looking for a word that better describes what I do. It could be something as simple as a visual diarist. It feels like what I do is a cross between photography and anthropology so perhaps I’m an anthropographer? And guess what? The word exists. Anthropography is “The branch of anthropology that deals with the actual distribution of the human race in its different divisions, as distinguished by physical character, language, institutions, and customs.” While that is close, that is just part of what I do. Then there is the similar related field of anthrotography:
"Specialising in the science researching the origins, history, and development of biological characteristics, social customs, belief systems, and indigenous linguistic variations of humankind. The anthrotographer takes photographs for the purpose of sharing knowledge and spreading joy."( It seems to be a less accepted term than anthropographer and may have been invented by someone trying to do what I am exploring – exactly what it is I do with photographs.
Let’s look at the elements of each of these disciplines and see how well they describe what I think I do – or not.
  • the actual distribution of the human race in its different divisions, as distinguished by physical character, language, institutions, and customs
I do take photographs of people of different cultures, and try and emphasise different physical characteristics. For example:

I also try and try catch glimpses of different cultural practices: 

Drinking Kava
I try and capture examples of different linguistic traditions: 

Bislama Language of Vanuatu
  • The anthrotographer takes photographs for the purpose of sharing knowledge

This has been a significant drawcard for me. Based on the assumption that your photos are shared with others – an essential element of the whole process – I was intrigued early on just how much random information I picked up from others’ photos, and what others could teach me about my own. It is common practice to ask the online community for assistance if for example, you don’t know the name of a bird or flower that you have photographed. Inevitably in time someone will provide the answer.
  • The anthrotographer takes photographs for the purpose of … spreading joy.
This can be the joy of learning; the joy of sharing photos of a shared experience, or joy in and of itself:
The anthro prefix in these fields of endeavour denotes the study of humanity. But what then with photos of landscape or nature? 

There’s no evidence of people present – deliberately so – so the anthro tag does not apply to all I do. So something that denotes observation of earth or nature needs to be part of the description. ‘Geo’ seems an obvious candidate but geographer is already taken, and I don’t want the anthro aspect completely sidelined. So what about anthrogeography? It does exist according to Google, but it seems to have been superseded by anthropogeography - a branch of anthropology dealing with the geographical distribution of humankind and the relationship between human beings and their environment. The relationship between human beings and their environment. This is getting closer. But I want a term that encompasses observation of humans and the environment or natural world not only in isolation, where they exist independent of each other, but also how they interact with the other.
While trying to decide what it is I do I realise that it’s about
  1. people
  2. places
  3. the mutual impact people and places have on the other

And a final aspect that others have been quick to point out about my photographs – what happens when people leave the scene: the process of neglect, incremental change, and slow decay. It is a significant theme in my work but I think it can be included under the third point above.
Anthropogeographer sounds clumsy to me, and if anthrogeographer has been superseded I could reclaim it and redefine it. Or I could start brand new with geoanthrographer, but it’s difficult to pronounce.

“So you’re a photographer Michael?”
“No. I’m an Anthrogeographer.”
“What’s that?
“Someone who photographs people and places and how they interact.”
“Ah…interesting…’ J

I don’t expect to start a new movement. I could perhaps be accused of being a wanker. But I really do want a term that makes it clear that what I do is not based on an interest in photography as a technical discipline. I am much more interested in where photographs can take you; how one might use them to create a dialogue between us about the nature of existence. So for now, I’m a anthrogeographer! (This may change ;)


Alan said...

Congrats on the title, Michael!

I certainly enjoy seeing what you see in the world through your photographs, and even more, our back and forth banter via flickr comments.

I for one just enjoy taking and making photographs; it's the most personally and creative thing I do every day. I see value both in the practice of improving my technical and compositional skills. In what I see you doing and what I do myself, to me it's observing the world, noticing it more closely then in just passing through-- seeing details of light, texture, juxtaposition, faces, finny signs. All the camera does is give us a rectangular frame to remove everything else but what we notice.

The greatest reward for my teaching activities with it is hearing how students just notice these details more in their every day living.

Keep up the anthrogeography, and I look froward to a time we may get to photograph a place together (working on a possible visit after Sept 2017!)

deliab said...

Michael, I agree with Freire that naming is important. It is a way of clarifying character and significance.

I've always being drawn to iconography. For me, an iconographer is a maker of images that are rich in meaning. You might like to read this: and see how this term relates to some of who you are and what you do.

Here's to the habit of meaningful image-making!


Michael said...

Hi Delia. I knew there'd be area I'd neglect in my quick survey of this terrain, and iconography is clearly one of them. I enjoyed the article. And interesting to consider how the study of iconography, more rooted in the world of art, can be applied in a modern media context. I'll keep thinking :)

Michael said...

Alan - just to be clear: I do enjoy photographs taken by others that show an obvious technical expertise. I enjoy your photos on a daily basis and reckon you have the knack of finding authentic angles on the world around you - wherever you happen to be. And you clearly do it with an artistic eye AND technical excellence :) Thanks for dropping by.

Rita Zeinstejer said...

Thank you, Michael, for your insightful approach into the: "beyondness" of images and photos, opening my eyes --and my students'!!! -- to a world of speculations, representations, artistic appreciation from a wider viewpoint. Not that we are considering this concept for the first time, but alas! your detailed, comprehensive look has certainly fuelled further reflection and conjectures, which we all greatly appreciate and enjoy.


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