Picturing a Colonial Past: The African Photographs of Isaac Schapera by John L. Comaroff, Jean Comaroff, and Deborah James, eds


Chicago : University of Chicago Press , 2007 .

This volume offers the reader a fascinating look into the visual world of Schapera's subjects in what he came to refer to as “Old Botswana.” The editors are to be commended for bringing images into circulation that might otherwise have languished in the RAI archives. One hundred and thirty-six photographs, including 12 images from the Reverend J. L. Reyneke made on behalf of Schapera, are accompanied by Schapera's captions and contextual material. In addition, the volume contains an introductory essay by Jean and John Comaroff along with a biographical sketch of Schapera by Adam Kuper. Schapera's 1933 “Preliminary Report of Field Investigations” precedes the photographs.

Schapera's images are windows into the lives of the BaKgatla people between the 1920s and 1940s, including wide-angle photographs of village landscapes, domestic scenes of women grinding maize and making pots, and a range of portraits clearly demonstrating Schapera's personal relationships with those in the images. The pictures also offer a clear sense of the important social divisions in the BaKgatla world. Women are most often shown at work in their homes, children appear alone in small groups in the bush, and men gather in political conversation or face the camera dressed in their (Western) best. The photographs also depict the interactions between BaKgatla life and colonial society as Western goods and fashions appear in several frames.

The Comaroffs' introductory essay contextualizes these photographs within the larger body of Schapera's famously encyclopedic ethnographies of the Tswana people. It reminds readers, especially younger readers raised in the “post-everything” world of today's anthropology, that once upon a time anthropologists like Schapera believed it was indeed possible (admittedly through work both exhaustive and exhausting) to fix on paper and film a verifiable sense of what life was like for another people. The essay comments that while some of Schapera's “techniques [may] appear outmoded […] some of them would still serve our discipline well in these days of numbing scepticism and methodological incoherence” (5).

The photographs show a distinct perspective that asks the present-day viewer to step outside of the world of deconstructed representations of the “other,” and to contemplate for a moment the sensual, quotidian world of those we work with in our own field sites. In their introductory essay, the Comaroffs remark that Schapera himself was “terse” (1) in discussing his photographs, but also “proud” (3) of them as evidenced by his habit of reproducing them, giving them away, and hanging them in his office. One imagines Schapera delighting in surrounding himself with images of the world he inhabited alongside the BaKgatla for so long, even when he was far removed from the world. For both present-day anthropologists and for Schapera, the public representations of our work are often reduced to a series of texts, very sparsely illustrated with photographs we may or may not have produced ourselves. Schapera carried the visual world of the BaKgatla with him, and this collection allows us access to that world.

Kuper's contribution to the volume provides a brief biographical sketch of Schapera, including his at times difficult professional relationship with Malinowski at the London School of Economics and his more collegial relationships with Charles Seligman, Edward Evans-Pritchard, and J. H. Driberg at LSE (22–33). Kuper's essay portrays Schapera largely as a man utterly committed to ethnography and rigorously scheduled days of research and writing. At the same time, Schapera did not work in a vacuum and Kuper's essay cogently summarizes the debates surrounding anthropology both at the University of Cape Town where Schapera first lectured (and eventually chaired the department) and later at LSE.

Both the Comaroffs' essay and Kuper's sketch draw attention to a crucial element of Schapera's work: he was not afraid to show the changes taking place in BaKgatla life, and indeed the lives of Bantu people more generally (29). Unlike Malinowski's efforts to eradicate traces of Western influence in his photographs of the Trobriand Islanders, neither Schapera's texts nor his photographs make any pretense of showing a people free from Western influence. Rather his photographs, like his work, invite the viewer to consider the process by which BaKgatla people were drawn into what Schapera called a “common South African civilization” (in Kuper, 29), however fraught the transition would become.

The collection also led me to contemplate my own habit of surrounding myself with images from my fieldwork. Like Schapera, I follow the practices of the amateur, snapshot photographer, working with available light and generally avoiding posed images. It was impossible to resist comparing the subjects of Schapera's images with my own pictures of daily life among the Venda people in South Africa. Two photographs in particular were eerily similar to my own. Plate 2.3, of a woman smearing the courtyard floor of her house with cow dung from a clay pot and an enamel pan matched the image of my Venda “grandmother” hard at work decorating her own courtyard. Plate 3.8 of Kgari Pilane and his wife drinking tea and beer under the shade of their roof called to mind my photograph of two friends enjoying their afternoon tea, the women adorned with Western-style gold earrings, and more traditional bracelets. Despite the similarities of subject, the photographs display a kind of gestural particularity that sets them apart in time and ethnographic context.

Seeing Schapera's work reminds me of the usefulness of the image to capture the visual world of a community. While we debate the power dynamics of the discipline of anthropology, we sometimes lose sight of one of the founding precepts of the discipline—to understand how others see the world. Clearly, the most basic interpretation of this mandate can be captured through the lens of a camera. The anthropologist with a camera edits the view, and with that editing comes power. On the other hand, “losing sight” of the field divorces us from our lived experience within it, and in some respects denies us a kind of common humanity, a seeing humanity, with our subjects.

This volume will evoke different responses from different viewers. The volume in some respects is highly specialized, offering a very particular set of visual ethnographic information. However, the introductory essays might invite readers to question their own documentation processes in the field, and to consider the ways in which they might wish to represent the everyday visual landscape of their field site. In addition, the volume will prove useful to present-day ethnographers working in Botswana and in southern Africa more generally. In particular, it offers a wide-ranging visual record of the 1920s through the 1940s which may be compared with the visual landscape of today's field sites. One also imagines a project in which the book is viewed with BaKgatla people to invite their comments on the images. At the beginning of the text, Khosi Linchwe II of the BaKgatla tribal administration remarks that “we hear words and we hear music but we have difficulties responding to older, historic photographs in the way that people in other parts of the world see them.” With that in mind, examining the unique responses of the BaKgatla people may prove illuminating.

In addition, the book will yield excellent material for use in general undergraduate courses in sociocultural anthropology, visual anthropology, and African ethnography. The images can serve as fodder for discussing the mission of anthropology in Africa in the first half of the 20th century, and will help generate discussion of the impact of what the Comaroffs correctly identify as the “epistemic, ethical, [and] politico-aesthetic concerns” now surrounding recording images in the field.