Vernacular Photographs as Privileged Objects:The Social Relationships of Photographs in the Homes of Gujarati/New Zealanders
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameMasters of Arts
Photographs traverse the world in many forms and for many purposes. They follow and trace movements and networks of people, and have become essential objects in linking the past, present, and future of migrating communities. Vernacular photographs found in the home, encompass a substantial field of neglected knowledge and should be accorded greater attention and analysis in social science research. Vernacular images in academic research are often described as ordinary and mundane, their representational aspects are perceived to be repetitive and unremarkable (portraits, family snapshots etc.). However, this thesis argues that vernacular photographs are privileged objects and it is their universality and social embeddedness that elevates their significance in social science research. Unlike public or institutionalised photographic archives, vernacular archives operate within active social contexts and are alive with social agency. In this thesis, I use Alfred Gell’s anthropological theory of Art and Agency as the framework for conceptualising the social agency of photographs. To support these claims, this research examines the personal photographs found in the vernacular archives of a Gujarati migrant group in Christchurch, New Zealand. The photographs presented by members of this group are found at the centre of their social lives, mirroring their experiences and relationships in visual form. I use the Chakra Wheel as a visual metaphor to symbolise the nature of this group and their photographs. This metaphor speaks directly to the phenomenon of transnationalism and acknowledges that, for migrant communities, these transitioning processes are complex and elaborate, where the foundations of kinship and homemaking are constantly shifting. Vernacular photographs are at the centre of these transnational exchanges and networks, shifting from place to place, creating tangible and virtual threads between individuals, families, villages, and communities. They anchor these relationships at various sites, such as the wall in the family home, in albums, wallets, and on the internet. Vernacular photographs mirror these complex processes, and silently record and embody the social lives of people in a visual way.
The mirrored reflection of the vernacular photograph can be both objective and subjective. By using the vernacular photograph as a research medium, in ethnographic research, we can get closer to the lived reality of people’s social lives. To emphasise the privileged position of vernacular photographs, I have chosen to use the methodology of photo-elicitation to position the photograph at the centre of enquiry. The methodology used in this thesis borrows some essential concepts from the discipline of phototherapy. Phototherapy claims that photographs can open up an exploration of us and others and, when the participant has primary agency, the affective force of the photograph is powerful and insightful. This thesis strongly supports these assumptions. Phototherapy uses photographs to explore the thoughts and unconscious processes of individuals. I argue that, in social research, photographs can also be used to explore and ‘open up’ the social world, by positioning the participant as the prime authority of their images, and their images as the vehicle of engagement and communication. By using vernacular photographs in this way, I look at both ‘on the surface’ and ‘below the surface’ of the image, making links with Barthes’ photographic theory and his concepts of ‘studium’ and ‘punctum’. In this thesis, the participants are the curators of their own personal archives. Their photographs give an emic view of their world, emphasising the importance of their migrant history, ancestors, village home, community, and cultural identity. Their photographs mediate agency between persons and places: keeping alive personal and spiritual relationships in the here and now; reinforcing essential familial knowledge systems; and assisting in creating and maintaining community identity and belonging.