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Framing ethnographic photographs in the digital environment Kelm, Sarika; Mills, Allison 2015-03-06

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Framing ethnographic photographs in the digital environmentAllison Mills and Sarika KelmSchool of Library, Archival and Information      kelm.sarika@gmail.comDigitization provides increased accessibility to information and can be part of a move towards digital repatriation or shared curatorship of Indigenous objects, but ease of access often leaves information prone to misinterpretation. This makes examining the way digital archives frame First Nations subjects imperative. Historically, ethnographers and other colonial actors who documented Indigenous communities shaped perceptions of Aboriginal peoples. Photography, as a tool of colonialism, enabled photographers to create false representations of their subjects (Savard, 2005). Images were easily reproduced, reinforcing prejudices in outsiders’ minds, and Indigenous peoples rarely had access to the tools needed to combat this pervasive stereotyping. The continued display of these photographs, including accompanying text, is often problematic (Blackman, 1985; Brown & Nicholas, 2012; Cronin, 2003, Powers, 1996; Savard, 2005; Spitta, 2013; Zamir, 2007), and with digitization, access to these photographs has grown.IntroductionBlackman, M. (1985). Studio Indians: Cartes de visite of Native people in British Columbia, 1862-1872. Archivaria, 21, 68-86.Brown, D., & G. Nicholas (2012). Protecting Indigenous cultural property in the age of democracy: Institutional and communal responses to Canadian First Nations and Maori heritage concerns. Journal of Material Culture 17(3), 307-324. Cronin, K.J. (2003). Photographic Memory: Image, identity, and the “imaginary Indian” in three recent Canadian exhibitions. Essays on Canadian Writing, 80, 81-114. Crouch, M. (2010). Digitization as repatriation?: The National Museum of the American Indian’s Fourth Museum project. Journal of Information Ethics, 19(1), 45-56.Phillips, R.B. (2011). The digital (r)evolution of museum-based research. In Museum pieces: Toward the indigenization of Canadian museums (pp. 277-296). Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.Powers, W.R. (1996). Images across boundaries: History, use, and ethics of photographs of American Indians. American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 20(3), 129-36.Savard, D. (2005). Changing images: Photographic collections of First Peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast held in the Royal British Columbia Museum, 1860-1920. BC Studies 245, 55-96. Spitta, S. (2013). Monumentally Indian: The photography of Edward Curtis and the Cuzco School of photography. Comparative American Studies, 11(2), 166-184. Zamir, S. (2007). Native agency and the making of “The North American Indian”: Alexander B. Upshaw and Edward S. Curtis. American Indian Quarterly, 31(4), 613-54.Literature citedLouisa Byce (née Saylors), Allan Ritchie, Pussy McWatch, and two Cree community membersScan for detailed works cited, PDF poster URLAcknowledgements: Richard Arias-Hernandez for valuable feedback, Laurie Mills for providing insight and images, and coffee for caffeineHow culturally appropriate is BC Archives’ labeling of photographs depicting First Nations subjects?Photographs carry the fingerprints of colonialism, but are also reminders that “the past was wonderfully complex” (Newell, 2012, p. 290). We need multiple perspectives to understand our shared history, and this can only be achieved through partnership with Aboriginal groups and the recognition that a problem exists. Ethnographers viewed their collection activities as an effort to preserve dying cultures, but it had the opposite effect in that it stripped away cultural heritage.HistoryResearch on the framing of digitized photographs focuses on Australian Aboriginal or Māori rather than North American Indigenous communities. In Canada, suggestions for improved methods of display do not go beyond physical exhibitions (Cronin, 2003; Crouch, 2010). Spitta(2013) argues that one of the problems facing Western scholars is the lack of appropriate language to discuss photography of Indigenous peoples in their own context.Some critics believe digital spaces may never be appropriate for the display of these photographs, especially where ownership remains with institutions and not Indigenous groups themselves (Brown & Nicholas, 2012). The power hierarchy and non-Indigenous thought processes involved in the construction of these spaces do not accommodate Indigenous voices. Recognition that these voices need to be included exists, but action is lacking. Provincial archives in particular have not partnered with Indigenous communities and there is currently no formal evaluation of their online display methodology. ContextAs a provincial archive, BC Archives’ records have an authority that becomes problematic when they use colonial language in their subject headings and descriptions. We are interested only in photographs taken before 1970 that contain an image as well as textual information. This narrows our pool of images from 4500 image of First Nations subjects to approximately 3014 images. Given this as our base number, with a confidence level of 95%, we will need to evaluate 341 randomly selected records to achieve a confidence interval of +/-5. Each record will be analyzed by at least three coders. Because we are dealing with subject matter that requires knowledge of ethnographic and colonial history, coders will be Aboriginal themselves or knowledgeable about First Nations issues in Canada. This is vital in attempting to decolonize the framing of the archives’ holdings. The content analysis focuses on seven variables: whether or not the individual(s) in the photograph is/are identified byMethodologyThe goal of our research proposal is to increase discussion about archives’ use of subject headings and descriptive notes, asking where improvements can be made to reframe digitized photographs in a culturally sensitive way. BC Archives is part of the Government of British Columbia and is partnered with the Royal BC Museum; their metadata and classification send a message to viewers of these photographs whether they mean it to or not. Our intention is not to signal out BC Archives, but to point to this institution as a typical example of a repository in need of help. GoalsIndian--Baskets and basket making.Indian--Canoes.Indian--Costume.Indian--Crafts.Indian--Fishing.Indian--Indian People N.E.S.Indian--Rites and ceremonies.Indian--SchoolsIndian--Social life and customsIndian--Textiles.Indian--Totem poles.Indian--Villages and reservation.Figure 1. Subject headings from BC ArchivesThe language used here is dated and has problematic overtones, e.g. “Indian--Costume.”Figure 2. Example record from BC Archives’ online visual records collection where title is partially provided by photographername; whether or not the nation of the individual(s) is identified; whether or not the photographer is identified; whether the photographer is Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal; whether the Subject label is respectful; if there been an effort made to include some context in the record; and can this record be found using unique search terms? Within these variables there is room for coders to note any nuance. For example, is the nation name used out of date? Is dated information given as historical context to the photograph’s creation?Louisa with son, Charlie, and daughter, GeorginaFamily photographs provided by Laurie Mills


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