www.curator.ie in the field: Peadar Mór Ó Conghaile, Ciarán Walsh and Muiris Ó Conghaile taking a break during filming on Inis Meáin.

Do Haddon’s photographs of the Aran Islands change the history of anthropology as we know it?

I will put this question to historians of anthropology at a major conference in Lisbon in July 2020, when I present my research in a paper on Old Tropes / New Histories: an “Irish” reading of Haddon’s ethnographies.

I make the bold claim that the social-documentary approach to photography that Haddon adopted in his ethnographic studies of the Aran Islands represents the roll-out of an innovative, visual anthropology that he developed as a vehicle for anti-colonial activism in the 1890s.

That fits the theme of the 16th Biennial Conference of the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA). The conference will consider ‘such social, political, material and cultural currents in and beyond Europe, covering both the academic and ethnographic locations in which anthropologists work, in order to consider the ethical, political and intellectual challenges to anthropology that they pose.’

Thomas Fitzpatrick, 1894, Arran Isles. Weekly Freeman & National Press, April 21. See L. Perry Curtis’s book on The Depiction of Eviction in Ireland 1845-1910 (Fig. 38), which was published by UCD Press (University College Dublin) in 2011.

My paper addresses the sub-theme of imperial, colonial, and decolonial relations and legacies: taking the symbolic importance of the Aran Islands in the political campaign for home rule – decolonisation – in the 1890s as a starting point and projecting forward to the capacity of anthropologists to respond meaningfully to the contemporary challenges posed by climate change, habitation destruction, colonisation, forced migration, and genocide.

This builds on the work that a group of us will be doing at the Anthropology and Geography Conference in London in June 2020, but this paper is more historical in focus. It will be presented at a session that has been convened by the History of Anthropology Network to reassess ‘in creative ways ethnographic works produced by observers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, whose writings may regain importance in the eclectic futures of the discipline.’

I will make the case that Haddon’s photographs are full of surprises, some of which raise awkward questions about the history of anthropology. What if, for instance, some of the tropes generated by historicists who framed the history of anthropology before Malinowski – whose Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922) is generally regarded as marking the start of modern anthropology – are based on a misreading of the archive?”

Haddon took two photographs of Michael Faherty and two women from Inis Meáin (Inishmaan) in 1892, noting in The Ethnography of the Aran Islands, County Galway that that ‘Faherty refused to be measured, and the women would not even tell us their names.’ Nevertheless, they posed for two photographs and flicking between the two, one gets some sense of the nature of the engagement between the photographer and the islanders, which is very different from the sort of colonial encounter described by most historians of the history of photography in anthropology. (Courtesy of the Board of Trinity College Dublin).

My focus is on Haddon and his experimental ethnographic practice in Ireland in the first half of the 1890s. I will argue that a generation of historians of anthropology have misinterpreted Haddon’s fieldwork in Ireland, presenting as evidence an “Irish” reading of Haddon’s photographs, journals, and correspondence relating to his travels in the west of Ireland between 1890 and 1895. This is a novel vantage point from which the history of Anglo-Irish anthropology looks very, very different.

From this perspective, Haddon’s “Irish” ethnographies look like a synthesis of anarchist geography, newly developed social survey methods, and a radical attitude to village communalism: rather than the preoccupation with race, bracketed by evolution and colonialism, that sustains some well-established tropes in the historiography of anthropology.

Furthermore, I will argue that Haddon’s ethnographies have to be “seen” in the context of decolonisation in Ireland in the 1890s, making the case that Haddon’s photo-ethnographic practice was an innovative form of anti-imperial activism that emerged from a long tradition of humanitarian activism in 19th century anthropology.

That, I will propose, amounts to a more nuanced history of anthropology, which remains utterly relevant as anthropologists – practical and academic – contemplate the challenges posed by globalisation and accelerating climate change.