Although ethnographic artefacts form the backbone of ethnographic collections, there is much more material qualifying as ‘ethnographic material’. Ethnographic photos are often used in exhibitions as a sort of supplement to what is considered the really significant material: the artefacts. In this and the following blog posts, we will highlight some of the many thousands of photographs in the ethnographic photo collection at Moesgaard Museum. Fortunately, scholarly works increasingly focus on the potential in these photographic treasures, but we still await the first anthropological photo exhibition (at least at Moesgaard Museum).
If artefacts – the physical objects – in ethnographic collections hold a documentary and an explanatory value, I would argue that many photos hold a value to match that. Take this photo of the woman combing the hair of man. The woman in the photo is Jette Bang. She was a renowned Danish photographer and film maker. Born in 1914, she died in 1964 – just 5 years after this photo was taken. Jette Bang participated in The Danish Expedition to Qatar in 1959, where she spent two and a half months in Qatar visiting and travelling with the Bedouin groups of al-Na’im and al-Murrah with the ethnographer Klaus Ferdinand.
The expedition, by the way, was the first major expedition of the Danish archaeological excavations in the Arabian Gulf, which has become almost synonymous with the visionary work of the archaeologist P.V. Glob, who became Keeper of Public Records and director of the Danish National Museum in 1960. Glob is known for large-scale expeditions, where a broad spectrum of among others scholars and intellectuals took part. The ethnographic touch of the expedition resulted in the collecting of artefacts – and around 2200 photos, which are all now in the photo archives of Moesgaard Museum.
Jette Bang took around four fifths of the 2200 photos, and her eye for motives and the people whom she met is unquestionable. This photograph is taken with her camera in an al-Na’im Bedouin camp in the spring of 1959. As Bang herself is in the photo, it could have been taken with a self-timer – or somebody else took it for her. In the previous photo in the series, a woman (presumably the man’s wife) is combing his hair, while a child is pouring tea into a cup. Having taken that photo, Jette Bang must have offered to do, what the ethnographer – or in this case, semi-ethnographer – does, which is participating in the activity, making herself a part of scene. You can almost see the situation, where Jette Bang is asking: “could I try?”…
The activity in the tents – such as combing and oiling hair – is documented and collected in the photograph, and is a small testimony not only to Bedouin life in Qatar in 1959, but also to fieldworkers such as Jette Bang and Klaus Ferdinand conducting fieldwork in another place and another time.
//Ulrik Høj Johnsen