Anthropologists and Photographers: The Poignant and Elliott Collections

8 minute read

Throughout 2022-23, a team of four photographic collections assistants at MAA have been involved in two projects with mid-20th century photograph collections: the Roslyn and Axel Poignant collection of over 17,500 photographs from the Pacific, Malaysia, and Sicily, and Alan Elliott’s collection of 1,800 photographs from Singapore.

Bequeathed in 2021, the Poignant collection emphasises people and relationships with a particular focus on the lives of families. The aim of the current project has been to catalogue and digitise the collection and make it accessible through the MAA online catalogue.

The Elliott collection includes images of temples and religious festivals in Singapore. These photographs have been part of a wider project to make digitised images and detailed catalogue records available online through the National Library of Singapore.

The methods and outputs for both projects have been very similar: we have focused on producing publicly available catalogue records with accurate transcriptions of notes, detailed descriptions emphasising the names of people and places, and high-resolution images.

Despite these similarities, both projects have been shaped by the different perspectives of the four collections assistants as well as the Poignants and Elliott. In this piece, each of the collections assistants involved reflects on moments and photographs from the projects.

Glenn Adams

As a photographer and most definitely not an anthropologist, viewing a collection like the Poignants’ as a whole has been a privilege, giving me a bridge into the world of anthropology I would have never expected.

We have been able to follow individual frames from a negative through to a contact sheet then on to final print and, in some cases, publications. This has given us a real affection for the works, seeing them as part of stories.

Making digitised images and records which reflect the Poignants’ creative process offers a very real behind the scenes look into their workflow and the critical steps they took to ensure the best from their work.

They used note forms from ‘X’ for a rejected image to individual creative choices such as cropping frames for enlargements like this one.

On the left, a contact print showing photographs on a turtle, two portraits of a man, several views of mountains, and some photographs of the interior and exterior of a building. On the right, a black and white portrait of a man wearing a straw hat.

Figures 1 and 2. Left – A contact print showing photographs from Raiatea by Axel and Roslyn Poignant, 1969. Poignant Collection. MAA P.157340.RPT. Right – An enlargement of a portrait of a man from Raiatea by Axel and Roslyn Poignant, 1969. Poignant Collection. MAA P.156306.RPT.

The beauty of having access to annotations and notes allows us to the see the mark that Roslyn, who did all of the darkroom work, made on the photographs. On this contact sheet, literally leaving her fingerprints for us to find.

A contact print of several views of a landscape of two photographs of ruins.

Figure 3. A contact print of photographs from the ruins of the city of Segesta in Sicily by Axel and Roslyn Poignant, c. 1958. Poignant Collection. MAA P.163612.RPT.

I had a real feeling of doing justice to Axel and Roslyn’s work, by honouring decisions made by them whilst preserving the work and making it available in all its forms.

Kirsty Kernohan

As an anthropologist, I have always followed object stories in depth.

But on this project, my role has been to write quick descriptions and populate database fields as I have aimed to catalogue and digitise more than 17,500 Poignant photographs with Glenn and a team of volunteers.

When cataloguing, the team worked to prioritise people’s names, transparency about sources of information, and full descriptions. Our general guiding principle is ‘describe people like you’d describe your Granny.’

We still, however, have a practical desire to standardise the database. There is a professional satisfaction in using find and replace to make sure that every photograph of this child reads: ‘Pippo, a boy from Fornazzo’ in searchable uniformity.

Figures 4 and 5. Portraits of Pippo, a boy from Fornazzo in Sicily by Axel and Roslyn Poignant, c. 1958. Poignant Collection. Left – MAA T.153080.RPT. Right – P.147907.RPT.

But these cataloguing practices sometimes feel like they are fighting against the currents of life and confusion which permeate the Poignants’ photographs.

So, when a Facebook group for historical photographs of Papua New Guinea shared some of the Poignants’ photographs, we had a chance to include more perspectives. I copied the ensuing comments, with permission, into relevant records and a more fitting sense of chaos seeped into the collection. Comments mushroomed faster than I could process them, challenging not only my quest for a tidy database but also which images I felt personally drawn to.

I had not been particularly struck by this photograph of a jeep driving over a bridge, which I had catalogued with Roslyn’s tidy description of ‘Jeep on road—bridge over gorge’. However, it caught people’s attention, receiving 774 likes and 66 comments.

A blue land cruiser is being driven over a bridge made with wooden pallets.

Figure 6. A Toyota Land Cruiser being driven over a bridge in Papua New Guinea. Photographed by Axel and Roslyn Poignant, 1969. Poignant Collection. MAA T.151777.RPT.

Some people called attention to the make and model of the vehicle as a Toyota Land Cruiser. For other commenters, the jeep evoked the visible presence of government, health services, and administration. Wane commented ‘Those blue Landovers and later cruisers gave authority to the administration in those days’, and Kulame agreed: ‘Definitely seen this car many many times, in those gone by days. Every one calls it Edmin car.’

Other people focused on the location of the photograph, debating which gorge and bridge were depicted in the comments. Suggestions included Gonule (Micheal and Sam); Oliviwara (Nuwabo); Sikola Nule (John) or the Sumburu Mission. I copied all of these suggestions into the database to keep a record of conversations about the photograph.

By including these comments and debates, this photograph and its record now evoke a depth of knowledge, conversation, and disagreement which perhaps more accurately represents the challenge of caring for 17,685 photographs and their family of digital forms.

Eona Bell

Alan Elliott’s photographs date from the year he spent in Singapore from 1950 to 1951 doing fieldwork on Chinese popular religion and spirit-mediumship. Like him, I am a social anthropologist trained at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) who works with overseas Chinese communities. Coming from this disciplinary background, I was intrigued by the context in which the photos were made.

In the early 1950s British colonial authorities were actively training social scientists as part of the effort to rebuild Singapore after Japanese occupation. Alan Elliott was part of a diverse cohort of LSE graduate students in Southeast Asia. These photographs tell part of the story of colonial anthropology which is complex and perhaps more diverse than we acknowledge.

I identified a clear continuity between the work of Alan Elliott in the late colonial period and our recent work at MAA to share his images with present-day communities in Singapore.  We have used Facebook to share images with people who practice Taoism (Chinese popular religion), and those campaigning to protect Singapore’s diverse cultures, historic places, and intangible cultural heritage, all of which are threatened by urbanisation and a political drive to promote a more unified national identity.

A police officer is checking the identification documents of a Singaporean man. A procession is taking place, some people are carrying larger wooden boards.

Figure 7. Police officers check papers of participants at a procession from the Hor Lor Beo Chinese temple associated with the deity 广泽尊王 (Guang Ze Zun Wang) in a street in Tiong Bahru, Singapore. Photographed by Alan Elliott, c, 1950. MAA N.54088.ELT.

I chose this image of colonial police officers interviewing worshippers during a religious procession attended by Elliott. It echoes a story shared with me by Professor Koh Keng We, who has identified his grandfather among the Chinese temple assistants photographed by Elliott:

‘He remembered an Englishman coming in a car with a British flag in front armed with a camera. There was a curfew that year, possibly due to the Malayan Emergency… They were actually not planning to have a procession due to the curfew. However, the Englishman told them to go ahead, and that he would answer for it. They did, and soon enough, police appeared to ask them what they were doing. My grandfather and the temple people pointed to the Englishman. After a chat with him, they were allowed to continue. I always wondered if that person was Elliott.’

Koh’s story encapsulates something of the complex relationships of power and knowledge which the photographs point to.

Gemma Ovens

As a photographer, one of the most important technical parts of the digitisation project for me was maintaining attention to detail and exercising judgement in dialogue with Elliott.

In some instances, when working with negatives, you can’t simply convert from negative to positive. Where a frame may have been a little overexposed you can adjust settings in Adobe Bridge to digitally emulate how many seconds of light exposure the photographer or printer would have chosen in the darkroom.

Whilst we have a responsibility to maintain a truthful representation of what is on the negative, we adjust where necessary and preserve the original negative alongside our converted image.

We couldn’t, however, decide to make a picture ‘better’ by cropping how we or Elliott might have liked to.

For example, I came across this photograph: a dizzying image of two young men spinning in a trance-like state, completely detached from the crowd of onlookers whilst training to become initiated as dang-ki (spirit mediums).

I discovered that there are two versions of this image, the cropped print and the digitised negative.

On the left, a young Singaporean boy is holding the hands of another young boy, who is in a trance-like state. A crowd has gathered behind. On the right, the same image but un-cropped. More people can be seen in the crowd, including a woman, as well as a building behind the crowd.

Figures 8 and 9. Initiation of young spirit-mediums at a Chinese temple in Jalan Eunos, Singapore. Photographed by Alan Elliott, c. 1950. Left – MAA P.62786.ELT. Right – MAA N.54132.ELT.

Perhaps Elliott chose to crop the image to put more focus on the spinning men, creating a stronger composition than the original frame. Arguably, the cropped version is a more visually arresting image.

But the original image provides useful details such as the row of other trainees on chairs, more details of the location, female faces in the crowd, an umbrella, lanterns with writing…

This information would have been lost had we only digitised Elliott’s prints with his final creative decisions. Having access to his negatives allows us to uncover and preserve forgotten snippets of visual information.

People and Photographs in Dialogue

The digitised images and updated records associated with the Poignant and Evans collections may look smooth. But for each of us, a methodologically straightforward process of transcribing notes and describing and digitising images has become a series of conversations and negotiations with each other, the Poignants and Elliott, and several implicated communities online.

As a team, we are united by the hope that people will continue to use these resources in ways which engage with and challenge the conversations which have characterised our work this year.

To explore the collections, you can search on the photograph catalogue for Poignant or Elliott.

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