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Anthropologists Reclaim Images of a People’s Past

Left, Paul Bohannan’s forthcoming book, The Tiv. Right, anthropologist Gary Seaman, director of USC’s Center for Visual Anthropology, uses PhotoShop, a common imaging software, to rescue once-lost images of the Nigerian tribe.

Photo by Irene Fertik

Even as he was developing the negatives more than 50 years ago, Paul Bohannan knew the results would not be great.

“When you’re thousands of miles from technological civilization, you do what you can do,” the USC anthropologist mused. “In the heat and humidity of the Nigerian bush, negatives start to molder unless you develop them the same day you take them.”

In the end, nearly half the 1,200 black-and-white images that Bohannan shot during his three years among the Tiv, a rarely documented Nigerian tribe, were so murky that nobody could coax a decent print from them – until now.

Visual anthropologist Gary Seaman, an expert in the analysis of ethnographic film, has used the latest digital techniques to rescue nearly 600 of the images once dismissed as virtually invisible. Together with Bohannan’s published research on the Tiv, the digitized images constitute a treasury of life among the slash-and-burn farmers in the last days of British colonial rule.

The results have provided the foundation for Bohannan’s forthcoming book, “The Tiv: An African People from 1949 to 1953” (Ethnographics Monograph Series). The restored photographs, now being recorded on CD-ROM, could eventually be made available online.

“I’m immensely grateful to Gary,” said Bohannan, an emeritus professor since 1987 and a past president of the American Anthropological Association, in a telephone interview from his home in Three Rivers, Calif. “He has brought me out of one era and into another.”

Since Bohannan left Nigeria in 1953, researchers have looked only at such specific aspects of Tiv life as their music and dance – not at their culture as a whole.

“Someday, when Nigeria’s Tiv find another ethnographer, Paul Bohannan’s photographs will provide a benchmark against which to measure any change,” said Seaman, director of USC’s Center for Visual Anthropology. “Paul is the world’s leading expert on the Tiv.”

Bohannan studied the Tiv, then 800,000 strong, from 1949 to 1953. Fresh out of Oxford University, he lived in a mud hut without plumbing, learned the Tiv language and documented the tribe’s customs and culture.

His photographs preserve a record of many domestic activities that the Tiv (now more than 3 million strong) have since discontinued – using the indigo plant to dye cloth, making beds from palm fronds and hollowing out tree trunks for canoes, for example.

Half a century ago, the Tiv held unique views of human anatomy, physiology and death. At a time when British colonial law forbade tribal autopsies, Bohannan witnessed and photographed a group of Tiv engaging in the practice to determine how witchcraft had killed a member of the tribe.

While assembling materials for his forthcoming book, Bohannan happened on one of the long-lost photos he took that day. It’s probably the only photographic record extant of the long-banned practice.

Seaman, a pioneer in adapting digital technology to anthropological research, used PhotoShop – a common imaging software – to heighten contrast in Bohannan’s negatives, which had been compromised by mold, primitive developing techniques and exposure to heat.

For Seaman, now an associate professor of anthropology in the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, the four-year restoration project was an expression of gratitude. Back in the ‘60s, when Seaman was an economics major at the University of Texas, Bohannan played a role in diverting Seaman to the field of anthropology.

“I read his work during a course in developmental economics,” Seaman recalled, “and lost interest in perfectly rational statistical models. I realized I was far more interested in how custom and culture affect behavior.”

The Tiv photo-restoration project was supported by a bequest from the late Dorothy Leonard, a Los Angeles portrait photographer with an interest in archeological photography.

Seaman also produced the CD-ROM “Yanomano Interactive: The Ax Fight,” published by Harcourt Brace.

Anthropologists Reclaim Images of a People’s Past

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