The black and white photo on flickr of a Ju/’hoansi woman winnowing grain is only mildly interesting until you notice the dog-tag hanging around her neck—she is number 73. Her face is mostly obscured by her right arm holding up a handful of grain, which adds to the power of the shining number at the center of the photo. The photographer captures the ambiguity of someone doing a very human thing—preparing food to eat—while being treated like a tagged animal.
Lee and Hurlich (1982) provide some background for the photo. Apparently the government of Southwest Africa (now Namibia) wanted to control their distribution of free grain to the San peoples in their country in the early 1960s, but they didn’t want to be giving away food to peoples from across the border in Botswana. So they issued the dog-tags to grain recipients. The authors describe how the Ju/’hoansi (then called the !Kung) confounded the white people by trading their dog-tags widely—so others could enjoy the benefits of the free food.
The photo, by famed film-maker John Marshall, conveys an emotion about sacks of grain, dog-tags, and racism that complements the scholarship of Lee and Hurlich (1982). Marshall, whose films of the Ju/’hoansi have been widely celebrated recently, took thousands of still photos during his many years in the Kalahari. Some of them have been loaded into flickr over the past few weeks by Documentary Educational Resources (DER) of Watertown, Massachusetts.
DER’s John Marshall Photo Archive, titled on flickr the “Ju/’hoansi Tribe Photos 1950s – 1970s,” starts with nearly 80 pictures focusing on the Kalahari Desert landscape of southern Africa where they live. The black and white photos in this portion of the archive are particularly stunning. A huge baobab tree looms over a desert campsite. A black and white landscape shot of a road curving up and over a rise captures a disquieting mood of timelessness and interruption.
The next photo in the archive, perhaps taken on the other side of the same rise, shows the road striking across a level plain, trees scattered on both sides of the surrounding grasses. Anyone who loves desert landscapes will immediately fall for these images. Since the vegetation is not identifiable, the scene could just as well be a four-wheel drive track across the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge in western Nebraska as the Kalahari Desert. Another shot of a desert track, taken very near a settlement, captures a mood of entrance to a built-up environment.
Note that the horizon lines in some of these desert pictures are not absolutely horizontal. Many photographers less skilled than Marshall have also had the problem of getting horizons level in photos taken before the era of digital cameras and Photoshop programs that could rotate images. One can suspect that the staff member of DER who scanned these pictures did not use Photoshop or other programs to alter or enhance the images.
The rest of the collection—as of Tuesday the archive on Flickr included 506 pictures—depicts the lives and activities of the Ju/’hoansi themselves. The first photo in this second portion of the archive is a wonderful character study of a man whose name and thoughts we can’t know, but whose face is highly expressive. A few dozen pictures later one finds a fine series of black and white shots of a traditional hunter. Then, a nicely backlit black and white shot of two women, one of whom is fooling with the hair of the other. A dozen or so later (the pictures are not numbered), there is an interesting shot of a man working on a very large animal skin.
The best shots show the Ju/’hoansi simply living their daily lives. Women are shown caring for children, gathering vegetables, and cooking, while men are captured on film as they hunt, do things, and sit around the camp. Children are shown doing the universal thing that children do—playing with whatever is at hand. A surprisingly effective picture shows a couple of children balancing on a long log, set up as a seesaw across the top of a vertical post.
One evocative color shot shows a group of people sitting in a couple circles, with adults dancing around an inner group and the dancers surrounded by an outer circle of more people. Another priceless picture depicts a wonderful expression on the face of a man who is obviously just coming out of a healing trance. Marshall also caught numerous shots of the Ju/’hoansi learning to garden and starting to keep cattle. He clearly wanted to chronicle the changes sweeping away their former lives.
This archive fosters a bit of frustration, however. None of the photos have descriptive information, so in some cases the viewer is unable to figure out what is happening. Cynthia Close, Executive Director of DER, explains in an e-mail that DER “should definitely think of ways we can contextualize the material for visitors to flickr.” She indicates that the Marshall photo collection housed at DER is just a small portion of a vast archive, over 50,000 Marshall family images housed at the Peabody Museum at Harvard, which has the resources to care for them.
People interested in these eloquent portraits of the Kalahari and of the Ju/’hoansi people should keep checking back to the flickr site for more photos to be added in coming weeks and, perhaps someday, for captions or other helpful information to be included with the pictures that are not completely clear. Many of the shots are simply stunning.