In recent years, the field of anthropology has broadened its scope tremendously from its founding researchers’ narrow focus on small-scale indigenous societies: Subjects studied by MIT anthropologists include deep-sea marine biology, hip-hop in Japan, laboratory regulation, pain treatment and cheese making on New England farms. But for those who still work with traditional village societies, the game has changed radically — now, indigenous peoples are much more sensitive about how they are portrayed to the world via outside researchers.
So, when Professor James Howe of MIT Anthropology embarked on a photographic study of communal celebrations among the Kuna of Panama, he was unsure how the project would be received. The Kuna, who number about 60,000, have been the subject of literally hundreds of books, articles and reports, some of them now produced by their own anthropologists. Although Howe had built a trustworthy reputation with the Kuna over the years, photography in particular has always been associated with tourism and moneymaking.
The celebrations in question, which mark a young girl’s coming of age, bring together the inhabitants of a village for as long as four days of singing, dancing, playing flutes and endless talk, all lubricated by cane beer, or chicha, brewed in huge clay urns. Howe first photographed the events more than 40 years ago as part of his doctoral fieldwork, but most of the negatives have since then sat untouched in his files — until recently, when they were scanned and digitally revived at William Morse Editions in Boston’s South End. Howe, who teaches the MIT course 21A.348 (Photography and Truth), notes that in this case, digital technology rescued lost images rather than bringing their veracity into doubt.
When the possibility opened up of an exhibit at Panama’s premier museum, the Museo del Canal Interoceánico in Panama City, Howe set out to gain permission and support — first of the villages where the pictures had been taken, and then of the General Congress of Kuna Culture. He was worried about the response he would receive, because for many years his primary field site had prohibited photography and sound recording at the puberty celebrations, even by fellow Kuna.
As it turned out, the General Congress was ultimately willing not only to give permission but to lend its name as official sponsor, in partnership with the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences dean’s office — probably the first such collaboration in MIT history. Several tribal and village leaders attended the exhibit opening on April 28, where the first high chief for culture spoke and numerous Kuna came to view and discuss the pictures. “In the end, the Kuna proved more than happy to reveal themselves on the walls of a museum,” Howe said.