Traces of the Unseen: Photography, Writing and Contact in Three Expeditions in the Tropics

by Carvalho Pereira Sa

Institution: Princeton University
Year: 2016
Keywords: Archive; Critical Theory; Memory; Photography; Travel Literature; Walter Benjamin
Posted: 02/05/2017
Record ID: 2070638
Full text PDF: http://arks.princeton.edu/ark:/88435/dsp01hm50tv13h


Traces of the Unseen examines the presence of images of ruins, scars, and ashes in the archives of early twentieth-century encounters between western travelers and local communities in remote regions of Brazil and Peru. It considers the use of photographs, field-notes, and diaries in government reports, travel-books and monographs related to three voyages: journalist Euclides da Cunha's 1897 venture to Canudos in Northeastern Brazil; British Consul Roger Casement's 1910 expedition to investigate the abuses suffered by Putumayo indigenous communities during the Amazonian rubber boom; and French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss's ethnographic research in central Brazil in the 1930s. Chapter one centers on da Cunha’s use of field-notes, manuscripts, and photographs in his canonical book Os sertões. It considers his efforts to inscribe Canudos and its archives into a historical narrative of a nascent Republic and its modernizing impulse. In chapter two, Casement’s challenge is to produce material proof of crimes committed in the Peruvian Amazon. While da Cunha constructed a national event from the ruins of Canudos, Casement concludes that the visibility of marks of torture depended on the onlooker’s “point-of-view.” Lastly, chapter three analyzes Lévi-Strauss's Brazilian archive to engage debates on the phenomenology of the photo-ethnographic encounter and the scientific value of the written, drawn, and photographed materials produced in encounters between western travelers and non-western communities. These travelers, who carried cameras and published photographs alongside their texts, reflected upon questions of knowledge, perception, and memory in order to interrogate the role of technologies of inscription. I argue that each traveler developed a distinct concept of “evidence,” which do not entirely conform to an empirical logic of the encounter. Second, I consider the afterlives of the material traces of these encounters. I investigate these texts and images were woven into narratives that build historical, legal and humanitarian, and anthropological arguments that marked the formation of a transnational imaginary of the Amazon or the sertão. Finally, I suggest ways in which the trajectories of these materials conflict with political or intellectual projects at stake. More specifically, I read these “official” narratives alongside the photographs cropped, reframed, or forgotten in the archive. Advisors/Committee Members: Nouzeilles, Gabriela (advisor), Cadava, Eduardo (advisor).