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Indigenizing Photography: Interfaces and Ethics in Contemporary Australia

Sabra Thorner (New York University)

Photographs have a fraught status in Indigenous Australia: for many cultures, it is taboo to view or circulate images of the dead. Yet photographs are not only fraught because of “sorrow” concerns, but also because they have become the primary kind of collections object that people in marginalized Aboriginal communities want back, wishing to once again “hold them close.” I argue that the politics of control over knowledge in Indigenous Australian communities are increasingly objectified in the repatriation, return, management, digitization, and care of images. As multimedia archiving tools become more flexible and more capable, how are photographs of the dead managed? How does this change when talking about gendered “business”—the privacy restrictions dictating that access to certain objects be restricted only to men or women? What are the risks of participating in open-source fora, when Indigenous elders are wary of anything having to do with the unregulated public of the worldwide web? How do these culturally-specific questions call our attention to the ways in which digital archiving and collections management must address photographic preservation and circulation as ethical concerns—for archivists, museum professionals, anthropologists, and all of those with whom we work? The infrastructures of cultural preservation and reproduction are never neutral, but rather encode knowledge in specific ways. Countering assumptions such as “all information wants to be free,” and that more access is always an inherent good, I’m most interested in how digital archiving solutions can be built to reflect both traditional protocols and contemporary social conditions.

View Sabra’s discussion online. Tune in from 10.00am-10.15am EST Saturday 6 December for the live-stream.


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 Mitali Thakor Sabra Thorner Migual Diaz Barriga Thet Win Brent Luvaas el-Sayed el-Aswad Barbara Hoffman Jessika Tremblay Kendall Roark Aaron Thornburg 

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