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Doctoral thesis at the École Nationale Supérieure de la Photographie (ENSP Arles)

I would like to announce my PhD thesis for those who are interested: MÄNK’ÁČEN : Photographic Mechanics, Mysticism and Superstition among South American first Nations.
Abstract: Toumayacha Alakana : this popular expression lays at the root of my research. It means “to look with a veiled head”. It is how the Fuegians named the act of photographing in the 19th century, when they saw their first cameras, as operators came to America around 1840. 

What names did native people give to those new images-cum-objects ? How was that unknown device perceived ? What does it mean to be looked at by a veiled head ?

My doctoral research offers a shift of focus and point of view on the act of photography in South America. Can our understanding of photography change if we take native peoples’ perspective on the camera as a starting point ?

To be sure, European collections depicting an ancestral America are testament to the social and political context of the time and to the colonial dimension of the newcomers’ relation to native communities. These communities have lost part of their culture, as well as their economical and territorial autonomy. But they are also testament to an untold story, not only about the use of technical devices, but about the approach to knowledge and superstition that condition the culture of these people from “the end of the world”. The idea that native people do not want to be photographed, especially because it would be “stealing their souls”, is a colonial myth. This western belief gave value to the images brought back by explorers. The reasons behind refusing the camera are much more complex and diverse : they can be about the camera angle, the circulation of the image of the self, the one-sided nature of the transaction, the lack of understanding of the device, or political and spiritual considerations.

The results of my research are inseparable from the exhibition of my artistic work and the portfolio that goes along with it. My research blurs the boundaries between curator and artist, between research and creation, between theoretical and artistic practice. The exhibition and the portfolio combine different lines of inquiry following an experimental and interdisciplinary approach ; they use an ethnographic collection to postulate the existence of a “mystical mechanic”.

Keywords : proto-photographie, apparatus, photographic mechanics, mysticism, superstitions, South America, shadow, soul.

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