What Color is Black-and-White?

by ahmadmoradi5


Looking at Daniel’s photos, we were convinced that if they were black-and-white, it would change the underlying meaning of them. In this week, I came across a book ‘What Color is the Sacred?’ in which Michael Taussing discusses about Malinowski’s photos in the Trobriand Islands.


In reading this photograph, Taussig wants us to pay attention to the contrast between native sorcerer and the ethnographer which is a contrast between dark and naked versus white and clothed. “All of which that can be seen is as culminating in the fact that this is a picture celebrating the aura of the man in white, glowing like a star in depths of the darkness of the sorcerer, whose enchantment ignites a flame, erotic and magical, that is the fabulous whiteness of the man in white” (Taussing 2009: 82).

He is so exasperated with the photo that he calls it fake and then follows that fake is too harsh and he should call it staged or theatricalized. He is shocked by the whiteness of Malinowski’s clothes or better whiter-than-white images of him. He is curious to see if Malinowski really clothed in this quintessential colonial attire while wandering around the island doing ‘ethnography’.


In another picture, Malinowski dazzles sitting on a platform ensconced with a group of Trobriand men.  “once the suspicion crosses your mind that this image like other photographers of Malinowski blazing white are staged, and as such are wildly untrue to his ethnographizing life, and once you start to look at them with this in mind, focusing on the gestures, the facial expressions, the choreography, and the mise en scene- then you wonder how you could ever have been so silly as to have thought otherwise” (2009: 123).

To explicate our common misreading of his photographs as true ethnographical and epitome of ‘participant observation’, he draws on Young’s biography of Malinowski in which it is mentioned that one of the nicknames given him by Trobrianders, Topwegiglier, means “the man with loose shorts”. However what is striking is his attitude to hide his true ethnographic personality and to transform it to a whiter-than-white figure among dark-skinned island dwellers. That is all because he is not at the back of camera shooting natives and this is the only instance that he is the object of study and a being photographed.

It is not color which can be deceptive but black-and-white photographs also bear misleading elements and portray whiter-than-white subjects.

Taussing, Michael (2009). What Color is the Sacred?. The University of Chicago Press.