From the Exhibition:

Confluences: An American Expedition to Northern Burma, 1935

In January 1935, the Vernay-Hopwood Chindwin Expedition set out from Rangoon to explore the upper reaches of the “mighty Chindwin River” on behalf of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). The three-month expedition gathered the museum’s founding biological and anthropological collections from an under-researched area to the east of Burma’s border with Assam and to the south of Tibet. Confluences: An American Expedition to Northern Burma, 1935 explores the complex social life of this extraordinary enterprise through an assortment of objects that were both carried to the field and collected en route.

Every photograph embodies not only a moment in time or a fragment of an event; it also represents a record of the photographer’s perspective on a subject. As both an artifact of cultural production and an archival resource for the analysis of past historical moments, the photograph “outlives the moment of its generation.”1 Serving as documents of complex social and historical encounters, the photographs from the Vernay-Hopwood Chindwin expedition (VHCE) have both constructed and obscured the cultural realities of indigenous life in northern Burma during the twentieth century. An analysis of these images provides a rich framework to investigate how the photograph can be understood as a cultural and historical artifact situated at the intersection of the practice of anthropology, the production of images, and the culture of collecting.

In addition to collecting animal specimens and anthropological objects, the three-month-long Vernay-Hopwood Chindwin Expedition returned with an extensive archive of photographic and film footage of a relatively unexplored part of Burma. The Research Library’s archives at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) hold nine hundred 35-mm nitrate negative images and a 110-minute black-and-white silent film, all chronicling important parts of the journey, as well as encounters with the region’s native peoples. During the expedition’s survey of the Upper Chindwin region, Harry C. Raven served as the primary photographer. His images, which document biological specimens, items of material culture, collecting activities, and landscapes, provide a history of the expedition and its collecting agenda. He carefully organized his negatives in a chronology according to the expedition’s itinerary, but his original field caption lists have not been recovered. This absence of primary source material means that the intentions behind his images remain elusive. However, as evidence of cultural encounters and social relations on the expedition, they provide a rich opportunity for archival analysis. Since Raven’s negatives are now digitized, they have assumed an afterlife that goes beyond their original use. For example, they have served as a valuable resource for museum conservators at AMNH, who had never worked on the objects and artifacts collected by the exhibition in northern Burma. Having access to Raven’s negatives provided important contextual information about the production and use of particular ethnographic items. Along with other archival materials, the photographs have also been mobilized in the development and creation of digital media components for the exhibition, which included an interactive itinerary and a digitized version of Raven’s field journal.2

The importance of photography on the expedition is also illustrated in Raven’s field notebook through explicit references to a Leica screw mount camera, released in 1925, which he used for still photography. He included other handwritten notes about a Leica agent in Paris and photographic equipment and supplies, such as film developer, rolls of Kodak film, and a metal tripod, as well as an Eyemo repair shop (P. Orr & Son Ltd.) in Madras. As early as the 1890s, photography had become a vital element in natural history survey and collecting expeditions. Photographs could be collected as objects or artifacts in their own right while simultaneously revealing important information about the collectors, expedition life, and cross-cultural confluences. Field photography was treated as a “visual notebook” for much of the twentieth century, uncritically documenting context. In her study of photography on the 1898 Torres Strait Expedition in British New Guinea, Elizabeth Edwards argues that photographs played a constitutive role (constitutive of and constituted through social relations). Photographs were not merely documentary or historical evidence, but they “authenticated, collected substitute objects, provided a site of social interaction [and] set an affective tone through which the representation of a culture and its material culture was mediated.”3 Thus, photography was more than a powerful reference tool—it became a mnemonic device of an expedition’s route, the natural world, and peoples encountered along the way, as well as a mode of material performance.

During their survey of the region, Harry Raven and Arthur Vernay also used a three-lens Eyemo camera and took more than 8,500 feet of film. Manufactured in 1925 by the Chicago-based Bell and Howell Company, the Eyemo was the most compact motion-picture film camera of its time. Its portability and ruggedness made it particularly popular among newsreel cameramen, documentary filmmakers, and the American War Department. The expedition made headlines in the popular press at the time because of its first contact with “head-hunting Nagas.” This three-day episode was represented through a reenactment of a head-hunting dance in the film and was later sensationalized by the AMNH in order to attract publicity and patronage. Ultimately, the visual documentation (and later consumption) of this encounter constructed perceptions and circulated stereotypical notions about the indigenous peoples of the region.

The VHCE’s film and photographic collection represents the activities of a diverse expedition team, as well as of the communities encountered along the expedition route. Reconstructing the collection as an artifact itself elicits a fuller understanding of expedition life, the social relations that helped to define it, and the unique contributions of its various participants.

Hadley W. Jensen received her master’s degree from the BGC in 2012 and was part of group of BGC students who researched the Vernay-Hopwood Chindwin Expedition.

1.Ira Jacknis, “Preface—Indian Photography,” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 20, no. 3 (1996): 4.

2.Erin L. Hasinoff, Confluences: An American Expedition to Northern Burma, 1935 (New York: Bard Graduate Center, 2013), 81-84.

3.Michael O’Hanlon and Robert Welsch eds., Hunting the Gatherers: Ethnographic Collectors, Agents and Agency in Melanesia, 1870s-1930s (New York: Berghahn Books, 2000), 27.