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This article explores the genesis of the film Ten Canoes in the photographs taken by anthropologist Donald Thomson, in Arnhem Land, in the 1930s. Thomson’s images profoundly informed the look and content of the film, and the paper traces this genealogy in order to identify a ‘cultural imaginary’ at work in the film. I argue that a close study of Thomson’s original photographs reveals an approach to photography and to culture that dramatically exceeds the boundaries of the detached anthropological/scientific gaze. Thomson’s vision is a highly tactile one. His images are as much an encounter with the light of the world as they are a document of a time, an environment and a culture; his lens is as much an organ of touch as an instrument of observation. In a remarkable example of what Tim Ingold has called ‘animate thought’, Thomson uses the materiality of photography to make manifest a life-world in which reeds, water and sky are as animate as human figures. Not easily accessible to established criteria for analysing ethnographic images, such as questions of self-reflexivity, Thomson’s polycentric images profoundly challenge the humanist assumptions of many contemporary approaches to reading images. This insight raises new questions about both ethnographic photography and the relationship between the photographs and Ten Canoes.
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