Diary of An Anthropologist

by Rosalie Frost

Note: the following story is a work of fiction and does not intend to represent actual past or present persons or events.   

I was quite taken aback to see this, the photograph I took so many years ago, enlarged to life size and placed at the entrance to the exhibition “Western Impact on Indigenous Peoples: Negative/Positive” at the Museum of Natural History. I took the picture while researching headhunter tribes in Papua-New Guinea. I felt disturbed, not entirely unpleasantly, to see the two foreground figures again standing before me. Last year, the exhibition curators had sought me out for permission to include the original print that I took forty years ago for their upcoming exhibit and I felt honored to be asked to contribute.

Forty years ago, I was a young anthropologist anxious to make my mark in the field by conducting post-doc research in a remote, relatively unexplored area in the jungle highlands of Papua-New Guinea. In that mountainous jungle of deep shadow and intermittent scraps of light, the two men in the picture had served as my primary informants about tribal culture. They somehow had acquired sufficient knowledge of a pidgin English which enabled me to learn their language and customs. Among all my findings, perhaps the most ground-breaking concerned the details of rituals conducted by various headhunting societies, which were composed of not just men, but women as well. All these memories —- and yes, even longings began to surface unbidden as I stood there, transfixed by the familiar life-size figures before me.

The privilege of making photographs had been granted me, but only after my successfully undergoing certain initiation rituals. My success allowed me to become an honorary tribal member as well as to join several hunting societies. In the picture, the man on my right is the tribe’s shaman and storyteller, with whose extended family I lived. The man on my left was a fierce warrior and headhunter. In the picture, his gaze seemed to have been attracted to something more interesting than my head hiding under a cloth hood at the camera’s back. It was one of only a dozen pictures I was able to make in the first few weeks there because all my camera equipment —- tripod, lenses, plates, films and development chemicals — quickly deteriorated in the jungle’s heat and humidity.

Some of the tribe were frightened that the tripod legs and camera resembled a person from the underworld coming to claim their souls. Others were braver and laughed like children as they put their heads under the black hood to gaze at the upside-down world through the viewing glass at the camera’s back. They said such a world was familiar to them from when they ate certain roots and fungi during ceremonies. Eventually, I too participated in those very ceremonies. I couldn’t have been happier, although anthropologists later told me that by accepting tribal membership and participating in hunting rituals I had really gone too far, giving up my professional objectivity in the process.

Finally, after almost two years, I returned to the university from whence I came. It was disappointingly dull in comparison to my lived experience in the jungle, but I busied myself with writing the papers and books based on my field experiences that quite shook up traditional anthropological research for a while. I had my fifteen minutes of fame, yet my life after returning never quite provided as much pleasure, excitement and happiness as when I was adopted into the tribe and participating in hunting and other ritual ceremonies. 

Turning my gaze away from the exhibited picture with difficulty, I began to tremble, causing me to accidentally bite my lip. The saltiness of the blood trickling into my mouth was somehow familiar, even strangely comforting. When I regained some composure, I begged a visitor to take a picture of me next to my old friends with his smart phone. The visitor then sent this image to my own smart phone. Gazing at this new picture, I felt a great contentment, as it shows me reunited with my tribe, together again after all these years apart. 

Pursuing my interest in fine art photography after retiring from decades of work in various fields, I am often drawn to write stories based on my photographs.