Since its inception, photography has been linked by artists and intellectuals to what it means to be human. It’s no surprise, therefore, that anthropology – a field that studies the human condition – is a frequent companion of photography, especially in cultures that are not well-documented or studied. How we see people and places through the lens of a camera helps us think about ourselves and others, including the very process of seeing ourselves and others.
Paul Hyman’s 1969 photos of Sefrou, Morocco, are a good example. In 1969, Hyman spent four months in Sefrou visiting his childhood friend, anthropologist Paul Rabinow, who was on location for PhD dissertation fieldwork. During this time, Hyman was able to document in pictures what Rabinow was trying to analyze through ethnography. Word of Hyman’s involvement in the project reached famed anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who came along with Hyman to facilitate his relationships with local Moroccans, and thereby document them visually. Hyman’s images of Sefrou were included in three subsequent books on Morocco, two by Rabinow and one by Geertz. More recently, they were also the subject of an academic conference, “Islam Re-Observed: Clifford Geertz in Morocco,” and a 2007 photography exhibit at the Fowler Museum of UCLA.
Reflecting on what Hyman’s photos teach us about what it means to be and – perceive being – human, UCLA anthropologist Susan Slyomovics writes that “photographic portraits are not easily rendered anonymous; they possess and proclaim their own and their subjects’ biography and autobiography.” Geertz himself called Hyman’s images “visual notations” rather than a mere reconstruction or illustration, as if his photos were actually able to capture life in Sefrou as it really was. “This is what, to a mindful eye, Sefrou looks like,” writes Geertz.
Whether and to what extent Hyman’s pictures are an accurate rendering of life in rural Morocco, they continue to captivate and invite discussion about the Middle East, anthropology, and the power of visual imagery.