Sympathy for an Undiscriminating Collector: or, how I am a Boasian Photographer

I’ve always had a collector’s mentality. When I was little, it was things like Matchbox cars. My parents thought that it was neat the way I’d have dozens and dozens of the things (Hundreds? I don’t remember.), yet I always knew exactly which ones in the store were not yet part of my collection. I think my collecting tendencies could easily graduate to hoarding if I’m not careful. One of the last times I moved, I brought two carfulls of computer parts -I filled the trunk, the backseat, and even removed the passenger seat to make more room for them- to an electronics recycling drive. I’d kept them for the longest time out of some belief that I’d do something with them. That someday they’d be important and useful. In a way, I felt like I was maintaining a sort of museum; that if I didn’t have these things, then they would someday become inaccessible. Lost to the us. I’ve felt this way about many more things over the years: CDs of computer software, Magic and other CCG cards, books [possibly my greatest weakness; I have many more of them than places to put them, so they end up being inaccessible after all, packed away in boxes]), and more.

I’ve gotten better about hoarding physical things, but I still have issues with digital hoarding. I have a file full of basically every program I’ve downloaded from the internet over the past fifteen-plus years, ‘just in case I need them.’ But perhaps the worst of it is my photographs. Whether it’s a trip to New York City, or random shots of the household dog, almost every photograph I make is stored away in redundant copies on two external hard drives, just in case something happens to one. I have a very hard time getting myself to delete photos that are, for instance, out of focus, over-exposed, or near-duplicates. It pains me a little bit to *destroy data* in this way. Because it’s not only the direct data in the photo; it’s the meta-data. Somehow, it feels like I’d be diminishing a whole in some way that could never be restored. I’m getting better about this. On my trip to Mexico, I actually, *gasp*, deleted some poorly shot or composed photos in-camera before even seeing them on a screen! But it’s hard. What if I need that photo later, for some inexplicable reason? I will *never have the chance again* to take that photo. This is why I have something like a hundred thousand digital photos -many, many gigabytes’ worth-, and my ‘to-process’ backlog grows ever larger and more intimidating. I just don’t have the time to effectively process them all.


As I read about Boas’ indiscriminate salvage ethnographies, I felt kinship with him. Here is motivation I can not only understand, but emphasize with. All of these cultures -these actions, behaviours, thoughts, relationships, collected knowledges, these achingly beautiful and unique junctures in socio-cultural space-time- are going away. They’ll be gone forever. We need to preserve everything we can about them before it’s too late. We need everything! Now!


When I start photographing a particular place, I like to start by sitting down and thinking about what it is, what I feel about it, and what I want my pictures to say. But I don’t always have the time. In the brief trip I took through Mayan ruins over Spring break, for instance, I was constrained by external factors like the speed of my group and the schedule. Sometimes, I react to this by thinking less and shooting more. Moving from active creation of compositions to profligate snap-shotting, trying not to miss something neat.  In the same way, Boas (and many anthropologists since) have been constrained in their work by external factors. Archaeology especially is often in these rescue situations, doing as much as can be done with a site before a new building or road is put in. But cultural anthropologists as well must accept that their time in a place is limited, and they can’t know everything.


I think that must have been deeply distressing for people like Boas. It’s distressing for me. What if we miss something critical? That one magnificent photograph, shot almost as an afterthought, or its anthropological analogy, that one almost accidental observation that turns out to unlock something really critical to your work. Nevermind that it becomes a needle in the proverbial haystack of accumulated data. There’ll be time to sort it out later as long as we collect it *now* before it’s too late! Boas and I would likely both benefit from applying a theoretical framework to our data collection. But it’s so hard to know where to start sometimes. Well, maybe we can figure it out later; there are photos to take and data to collect….



5 thoughts on “Sympathy for an Undiscriminating Collector: or, how I am a Boasian Photographer

  1. Using digital data to compare to Boas over collecting is awesome. It is a completely different way of looking at information that we do not always think of.

    1. Aw, thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed the comparison. I didn’t think of the connection immediately, but it came to mind when I started looking at all the photos from my trip.

      I think the way we can accumulate so very much data in modern times makes this kind of thing all the more relevant and important.

  2. I also foun it interesting of the comparison to collecting or hoarding things to Boas’ way of doing things. Another thing it made me think of is theorist collecting or hoarding. You want to remember all of them and all the things they came up with and at what point to you think maybe they are outdated and should move on to others that may have a new look at things. Then again like you said maybe you shouldn’t have dismissed Boas to soon. It is hard to decide what is important and what isn’t. Good blog i enjoyed it.

  3. The thought of all the information that can or has gone overlooked can cause a petrifying obsession with hoarding, as you mentioned. The most intriguing part to me was your observation of the danger of simply being in “collect everything, NOW. before it is gone” mode of thinking. As it is useful to have a foundation of past information to go off of, there is always the potential for new understanding and insights if the information had not been critically analyzed due to external constraints (time-space, your group on a trip, a deadline).

  4. The risk of this ‘catch it now!’ attitude is two-fold. One is that, in fact, it’s mindless. As we can see with Boas, his work doesn’t seem to get re-analyzed in the same way Malinowski’s or EEEP’s has been, because there so much stuff and deeper things were missed. The other is that we miss actual social relationships, which I think Boas did. He did not ‘see’ social structure. That’s my impression from his work, at least. Interesting essay!

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