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Department of Social Anthropology


Juliette Gautron, PhD candidate in social anthropology, is the winner of this year’s postgraduate photography competition. Juliette – who is conducting her PhD fieldwork in Colombia – impressed the competition judges with the strong sense of place and intimacy found in her black and white images.


Can you give us an overview of your doctoral research?

I'm working in northeast Colombia, in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the world’s highest coastal mountain range. The 5730m peaks are only 42 kilometres from the sea – it’s the most dramatic increase in elevation. There's also incredible local biodiversity and lots of endemic species. Within that context, I work on the potentials for conflict and collaboration between conservation NGOs, environmental projects and local people. I am considering how they work together, what goes well and what doesn't. I'm focusing on themes of translation - how people speak to each other, not just linguistically, but conceptually.


What drew you to this remote mountain community?

I visited for the first time in 2019. I speak Spanish, and had always wanted to work in South America. During my undergraduate studies at LSE, I heard about this place in Colombia where there was a small permaculture project working with indigenous people. I secured funding for short-term fieldwork and it turned out to be really interesting. After a Masters in International Development [at Cambridge], I decided my PhD should revisit Colombia and the friends I had made there. I'm now in my first year of PhD and will soon be starting my long-term fieldwork. These photos were taken last winter during preparations.


Can you tell us about the indigenous Wiwa people?

There are four indigenous groups in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta that claim to descend from the same ancestors, the Tayronas. What I find really interesting is their heterogeneity beyond their similarities. The Kogi, Arhuaco, Wiwa, and Kankuamo peoples are culturally akin, yet quite distinct. They often work together and are represented together politically. In 2022, their ancestral system of knowledge was inscribed into UNESCO's list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Because of the violence of colonisation and armed conflicts, the people in this area have really suffered. Many indigenous people were displaced, and, to escape, they often travelled higher and higher up the mountain.


What will be the main focus of your fieldwork?

My research sits at the interface between environmental projects and local indigenous groups. I'll be working with both sides, and in the collaborative space where indigenous people and NGO staff meet. What's really interesting is to see the differences and points of convergence.


What is the value of photography during this research?

I've always been interested in photography and almost went to art school instead of studying anthropology. It has a big presence in my research; this winter, I have taken so many pictures. When you see these famous images in National Geographic, you get lost in them. You feel you understand something beyond text. I love photojournalism, and I think anthropology has that visual potential, though as anthropologists we are wary of commercialising or objectifying subjects. It also depends on how sensitive your research is, and some people might not want to be photographed. You might not want to photograph anything. Currently, it seems to me that photography in anthropology can often turn out to be more of a record, it's not about any sort of artistic practice. Nevertheless, there are lots of anthropologists trying to create pioneering visual research, such as drawing comics or painting fieldnotes, based on their fieldwork. Something visual can convey so much more than just a paragraph of writing.


Why did you select these images to tell the story of the Wiwa people?

I wanted to show what people do in their daily lives: women picking coca leaves, the spiritual work with the mamo [the spiritual leader], and a woman weaving a mochila strap. For us, these may be new and different, but this is all everyday stuff.


The judges commented how the accompanying words were evocative, yet unassuming, allowing the images to speak for themselves. Was this a deliberate choice?

I didn't want to give an anthropological analysis of the pictures. I wanted to stick to what the picture shows and what the people are doing in a simple way. In a photography competition, it's all about the images. If you have to write a lot, it means the pictures aren't very good at communicating with the viewer.


The judges were deeply impressed with the strong sense of place and intimacy captured in your images. Was it important to communicate these narratives?

I was trying to show daily life, so that's where the intimacy and sense of place really come from. But the intimacy also arises because I was spending time with my friends in a very relaxed environment. The younger generations are very relaxed about photography because they all have phones. Some of the kids would even ask me to take their picture and really engaged with it. Their grandparents’ generation seemed more reticent; when I realised this, I stopped taking their photos.


Have you received any formal photography training?

The first time I had enough money as a teenager, I wanted to buy a camera. But in the last couple of years, I have switched to film photography. I don't do anything digital anymore. I have an uncle in Canada who's taught me how to shoot with film and has given me a couple of cameras which I’m taking on fieldwork. He taught me how to use them, how to develop film at home, and make prints in the darkroom. Every image I take is now entirely manual and I love this side of photography: you're doing it yourself from start to finish. And the equipment doesn’t need to be charged, so that's useful when you’re on fieldwork in a remote location.


How would you describe anthropology’s relationship to photography?

Academic papers are rarely illustrated. If they are, it's very much as a record. I think it's a discipline that has so much to gain from engaging more deeply with visual support, whether it's photography, painting or drawing, but definitely something visual.