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Signs of indigenous agency in nineteenth-century Argentine anthropological photography

Ashley Kerr

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Thus far, scholars have studied nineteenth-century Argentine anthropological photography as part of the State’s colonial projects. In this context, the relationship between the white photographer (and viewer) and the photographed indigenous men and women was that of knowing subject and photographed object, respectively. In this relationship, the photographer represented the modern nation while the depicted indigenous subject was both out of place and anachronistic. This critical focus has been very productive, but in general it has led us to understand the interactions between Argentine indigenous communities and the camera as a homogenous experience, where each man and woman suffered exactly the same conditions of victimization. However, if we pay attention to the other social elements imprinted on the anthropological images of the last decades of the nineteenth century, it becomes clear that Argentine indigenous peoples had a variety of encounters with science. All suffered the racial violence of the scientific-colonial project, but some were able to use their social position and/or their gender to somewhat mitigate its effects.

In the last decades of the nineteenth century, anthropologists armed with the new technology traveled the globe photographing native communities. Argentina was no exception. Anthropologists like Francisco P. Moreno and Estanislao Zeballos took photographic equipment on their expeditions and the Argentine Scientific Society organized an annual photography competition (Penhos, 2005, p. 22). As in other colonial contexts, in the case of Argentina, scientific photography contributed to the construction of racial hierarchies and the imposition of a white political-cultural hegemony. In particular, it supported the ideology of the so-called Conquest of the Desert, a military expedition led by General Julio A. Roca. Under his leadership, thousands of indigenous men and women from the southern provinces were imprisoned or killed. The Argentine army brought subdued indigenous peoples to Buenos Aires, where they were lodged in military barracks or in spaces that have been compared to concentration camps. They stayed there until Argentine elites decided their fate, which in many cases was to serve as part of the work force on plantations, in private homes, or in the armed forces.

This process also supported the development of racial science. Inacayal and Foyel, two Tehuelche caciques (chieftains), and Shaihueque, a Manzanero cacique, had met the future founder of the natural history museum in La Plata, Francisco P. Moreno, in 1875 as he traversed Patagonia to bring the territory and its inhabitants under national control. Thus, when the three chieftains and their families were brought to Buenos Aires by the army a decade later, they reached out to their “friend” in the hope that he would help them resolve the situation. Shaihueque was more powerful in his native Patagonia than Inacayal and Foyel, and as such he was able to leave the barracks and go directly to Moreno’s house. Moreno “made him see that this [his time in Buenos Aires] was just temporary, and that as soon as the President arrived it would be happily resolved” (Curruhuina y Roux, 1994, p. 115). Shaihueque then spoke with the Minister of War and the President himself, and after five weeks he was able to return to Patagonia. In contrast, Moreno had to visit Inacayal and Foyel in the barracks and he publicly lamented the terrible conditions in which they were housed. The group remained prisoners of the State for almost a year until Moreno took a small subgroup to live at his museum.[^1] At least four members of this group died there, including the cacique Inacayal himself. Others returned to Patagonia two or three years later. During this period, Moreno took advantage of the situation to study the Tehuelches. He also arranged for esteemed British-Argentine photographer Samuel Boote to photograph them. Shaihueque’s group was also photographed before their departure. The result of this work was 81 glass plate negatives and 12 cardboard-mounted albumen prints that are now in the Museo de La Plata’s photographic archive.[^2]

[^1] Moreno’s motives are unclear. On one hand, he spoke of the chieftains and their families as his friends and claimed he had humanitarian reasons for taking them to the museum. On the other hand, taking them to the museum also allowed him to photograph and study them, furthering his scientific projects. 
[^2] The images have been digitalized through the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme. 

The images Moreno ordered have been understood by scholars as examples of racial type photography in which each individual is a representative of the race to which they (supposedly) belong. Nonetheless, there are important differences in the composition of the images of the two groups, reflecting the subjects’ relative prestige. Nicknamed “The King of the Pampa” by the newspaper El Nacional, Shaihueque still had some power when he arrived in Buenos Aires. Moreno received him with deference, he was able to speak with the President, and he quickly returned to his territory. Although some of the images of Shaihueque’s group are pairs of frontal and profile shots, their composition is more closely related to the bourgeois photography of the era than racial type photography. The background is not neutral and the chair in which they are sitting is clearly visible. Additionally, all the images have captions that give the depicted person’s name and ethnicity. Some also describe their position in the tribe (chieftain or translator) or their relatives (“son of,” “sister of”), preserving their individuality. In the end, their complex relationships with the Argentine government and Argentine elites’ fascination with Shaihueque made it difficult for his group to be transformed into racial abstractions through photography.

Although Moreno also considered them his “friends,” Inacayal and Foyel did not share Shaihueque’s prestige. Indeed, the images Moreno ordered of their group are much more closely aligned with the conventions of racial type photography. In them, a white sheet is used to create a neutral background and the chair they sit in is often completely hidden, minimizing potential interferences in the images’ content. Additionally, there are several photographs of each individual, taken from different angles. These techniques were common in racial type photography of the era, as the photographer attempted to foreground the physical characteristics of the subject so that the viewer could rapidly identify his or her race.[^3] Many of the images, particularly those of the men and women unrelated to the chieftains, are labeled only “Tehuelche man” or “Araucanian girl,” eliminating anything that would make them more than pure classificatory abstractions.

Visual proof of the two groups’ different levels of power in their negotiations with the photographer can be seen in the clothing they wear. For nineteenth-century anthropologists, nudity was the ideal condition for racial photography, as it permitted a better appreciation of the subject’s physiology and, therefore, their racial character. But it was also more invasive and went against Tehuelche and Mapuche bodily practices (Butto, 2018, p. 33). In the images that Moreno requested, at least six of Inacayal and Foyel’s men, including the chieftain Foyel himself, are photographed shirtless. In contrast, all of Shaihueque’s group wears good-quality creole clothing. As a writer for El Nacional observed in March 1885, when Shaihueque’s group arrived in Buenos Aires, “they dressed more or less like well-off countryfolk: bombacha or chiripá, jackets and tall boots, all high quality” (Curruhuinca and Roux, 1994, p. 123). They wear this same type of clothing in the images. It is very likely that Shaihueque’s stronger political position permitted his men to pose fully dressed, while Inacayal and Foyel, more precisely prisoners, had no choice but to obey and pose as ordered.

[^3] Interestingly, the images do not completely conform to the conventions of nineteenth-century racial photography. Despite the clear intention to use a sheet as a neutral background, many of the images’ compositions allow the viewer to see the border between the sheet and the wall, as well as other human figures, breaking with the illusion of a neutral background.

[^3] Interestingly, the images do not completely conform to the conventions of nineteenth-century racial photography. Despite the clear intention to use a sheet as a neutral background, many of the images’ compositions allow the viewer to see the border between the sheet and the wall, as well as other human figures, breaking with the illusion of a neutral background.  
Fotografía y antropología
Cacique Shaihueque, Samuel Boote, 1885. © Museo de La Plata
Fotografía y antropología
Taununuün, sister of the cacique Chagallo, Puelche father, Tehuelche mother, 1885. © Museo de La Plata

The images of the women in both groups make this dynamic even more clearly visible. The only woman in Shaihueque’s group is photographed completed dressed, wearing jewelery and a complicated hairdo. Conversely, in Inacayal and Foyel’s group, the women submit to the most invasive photography. They are portrayed with their capes pulled back to expose their bare breasts to the camera and with expressions that demonstrate their discomfort. This gendered discrimination is accompanied by social class divisions. The chieftains’ wives and daughters are completed dressed; indeed, it is the poor and unidentified women who must strip down. Although the group could not completely refuse to be photographed, it appears that Foyel and Inacayal were able to negotiate who would have to submit to the most intrusive shots. In this way, they were able to protect their families while perpetuating the classed and gendered power structures of their Patagonian society.

Fotografía y antropología
Tafá, Inacayal’s servant, Samuel Boote, 1885. © Museo de La Plata
Fotografía y antropología
Cacique Foyel, Samuel Boote, 1885. © Museo de La Plata

Comparing the images Moreno ordered of Shaihueque’s group and Inacayal and Foyel’s group demonstrates that, although all of the indigenous men and women were victims of a genocidal process that dehumanized them and tried to push them out of the modern nation, they had different experiences with scientific photography. Although we cannot definitely prove who made the decisions regarding the images’ composition, other cases in Argentina and the United States show that anthropological photography was always a negotiation between the white photographer and the indigenous subject. The indigenous men and women could not change the ultimate outcome of creole-indigenous encounters, but some could adapt the conditions to their own needs and in agreement with their own social patterns. In the cases studied here, those with the most power did not have to be photographed naked and were able to maintain a certain dignity of attire and pose. Thus, it is probable that the chieftains were able to give suggestions regarding who was going to be photographed and how. It is fundamental that we continue to investigate and emphasize these small moments of possible indigenous intervention. If we fail to do so, we recreate the nineteenth’s century victimization by continuing to present indigenous communities as homogenous and passive, subjects of still lives rather than portraits.


BUTTO, Ana (2018), “Visualización de los roles de género en las fotografías etnográficas de mapuches y tehuelches (siglos XIX-XX)”, RIHUMSO 7.13, pp. 21-46.

CURRUHUINCA, Curapil and Luis ROUX (1994), Sayhueque: El último cacique, Buenos Aires, Plus Ultra.

PENHOS, Marta (2005), “Frente y perfil. Una indagación acerca de la fotografía en las prácticas antropológicas y criminológicas en Argentina a fines del siglo XIX y principios del XX”, in Arte y antropología en la Argentina, Buenos Aires, Fundación Espigas, pp. 17-64.

How to cite:
KERR, Ashley, “Signs of indigenous agency in nineteenth-century Argentine anthropological photography”, LUR, 12th February of 2020,

Ashley Kerr (Moscow, United States, 1984) is a professor of Spanish and Latin American Studies at the University of Idaho. She is the author of the book, Sex, Skulls, and Citizens: Gender and Racial Science in Argentina, 1860-1910 (Vanderbilt University Press, 2020), which analyzes the role of women and the female body in the construction and application of nineteenth-century racial science.