Rethinking visual representation; notes on the folklorist and photographer Nils Keyland

Jan Garnert


The camera is a paradoxical instrument. It records, generally speaking, truthfully what is in focus, but it is the photographer who chooses what should be in focus. Therefore, in a sense, any photograph is nothing but a construction by the photographer. This paradox is of some importance to folklorists, ethnologists, and museum curators, I believe, as photographs often play an important part in our fieldwork, as source material in our archives, and as interpretive elements in our exhibitions. Photographs are taken, kept and archived because they are considered to represent valuable meanings for a folkloristic and ethnological understanding of culture and cultural history. At least we usually treat them in our research and in our writings as if they represent important fields of research interests.

But, as with every source material, be it interviews, narratives, literary sources or whatever, photographs need to be carefully examined and evaluated. What do they represent? In this article I will discuss the question of representation, using as an example the photographs taken in the early 20th century by Nils Keyland, folklorist and curator at the Nordiska Museet and Skansen in Stockholm.

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