African Studies Quarterly


With clear, readable prose, Robert Gordon pierces the smug detachment of academics who hold themselves blameless in perpetuating harmful stereotypes. He maintains that anthropologists, environmentalists, and other academics have a vested interest in perpetuating images of bushmen that play to middle class fantasies. Underlining that academics are as much products of their "environment" as any charter flight pleasure seeker, he notes that much research arises from the preconceived theories and needs of the researcher. Moreover, to remain viable, most academics define their results in ways that hold the interest of a larger audience.

Breaking down the division between traveler and tourist, consumer and scientist, Gordon demonstrates that many commonly held conceptions of bushmen grew out of the needs of the highly industrialized populations of the United States and Europe. He does this by analyzing the success of the Denver African expedition of 1925. Hoping to bring renown and fame to their city, Denver businessmen financed the expedition in the midst of a public fascination with human origins. In addition, then, as now, the American public had a particular fascination with technology. For the Denver expedition, one of the most important components of this new technology was the camera.

The photographs, films, articles, and well placed academic road shows of the Denver African Expedition helped to transform the European image of bushmen from "the lowest type of human being" to noble savage (p.61). At the heart of the creation of the new wild bushmen were questions of technology, knowledge, and power. Photographs and films made it possible to "picture bushmen" and sell the image to the more affluent. Through them, bushmen became a focus for the fantasies of the more mechanized and urbanized parts of the world. Gordon emphasizes the link between bushmen and nature for both the white South African soldiers of the 1990's and the white men of the 1920's. As these groups felt more and more ensnared by machines and unsure of their role in a rapidly changing society, bushman fantasies allowed them to dream of a time of freedom in which hunter/warriors had the power to take action and reshape their own relatively simple world (p.131).

While aesthetically appealing photos and films allowed the audience to consider their fantasies fact rather than fiction, burgeoning consumerism created a market for "exotic" people and their products. This, in turn, caught the attention of the colonial authorities within Namibia. Besides the income generated by the sale of curios to foreigners, interest in bushmen also attracted tourists and potential settlers from nearby South Africa. Furthermore, the new image of bushmen served to pacify the local settler population. According to Gordon, the new "tamer" image of the wild bushman "haltered the imaginations of the rather unsettled settlers--those who believed that bushmen were cannibals and other nightmarish ghouls; it contributed to the self-pacification of the settlers by visually claiming a potentially troublesome environment" (p. 116). Ultimately, the image of the peaceful simple bushman became so entrenched that apartheid authorities of the 1950's and 1960's used it to receive good international publicity even as they forcibly removed the Hei/omn bushmen from their land.

In Namibia, control of technology allowed those in positions of economic dominance to perpetuate interpretations of reality that helped them maintain their position. Within this context, it is not the photos and films themselves that are troublesome. In fact, the Denver expedition could not have taken these photographs without the collaboration of the Hei/omn bushmen who, in exchange, often used them to gain access to international assistance (p.138). It is the inability of those who posed for the photographs to shape their interpretation in the larger world that poses an important ethical question for Gordon. He states, "Fairy tales almost always have happy endings, but the Denver expedition case demonstrates how we can impose our fairy tales upon people and force them, for their survival to conform to our story line. . . . My concern is to question the ethicality of the spectator having the power to define the structure of remembrance and the voyeuristic quality of much of what is defined as 'knowledge of the past'" (p.134).

During the 1920's, efforts to popularize knowledge brought "scientific" information to the masses and carried them away to far off places. At the same time, improved transport and greater affluence made pleasure travel more possible for Europeans and Americans. The Denver African Expedition took place at a moment in time when western consumer society had acquired the technological power to visualize and place demands on the "others" that they have imagined. In Picturing Bushmen, Robert Gordon asks what that means for them and for us.

Cathy Skidmore-Hess
Department of History
Georgia Southern University