Developing Modern Selves

By Jason Pribilsky Posted December 19, 2013

Figure 1. Vicos Family Eating Dinner, All Household Interior Photographs, John Collier, Jr. 1954-5. John Collier, Jr. Collection. Maxwell Museum of Anthropology. University of New Mexico. 

Medium vicos family eating collier

Many of the photographs are utterly quotidian and banal. All taken in Peru’s Andean highlands in the mid-1950s in the Quechua-speaking community of Vicos, they include close ups of home interiors: ersatz wood shelves clinging to crumbling adobe walls spilling over with scavenged bottles and rusty tins; stacks of baskets and charred ceramic cooking vessels; wool ponchos and skirts; storage rooms full of harvested potatoes. They also capture people eating, working in fields, chewing coca leaves, socializing, and holding babies.  And, in rarer cases, the lens trains on more intimate moments, such as a family’s mournful preparation of the dead.  The collection was the result of nearly twelve months of fieldwork undertaken by the photographer John Collier, Jr. Together with camera work on the Navaho nation, among Canadian fisherfolk, and for the Farm Security Administration (FSA), Collier rose to prominence as a major force in twentieth century photo documentation; he is widely credited with carving out the field of visual anthropology. 

Figures 2-3. Household Interior Photographs, John Collier, Jr. 1954-5. John Collier, Jr. Collection. Maxwell Museum of Anthropology. University of New Mexico. 

Collier’s work in the Peruvian highlands fell under the auspices of the Vicos Project (or Cornell Peru-Project [CPP]) an almost 15-year development and modernization spearheaded by anthropologists from Cornell University. The project’s history is infamous for its unique origins.  While looking for a suitable field site to be a part of a 5 country comparative modernization study, Cornell fell into an opportunity to assume the lease and the role of patrón for the poorly producing Vicos hacienda and transformed it and its peasant workforce into a so-termed ethnographic “laboratory” for the study of culture change.  Project architects touted the novelty of their ethnographic laboratory whereby positive culture change could be glimpsed through the input of three key “variables” – education, western medicine, and intensive agriculture. Over the course of his tenure at Vicos, assisted by his wife Mary, Collier snapped over 10,000 stills photos and shot several hours of 16 mm film. The bulk of the material has never been released.

Figure 4. John Collier, Jr. and Mary Collier with Peruvian Anthropology Students and Interpreter, 1945-55, Unknown photographer. Allan R. Holmberg Collection on Peru, circa 1946-1966. Rare and Manuscript Collections. Carl A Kroch Library. Cornell University.  

Although the original goals of the CPP were broadly aimed at improving social science methods and fostering the emerging field of applied anthropology, it was soon impossible to avoid entanglement with the intellectual politics of the Cold War.  A central concern of the early Cold War ‘behavioral sciences’ was to identify ways so-termed “backward peoples” in the global south could be quickly and efficiently modernized in advance of Soviet development projects and the spread of communism. While modernization included standard aspects of development – improved health, articulation with market economies, and infrastructure, among others – it also focused on a search for deep-seated ideological “values” seen as essential to capitalist-oriented modernization.  Researchers worked in far-flung corners of the globe in varied modernizing contexts to understand how such qualities as freedom, autonomy, and creativity could emerge among the as-yet undeveloped. Winning “hearts and minds” first required developing selves. 

The Vicos Project typified this approach, yet in unimaginable and sometimes bizarre ways. Researchers searched for indicators of subtle change by employing everything from projective experiments (Rorschach and thematic apperception tests) to surveys and interviews. They also plumbed more peculiar sources, including psychoanalysis and dream interpretation, examination of letters literate Vicosinos wrote to migrant family members, elicitation of sexual frustrations, and manners of greeting. Collier’s role in the project was two-fold. He served as project documentarian tasked with capturing aspects of the project’s activities that would best convey to a wide audience the goals of the CPP. Perpetually money-challenged, Collier welcomed popular commissions. And indeed, stories about Vicos –complete with photographs and film – were produced in a number of “middlebrow” venues shaping the Cold War at home such as Saturday Review, Reader’s Digest, and eventually a film by CBS News hosted by Charles Kuralt. Collier’s other work was more scientific. Along with a Peruvian anthropology students and a Quechua translator, Collier blanketed the community, inventorying every eighth house in Vicos with his camera (then a community of just over 2,000). In two months, more than 80 households were photographed –every single wall, including storage rooms. 2,000 frames of 2 ¼ by 2¼ inch film were produced.  The endpoint of such painstaking work was to establish a visual baseline on which peasant modernization could be plotted. Plans were made to return and photograph the same houses every few years never materialized.

Key to unlocking this set of photographs requires asking what it is researchers hoped to see in the images, both the original set and the subsequently planned future shots. How did they anticipate diagnosing change culture and modernization by analyzing the ways indigenous peasants displayed household items, played with and fed their children or buried their dead? Distinct from most mid-century photographic “salvage ethnography,” whereby the goal was to capture and freeze in print traditional cultures ahead of development, Collier’s goal was to produce photos that were future-looking.  If outward appearances and behaviors did not always signal the formation of new values, could photographs reveal a more concealed changing self much the same way a Rorschach was used? In one sense, these photographs offer a stunning visual record of the indigenous highlands in the 1950s. They also help recover an outlook of Cold War thinking and the production of knowledge that turned the modernization of “backwards people” into contests of Cold War competition. 


Jason Pribilsky is an associate professor of anthropology at Whitman College where he teaches courses in medical anthropology, science studies, and Latin American indigenous politics. He is the author of the ethnography, La Chulla Vida: Migration, Family, and Gender in the Ecuadorian Andes and New York City.