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“Faces|Voices” is a short documentary film collaboration between anthropologist Paul Basu and multimedia artists The Light Surgeons, commissioned as part of [Re:]Entanglements, a project funded by the UK’s Arts & Humanities Research Council, which is re-engaging with a remarkable ethnographic archive assembled by the colonial anthropologist, N. W. Thomas, in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone between 1909 and 1915.

For this initial experiment, they invited participants to reflect upon some of the faces captured in Thomas’s photographic portraits and to comment more generally on the significance of these archival images. Adding their voices to the mute photographs, we found that the same portrait may invite quite different ‘readings’. Where one saw coercion, another might detect boredom. The crushing experience of colonialism may be found in one subject’s expression; optimism and resilience in another’s. Perhaps most surprising is the sympathetic view – even identification with – the face of the Government Anthropologist himself.

The film complicates any simple reading of the colonial archive. Even ‘physical type’ photographs, intended to identify and classify people into different racial or tribal categories, and which seemingly epitomize the violence of colonial ideologies, become ambiguous on closer inspection.

Faces|Voices is an initial audiovisual experiment for a video installation for the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition planned for 2020.