AS Judd (1917) on African Sight

As I wrote yesterday, I have been flicking through Brian Larkin’s Signal and Noise again. If you have any interest in how images, films in particular, are ‘read’ across cultures you may already have come across the John Wilson’s account of the chicken in the margins of William Seller’s educational film on the tropical hookworm (which you can watch here). Burns (2002: 200) quotes John Wilson:

‘This man – this sanitary inspector [William Sellers] – made a moving picture in very slow time, very slow technique of what would be required of the ordinary household in a primitive African village in getting rid of standing water – draining pools, picking up all empty tins and putting them away, and so forth. We showed this film to an audience and asked them what they had seen, and they said they had seen a chicken, a fowl and we didn’t know there was a fowl in it. So we very carefully scanned the frames, one by one for this fowl and, sure enough, for about a second, a fowl went over the corner of the frame.’[1]

The reaction of Wilson’s Nigerian audiences to this film has been quoted repeatedly to illustrate arguments that seeing is culturally conditioned: We do not simply see. We do learn how to see as we are socialised into our societies.[2] This, however, was not quite how Seller’s interpreted the reactions of his Nigerian audiences. Burns (2002: 198) explains that Sellers had ‘originally begun teaching health lessons with a magic lantern but had decided that his audiences were incapably of recognising two-dimensional pictures.’ He quotes him:

‘It is well known that if an illiterate African is handed a photograph of himself or some scene to him he will invariably turn it to the wrong way up in an effort to focus his eyes on the picture.’

Seller’s eventually concluded that local audiences comprehended motions pictures more easily than still pictures. They, however, could not ‘impose any logic on them.’ Burns (2002: 198) quotes him explaining:

‘They looked upon the films as a collection of animated photographs a few of which they could appreciate, but they were quite unable to link the scenes together to form any kind of story. … if films were to be successful in conveying a story or teaching a lesson to these people they would have to be specially made …’

Burns discusses the particular filming techniques Sellers suggested in more detail in Watching Africans Watch Films (2002) as well as in Flickering Shadows (2002).

This all serves as a rather extended introduction to a quote I stumbled across yesterday evening (yes, a lot of stumbling recently in my research) and want to share with you: AS Judd’s (1917) account of African and European sight published in ‘Native Education in the Northern Provinces of Nigeria.’ (Journal of the African Society. Vol. XVII. No. LXV).

If we compare the sight, for instance, of an African boy with that of the average European, we find that the African has developed a keenness especially in detecting moving objects, such as the movements of game. Movement arrests his eye as it does not the eye of a European. The European tries to discern the form or the shape of the object looked for and not so much the movement, and hence does not detect so quickly. Pictorial representation may convey much to the European mind, but to the primitive pagan pictures of the most familiar objects are not quickly understood. Especially is this true of landscapes, the perspective as shown in Western art is not comprehended by the untrained mind, the colour only is seen by the eye. A stereoscopic slide is more readily understood. (Judd 1917: 8)

Note that Judd, who apparently was based in what was then Nassarawa Province, distinguished between ‘pagan’ populations and Muslims.

It is obvious that the Moslem would have very little place for pictorial art in his social system, part from the decorations of his house, his household utensils, or his clothing. (Judd 1917: 3)

The effect of the unconscious training of the eye is seen in the relative time it takes for a Moslem as compared with a pagan boy to learn printed characters. The Moslem, although perhaps unable to read the Arabic Character, has some idea of the form of letters from often seeing them, and when he is introduced to the Roman character he sees a difference in the shape of the black marks before him, and my experience has been that he more quickly learns the alphabet than does the pagan. (Judd 1917: 7-8)

Here, Judd’s assessment, of course, reflected wider colonial discourses that at least in Nigeria considered local Muslim polities as more civilised (though still not as civilised as Victorian England) than non-Muslim societies.

[1] If I’m not mistaken, this is from an interview with Wilson published in as ‘Film Literacy in Africa’ in the journal Canadian Communications (vol.1(4) summer, 1961, 7-14) Wilson is quoted more extensively by Marshall McLuhan (1962: 36-37) in The Gutenberg Galaxy.

[2] One discussion I particularly enjoyed – and, yes, it quotes Wilson as well – is Kulick & Willson’s (1994): ‘Rambo’s Wife Saves the Day’ published in the Visual Anthropology Review (Vol. 10(2). 1-13). The article has also been reproduced in Askew & Wilk (2002), ed.: The Anthropology of Media: A Reader.


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