“Among Congo Pigmies”, published in 1933 was the write up of a series of excursions undertaken by the anthropologist Dr. Paul Schebesta to visit and study Pigmy tribes in the Congo. The excursions were part of a larger project taken on by Schebesta to investigate the “origins of man”. In carrying out his research, he stated his intention to focus on “aboriginal stocks” which, in his mind, must have had some inherent relation to original man, or the first civilizations of homo sapiens. His crude analogy has of course been replaced by more advanced theories and his unfortunate choice of language wouldn’t survive more than ten seconds in today’s halls of political correctness.
Schebesta’s unfortunate decision to correlate the lifestyle of the pigmies with that of “original man” is evident in the photographic style he employed to record his findings. With few exceptions, the pigmies are rendered as objects arranged purposefully for the camera. Instead of seeing them as they are, he sees them only as his own, turning and arranging them to face the camera in a state of distraction and discomfort.
Perhaps Schebesta’s predisposition to understand the pigmies in a way that best suited his purposes was also responsible for the lack of differentiation in his images not only between individuals of the same sex, but also between members of different sexes. By and large, all his subjects stand gazing at the camera, hands largely in the same positions. Costume and grooming is mostly the same from individual to individual, whether all men, all women, or some mix of the two.
The societies Schebesta studied are probably largely assimilated into mainstream society today, so we are left with largely romanticized and imagined versions of how these people lived prior to the invasion of foreign cultures into their world. This vision must in part be based on early studies such as those of Schebesta which more often than not propagated the idea of pigmies as undifferentiated, uncultured little people existing somewhere on the margins of civilized society.
When Schebesta first arrived in Africa on his 1929-1930 excursion, he first sought out the pigmies of the Itura region. His description of his first encounter shows his predisposition to caricature:
“My pigmy was quite unarmed. Around his loins flapped a dirty rag of plaited marumba bark, which hung apron wise between his legs. . .Though his legs, arms and chest were covered with a fairly thick coat of hair, my companion’s body was not nearly as hirsute as those of other pigmies I met later. To complete the picture, Agali was hideously ugly. I sought comfort in the hope that his fellow tribesmen might have more pleasant and attractive features. In this I was utterly mistaken. While Schebesta’s coarse treatment of the pigmies seems utterly outmoded today, hints of his programmatic dehumanization of these people still exist in the midst of today’s prevalent cultural and social insularity."