Do you recognize this photo?

June 14, 2001 4:01 PM   Subscribe

Do you recognize this photo?
This rather ominous photo of military officers smirking and stoic Polynesians with faces smeared with white paint (or who knows what?) turned up recently in the archives of the Historic Preservation Office of Samoa. The archivists believe it to have been taken in the 1930s, but can't say what it depicts exactly. Wierd!!
posted by rschram (9 comments total)
Pun-pun finds out the hard way that "Win a million, Lose get lightly breaded and fried and served up to an occupying group of navy officers" was more than just a clever game show title.
posted by dong_resin at 4:54 PM on June 14, 2001

This is sheer speculation, but it sounds plausible.

One of the strongest traditions in American Samoa is the "fiafia", a period of dancing and singing by villagers. Often the "fiafia" would be performed for visitors to the village. My family was invited to several "fiafia's" while living in American Samoa in the early 80's.

Now, if this photo was take in the 1930's or even late 20's, it's possible that the whiteface is a holdover from the burlesque or minstel shows of the period. The U.S. used Pago Pago's deep harbor as a stopping ground for many of its naval ships for decades all the way through WWII and beyond. Seeing sailors in the photo isn't unusual at all. Perhaps these villagers created their own "fiafia" based on newsreel of a minstrel or burlesque show and used whiteface chalk instead of the more common blackface.

Damien Barrett
posted by at 6:24 PM on June 14, 2001

Why do all the Samoans, with the possible except of one on the right, seem to have their arms behind their backs?
posted by Mo Nickels at 9:30 PM on June 14, 2001

they look tied up to me. - rcb
posted by rebeccablood at 9:33 PM on June 14, 2001

I think they've all been playing the get the chocolate out of the flour with only your teeth game beloved of 12 year old girls at slumber parties. Hence the white faces, the box thing full of white stuff, the white stuff on the ground, and the arms tied behind their backs.
posted by sarahw at 10:58 PM on June 14, 2001

It appears to be a mix of Samoan natives, WASP civilians and naval officers. Are those uniforms American or British? They look american to me. The natives seem to be taking the event seriously, with a solemn nature, but they do not appear to be under duress. Arms behind their backs may be a natural posture for them. Perhaps a sign of subserviance or trust? There's two prominent civilians in the picture. The guy in the tux on the far left and the man in the white hat on the far right. Two prominent officers on the left, one holding some kind of book. The other sailors are scattered about but most are focused on the right side of the screen. And the ceremony seems to have focus on the one man in the center, looking directly at the camera. What's with the crate? And the powder on some men's faces may have come from the crate. There's more powder on the ground near it and at the focused native's feet. Also in the center of the picture behind the crate is a man who appears by clothing to be one of the sailors, but he's mirroring the posture of the man in the center, with arms behind his back, and he too has the powder on his face. Why would a sailor be participating in this ritual ceremony?

Another disturbing point about this picture is this: where are the women? I don't see a single native female on the screen. Naturally in the 1930s there weren't many female naval officers or sailors about, but if there's at least two male civilians in the area, why wouldn't there be civilian women? And why are there native children scattered about, and men, but no women? Are some of the children female? It's hard to tell.

There's very few smiles. It's a solemn and serious occasion. Most of the people in the picture seem to be at least aware they're being photographed.

posted by ZachsMind at 3:23 AM on June 15, 2001

There's very few smiles.

In the early days of photography those having their picture taken didn't usually smile. Look at almost any old black-and-white photograph and you'll see only somber-looking individuals. That's because it took several minutes (or longer? I'm not sure) for the photo to develop and during that time the subjects had to stand perfectly still.
posted by eoligarry at 7:37 AM on June 15, 2001

I don't know anything at all about the picture, but here's some basic information about the navy types that appear in it.

The uniforms appear to be US Navy. The officer on the far left is either an Ensign (0-1, equivalent of an Army 2nd Lt.) or a Lieutenant Junior Grade (0-2, Army 1st. Lt). The shoulder board insignia of the officer immediately to his right is entirely obscured.

There are more officers in the crowd, but I cannot discern any of their insignia.

Also, the enlisted personnel are wearing the original version of the "dixie cup" hats - as far as I know (and I may be wrong) those are unique to the US Navy at that time. The Royal Navy caps are (and were) round ones with a ribbon around the crown embroidered with the name of the shirt.
posted by Irontom at 8:10 AM on June 15, 2001

Isn't that a picture of all the Metafilter A-Listers?
posted by JDC8 at 6:45 PM on June 15, 2001

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