Alfred Haddon was a University of Cambridge zoologist and the leader of the Cambridge Expedition to the Torres Straits of 1898. He had first visited the Torres Strait ten years before, but this time he returned with a multidisciplinary team which was equipped with the latest fieldwork technology, including two Edison wax-cylinder phonographs and a hand-cranked 35mm N&G Kinematograph, manufactured by the prestigious Newman and Guardia company of London.
The main base of the Expedition was on the island of Mer, then known as Murray Island, which lies off the southeastern coast of Papua New Guinea, one of the most easterly in the archipelago of islands between Papua New Guinea and northern tip of Queensland, Australia.
It was here in September 1898, only a few days before the Expedition was due to move on from Mer that Haddon shot a few sequences of dancing and fire-making, mostly by the culturally Melanesian inhabitants of the island, but also by a group of Aboriginal men visiting from mainland Australia.
To Haddon’s intense frustration, as he was shooting, the mechanism of the kinematograph kept jamming. Nevertheless, he did manage to get some four minutes of material. This appears to be the very first time that a moving image camera was used for explicit ethnographic research purposes in the course of a fieldwork expedition. See here for a more detailed description.
Haddon did not return to the Torres Strait, nor did he ever employ a moving image camera in ethnographic field research again. In the six volume report on the Expedition, his filming is not mentioned, though there are few stills from the film in one of the plates. However, the filming is mentioned in a more popular account, even if briefly, and Haddon did show the film on a number of public occasions.
Haddon also encouraged both Baldwin Spencer and Rudolf Pöch to take a moving image camera with them on their respective field trips, to Central Australia in 1901 in Spencer’s case, and to mainland Papua New Guinea in 1904-1906 in case of Pöch. But both of them took Bioscope cameras with them, suggesting that Haddon did not recommend the Newman and Guardia model!
Text : Henley 2013b