Naked science taboo

Juliet McClymont is an Evolutionary Biomechanist who studies endurance running in fossil and modern humans. She is one of the “naked scientists” portrayed in Brett Eloff’s Resuscitare, on exhibition at the Resolution gallery until the 5th of September in Johannesburg. Photo: Brett Eloff

A religious group’s poster was found covering a nude photograph of a scientist in the Wits Geology building last week.On Thursday August 16, a poster advertising the services of the Christian Action Fellowship (CAF) was pasted over photographer Brett Eloff’s image of Tamaryn Hodgskiss, a PhD student.Eloff and Hodgskiss had agreed that acting head of Geosciences, Prof Lewis Ashwal, could display the picture in the foyer of the building to promote the photo project, which is on exhibition at the Resolution gallery in Johannesburg.

Ashwal said he did not think displaying the poster would be a problem. “I thought it would be fun to publicly illustrate, in an unusual way, the ‘passion’ our post-graduate students have for their research.”

CAF chairperson Ndivhuwo Nethononda was not aware of the incident and said the group always told its members to put posters “on an empty spot”.

French PhD student and brainchild of the project, Aurore Val, said the photos were originally intended to become a calendar, but some senior academics and members of a funding body had discouraged the project. She said they had associated the idea of a nude calendar with pornography, and felt it would tarnish the reputation of the women in the photos as well as the field of palaeontology.

Hodgskiss said:  “I suppose people thought they’d be tacky, crude images that might do damage to the department’s image, as well as do damage to the reputation of the person in the photo.”

But Hodgskiss and Val said most people who had seen the finished project loved it. Resolution gallery owner Ricardo Fornoni confirmed that a member of one of the funding bodies visited the exhibition and enjoyed the pictures. Fornoni also said there was nothing sexual about the photos.

Eloff raised concerns that scientists who were against the exhibition might be elitist if they did not want the public to be drawn into their work through unique projects like this.

The twelve images on display show various scientists posing with the subjects of their research, including skulls, bone tools and rock art.

The captions to the pictures describe the scientists’ research in their own words. Val said many of the visitors at the show’s opening read the captions and wanted to know more about the science.

Val also said she hoped the pictures would change people’s perceptions of scientists. “They are just young, normal people.”