The Order of the Magic Lantern Slides

Stories, colonial medicine, and power


  • Alexandra Widmer York University



colonialism, medicine, ethnographic experiments, Vanuatu, photo-essay


Dr Sylvester Lambert, an American public health doctor who worked for the International Health Board of the Rockefeller Foundation, created a magic lantern slide presentation to retell the arrest of a sorcerer that he had witnessed in 1925 on the island of Malakula in Vanuatu. In this article, I use creative non-fiction to envision other audiences and narrators of this storied event to present an expanded picture of life for Pacific Islanders at that time. I also reflect on how particular events make for good stories because they are contests about belief and incredulity. Reimagining medical stories of sorcery reminds us that medicine is part of larger contests over the nature of reality. This is an imaginative ethnographic experiment with decolonizing intentions which combines archival research, ethnographic research, colonial images and creative non-fiction. It aspires to untie the images from a single fixed colonial narrative and to revisit the images in ways that are open to multiple interpretations, audiences, and narrators.


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