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Visual Anthropologists at Work

A broad study of the innovations, obligations, and new possibilities in the field of visual anthropology.

May 2009
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431 pages | 8.5 x 11 | 162 color and b&w figures, 3 tables, 1 diagram, 1 box |

Early in its history, anthropology was a visual as well as verbal discipline. But as time passed, visually oriented professionals became a minority among their colleagues, and most anthropologists used written words rather than audiovisual modes as their professional means of communication. Today, however, contemporary electronic and interactive media once more place visual anthropologists and anthropologically oriented artists within the mainstream. Digital media, small-sized and easy-to-use equipment, and the Internet, with its interactive and public forum websites, democratize roles once relegated to highly trained professionals alone. However, having access to a good set of tools does not guarantee accurate and reliable work. Visual anthropology involves much more than media alone.

This book presents visual anthropology as a work-in-progress, open to the myriad innovations that the new audiovisual communications technologies bring to the field. It is intended to aid in contextualizing, explaining, and humanizing the storehouse of visual knowledge that university students and general readers now encounter, and to help inform them about how these new media tools can be used for intellectually and socially beneficial purposes.

Concentrating on documentary photography and ethnographic film, as well as lesser-known areas of study and presentation including dance, painting, architecture, archaeology, and primate research, the book's fifteen contributors feature populations living on all of the world's continents as well as within the United States. The final chapter gives readers practical advice about how to use the most current digital and interactive technologies to present research findings.

  • Historical Foreword
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Section I. Photography Now
    • Chapter 1. Photographic Exploration of Social and Cultural Experience (Malcolm Collier)
    • Chapter 2. Documentary Photography in the Field (Laena Wilder)
    • Chapter 3. Photography and Ethnography (Richard Freeman)
  • Section II. Images from the Past
    • Chapter 4. Historical Photographs of North American Indians: Primary Documents, BUT View with Care (Joanna Cohan Scherer)
    • Chapter 5. Blasting a Boulder and Building Memories (Julie M. Flowerday)
  • Section III. Moving Pictures, Film, Video, and Computer-Generated Media
    • Chapter 6. Reading the Mind of the Ethnographic Filmmaker: Mining a Flawed Genre for Anthropological Content (Carol Hermer)
    • Chapter 7. Visual Anthropology in a Time of War: Intimacy and Interactivity in Ethnographic Media (Peter Biella)
    • Chapter 8. Guestworkers: Farmworkers, Filmmakers, and Their Obligations in the Field (Charles Thompson)
  • Section IV. Roads Less Traveled, Unusual Subfields
    • Part I. Uncommon Subject Areas
      • Chapter 9. Envisioning Primates (Anne Zeller)
      • Chapter 10. Steps to an Ethnography of Dance (Najwa Adra)
      • Chapter 11. Looking for the Past in the Present: Ethnoarchaeology at al-Hiba (Edward Ochsenschlager)
    • Part II. Media: Beyond Camera Work
      • Chapter 12. In Search of Live Relics in Cold Lake (Kimowan McLain)
      • Chapter 13. Art and Mind: Working on Murals (Mary Strong)
      • Chapter 14. Art History and Anthropology (Louly Peacock Konz and James Peacock)
  • Section V. Epilogue
    • Chapter 15. Elementary Forms of the Digital Media: Tools for Applied Action Collaboration and Research in Visual Anthropology (Peter Biella)
  • Glossary
  • Author Biographies
  • Index

Mary Strong is president of the American Anthropological Association's Society for Visual Anthropology. She has been teaching for many years at the City University of New York and is a review editor for the journal Visual Anthropology. Her research involves collaborations with painters and craftspeople in Latin America and the United States.

Laena Wilder is a San Francisco-based documentary photographer whose work has taken her throughout the world. Her teaching appointments include Duke University's Center for Documentary Studies and the University of San Francisco. Samples of her work can be seen at


Purpose of the Book

We, the contributors, put this book together to give you an idea of what it is really like to work in the multidisciplinary field of visual anthropology. We do not attempt to talk about everything visual anthropologists do and have done. We hope to present an impression of the nature and breadth of our discipline at the time of this writing by describing some of the things we have done. The chapter writers represent a range of generations. Some of us began to work as professionals in the mid-twentieth century, and others just recently in the first decade of the second millennium. We talk about using old media—like painting, carving, and emulsion photography—as well as new developments, such as computer-generated and digital means of communication. We present research involving a variety of cultural traditions in the United States as well as in many other parts of the world. You will find the past, the present, and the future here because some of us focus on prehistory, folk traditions, and written history, while others concentrate on contemporary developments and possible future patterns. We look at communicative forms that range from cooking pots and facial expressions to dance steps to interactive software, and human as well as primate behaviors. We try to tell you as clearly as possible about what we do, attempting to be as honest as we can about our problems as well as our successes.

Visual anthropology is a multidisciplinary field that joins the arts and the humanities with the social and biological sciences. We learn how to communicate our findings through words, photography and film, art, music, and other expressive forms. However, knowing what is meaningful and worth communicating requires a firm grounding in standard anthropology, with its subfields and requirements for specialization in culture areas, verbal language fluency, and technical skill. A good number of visual anthropologists concentrate on communicative, expressive, and symbolic aspects of the cultures they study, perhaps because these traits lend themselves to representation in, for example, audiovisual recording. However, many of us seek to understand such nonmaterial aspects of culture as religion or philosophy. We are more than reporters or journalists, or perhaps we are like the best of them in that our work usually requires years rather than days or weeks to produce. Some visual anthropologists overcome these daunting professional demands by forming teams made up of one person specializing in communications arts and another in anthropology. You can also find both skills embodied in one individual.

This book presents visual anthropology as a kind of work in progress. We hope that people from many walks of life will feel welcome at our often contentious and boisterous worktable. What follows is a very brief summary of background information about the field of anthropology and its relation to visual anthropology, a description of new developments in the arts and media and their implications, a review of collaborative research and presentations, and a final few words about professional training and organizations.

Visual Anthropology Is More than Media

Study of Cultures in General and their Communicative/Expressive Aspects in Particular

Anthropology studies human belief and behavior. Through comparison, it attempts to establish what is universal about all human cultures on the one hand, and what may be unique to a culture or cultures on the other. Visual anthropologists are not distinguishable from other anthropologists in these ways. Visual anthropologists do place more emphasis on how human beings express and communicate their cultural traditions. These comprise outwardly observable forms such as language, music, art, dance, use of space, physical attitudes, and expressions. These perceivable manifestations give some measure of concrete reality to the inner mental abstraction we call culture. Visual anthropologists deduct and intuit the references to the natural world, symbolic and metaphoric meanings observable in such communicative conventions. Audiovisual recording devices both archive and facilitate analysis of such aspects of culture. By the same token, anthropology in general has been a visual discipline since its inception. Handmade illustrations, still photographs, and moving pictures have accompanied written texts, lectures, and other verbal materials from the very beginning.

Different Theoretical Traditions

Within anthropology are a number of different schools of thought or philosophical traditions. Many of these philosophies have their roots in particular geographic areas, such as the United States, Great Britain, or France, for example (Grimshaw and Ravetz 2005:1-17). There are also ideological movements that originated in Latin America, Asia, and Africa that have great relevance, particularly in terms of today's realities. The contributors to this book have been influenced by one or more of these sets of ideas. Although some of our chapter writers express this consciously, others make assumptions without acknowledgment of their origins. Discerning readers will want to delve into these philosophical underpinnings. You can do so by consulting general texts about anthropological theory and philosophy. In like manner, there are schools of thought and practice that inform ideological and practical strategies used by photographers, filmmakers, and experts in the other arts. Major theoreticians in this area include mediamakers and artists, as well as philosophers. It is recommended that readers learn about these with respect to the medium or art form in which they have a special interest.

Words and Pictures, Science and Art

Do words and pictures complement and inform one another, or do they accomplish very similar or very different ends? Are pictures mere frivolous distractions from the seriousness of words? Questions like these occupy the minds of visual anthropologists because, traditionally, anthropology has been a word-oriented discipline. Marcus Banks and Howard Morphy (1997), John and Malcolm Collier (1986), Karl Heider (2006), Paul Hockings (1975, 1995), and David MacDougall (2006) are among a number of visual anthropologists who have given thought to these problems. Readers will see that some chapters in this book emphasize words and others promote pictures as a major communicational mode. The first group of professionals believe that audiovisual materials illustrate and enhance ideas best expressed in words. The second group, like the iconoclast filmmaker Jean Rouch, feel that pictures portray a completely different world from words, one that is full of fantasy and imagination and of objects rather than verbal concepts. According to Rouch (2007), it is essential to make a film with the heart rather than the brain. Still other contributors promote the idea that the two systems support and enhance each other when they work in tandem. The filmmaker Robert Gardner (1957:348) proposed that we find out what pictures do well and recognize that it is different from what written texts do well (not better or worse, probably complementary). Digital storage and the Internet will probably increase the interface between words and pictures because they provide a vast amount of information for both types to users. Some pundits predict that the digital era will increase the primacy of images over words, thus perhaps reversing past tendencies.

Is visual anthropology a science or an art? Is it a combination of the two? If so, what kind of combination? Does the distinction matter? If so, in what way does it matter? These are also questions visual anthropologists constantly ask. The art historian W. J. T. Mitchell has interesting ideas, as do other thinkers, about these subjects. Mitchell believes that pictures want to be loved and to be real (Mitchell 2005:309). Viewers' attraction to images (love) and acceptance of them as representations of truth (real) give them enormous power for good or ill. Natural scientists employ photographic imagery as supporting evidence when presenting their research work to their colleagues. The scientific community accepts these images as truth. An immoral advertising firm might use the power of pictures to sell products dangerous to buyers' health. An ethical artist can employ the symbolic and metaphoric potential of creatively manipulated images to tell the truth in a way impossible to do in another medium. Mitchell calls this "exposing codes," using a term familiar to users of word processing software. Viewers of art see truths about their own reality that other modes of expression are incapable of portraying. It is the artists' and viewers' imagination and creative potential that come into play in the realm of art. Art allows us to see the truth by means of a circuitous route. Gregory Bateson (1972), paraphrasing the philosopher Blaise Pascal (1660), called this process the knowledge of the heart about which the mind knows nothing. Bateson quotes the dancer Isadora Duncan, who summed it up well when she said, "If I could tell you what it meant, there would be no point in dancing it."1 (Bateson 1972:134, 137).

Archeologists and biological anthropologists specialize in the more scientific subfields of anthropology and so are more likely to appreciate the truth-telling qualities of imagery. Members of more social scientific and humanistic subfields, like linguistics and cultural anthropology, would be more apt to caution us against seeing objective truth in images. Many members of this last group of professionals point out that no matter how "objective" we might think our visual productions to be, they are subjective creations and therefore like works of art to differing degrees. These productions express the makers' concerns as much or even more than what seems to be portrayed. Viewers of all sorts of audiovisual and three-dimensional materials and objects compound the complexity of the communication process. Viewers edit what they see depending on their own predispositions, training, perceptive acuity, and other factors. Visual anthropologists in humanities/social science caution us to look with a critical eye that perceives the imagemaker's assumptions and opinions and to distinguish these from "facts." We must also examine as much as possible our own biases as viewers.

New Developments and Their Implications

Accessible, Easy-to-Use, and Portable Media

The recent explosion of innovation in digital technology puts palm-sized audiovisual communication, storage, and recording devices of various kinds into the hands of masses of people. Powerful notepad-sized computers sit on desks and fit neatly into satchels and backpacks for easy transport. Both kinds of hardware employ wireless capability, allowing person- to-person and multiple site contact potentially anywhere on the globe. These tools give users access to the growing mine of information in written, visual, and sound forms on the Internet. Cell phones and computers become increasingly easier to use. At the same time, the advanced skill level once needed for photography, filmmaking, and other media arts now gives way to small-sized digital point-and-shoot and handheld cameras, and recorders, often with the addition of built-in editing software. These new technologies require a short and shallow learning curve to use and produce images and sound of high quality. Media productions once dependent upon major funding and substantial amounts of human hours now cost relatively little in time and money.

The Internet provides highly detailed information and possibilities for interactive communication with respect to an endless number of subjects. It also contains public forums where users can post photographs, films, biographies of themselves, and information in various communication modes about themes of interest to them and like-minded people. The Internet thus democratizes presentation of, and access to, knowledge. It allows many people to express their views to millions of others without need for degrees in journalism, photography, or anthropology. The new technologies provide very good tools, in these ways and others, to people in the industrialized and privileged part of the world.

The Politics of Representation

Meantime, people in the economically poor areas of the globe and marginal groups within wealthy countries have not been letting the new technologies pass them by. Formerly isolated Indigenous, minority, and other groups were once hampered by lack of access to electricity and the chance to learn to read and write. Not so today. These peoples now jump over telephone wire and literacy barriers by using wireless technology, images, and sound in countless Internet cafes and innumerable cell phones throughout the world (Jhala 2007). Visual anthropologists beware: the "informants" (as they were once called), for whom professionals once mediated with exclusivity, now speak with their own voices and produce their own images.

These issues bring the discussion to the important topic of the "politics of representation." Who has the right to represent a way of life to others? What are the overt and covert agendas of those who produce such representations? Are untrained insiders or professionally educated outsiders to have this privilege? Do the new technologies make this question moot? Up until recently, professionally trained outsiders constituted the only voice. These mediators often carried the taint of economic self-interest; assumptions of professional, cultural, and moral superiority; greed for political power; and other unsavory objectives. These nefarious intentions, rather than the desire to present the truth, all too easily could inform journalistic, documentary, or visual anthropological research and productions of the past. One possible way to combine the best of both worlds and avoid ethical pitfalls is by means of collaborative and advocacy research and production.

Value of Collaborative and Advocacy Research

There was a time when trained visual anthropologists could go into the field to carry on research and return as the sole authorities to present their findings to audiences at home. New technologies today allow people without any training and even people who were once isolated by geography and sociocultural minority status to do the same thing. However, much of what appears on Internet forums, for example, lacks the breadth and perspective that formal training can give. Studies done exclusively by trained outsiders, by the same token, suffer from lack of the cultural depth that only an insider perspective provides. One way to prevent the superficialities and inaccuracies that so easily result from the tunnel vision of both cultural insiders and outsiders is collaborative research that involves both groups. Collaboration means that visual anthropologists work together with the subjects of their studies as equals rather than in the old "authority" versus "informant" relationship. Marcus Banks (1999), John and Malcolm Collier (1986), David MacDougall (2006), and Sol Worth, John Adair, and Richard Chalfen (1997) are examples of professionals who have worked in this way for many years. Recently, professionals and their field collaborators have coauthored a number of books and audiovisual pieces.

Another aspect of collaborative research has great importance: advocacy. A small story may suffice to illustrate its significance. In search of a prize-winning photograph, one journalist recounted floating in a boat down a New Orleans street shortly after the city had been flooded by Hurricane Katrina. He saw a wonderfully tragic image of a distraught man floating on flood debris in the water. After making what he was sure might be a magazine cover shot, it occurred to the photographer that he had better help the stranded man. Thereafter he became a tireless rescuer of many stranded people who survived because of his efforts. You will find that many of this book's contributors feel ethically obligated to help and advocate for the people who appear in their research. Working collaboratively with people tends to erase the distance required by scientific or artistic "objectivity." Many of us contend that such humanizing of visual anthropology is a positive trend that will produce better work in our field.

Organizations and Training

A number of organizations at present nurture and promote visual anthropology. One of these, based in the United States, is the Society for Visual Anthropology (SVA), which is a section of the American Anthropological Association (AAA). SVA sponsors a yearly Film Festival and Visual Research Conference that forms part of the AAA annual meetings. The Research Conference is a small-group format during which visual anthropologists present ongoing research projects. The SVA publishes a journal entitled Visual Anthropology Review and hosts a Web site (; see also Blakely and Blakely 1989).

The Commission on Visual Anthropology is an organization based in Europe, but whose membership is worldwide. Its official publication is the journal Visual Anthropology. The Commission has a Web site (

The International Visual Sociology Association (IVSA) is also international in scope. IVSA publishes the journal, Visual Studies. It has a Web site ( There are, in addition, many other organizations dedicated to visual anthropology located in countries on all continents of the globe.

Students can seek training in visual anthropology in a number of ways. There are a few comprehensive programs at the university level worldwide that grant degrees in anthropology with a visual anthropology specialization. Courses of training in ethnographic film, documentary photography, and other art forms based in fine arts or media institutes and universities often collaborate with anthropology programs. Many visual anthropologists have one or more standard degrees as well as experience in anthropology and the media or fine arts. Professionals in this last group build their own careers either through the kind of work they do or by apprenticing with established visual anthropologists. The likelihood of a future filled with more and more visual imagery bodes well for the creation of additional training programs specifically oriented toward the kinds of combined skills visual anthropologists find useful in their work.

How to Use this Book

We put this collection of chapters together for you, our readers and viewers. We hope you will share both our respect for the people (and animals!) with whom we have worked and our desire to produce not only good science and good art, but also works of conscience. We do not try to fully answer the enormous questions regarding issues arising from what we do. Instead, we continue to ask the questions by presenting problems and conflicts that we ourselves face, as well as tools and methods that have worked well for us. We hope to inspire you to go beyond what we have done here, and we look forward to seeing a small part of the direction in which you will take this field in the future.


“The authors in this volume include some of the best current researchers in the anthropological study of visual means of signification, communication, and representation.”
Thomas D. Blakely, Pennsylvania State University, Past President of the Society for Visual Anthropology and Organizer and Chair of the annual Visual Research Conference


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