Visual Anthropology Research Paper

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1. Definitions

No short phrase will catch the two main streams of thought and practices which ‘visual anthropology’ implies. One sense refers to attempts to communicate anthropological observations and insights through photography, film, and video. In this sense, many early anthropologists who used these media were practicing forms of visual anthropology before the approach had been made explicit. Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson used cine film and still photography as central to their studies of culture and personality, and later Jean Rouch and Timothy Asch both filmed extensively and argued for the recognition of film in anthropology. John Collier did the same for photography, as did Paul Hockings, for both mediums, working to formalize the importance of such contributions to academic and humanistic anthropology.

The second definitional approach to visual anthropology is more recent and is concerned with the understanding of visual systems in cultures and societies. It shares common concerns with the anthropology of art and with technology and material culture. By convention, the subject of literacy and its significance has not been prominently included within visual anthropology, but is normally discussed in wider debates about the transition from the neolithic to large-scale states and empires, and debates about power, hierarchy, and authority. Although visual anthropology is of increasing interest to students, and younger academics, it as yet shows few signs of making serious inroads into the hegemony of classical political economy and other mainstream concerns. The approach claims that special attention to visual systems may lead to reassessment of mainstream assumptions and analytic givens. ‘Understanding visual systems’ can be broken up into three related elements.

First, the study of the significance of visual perception in human cognition, generally: how far do humans, as a species rely on what is seen, and how do they integrate what they see into their deeper and wider understandings and practices? Psychologists have studied the dominance of one sense over another in experimental situations; anthropologists are increasingly interested in nonlinguistic and prelinguistic cognition, some of which depends in part on visual perception, and are more interested in psychological work than they have been for many years. In any specific society, how great a part do visual symbols, signals, emblems, and sign systems play in the construction of social order? Traffic lights, national flags, systems of body modification, ritual objects, house styles, animal and plant classifications are clearly all necessarily dependent on visual information. How important is this? Do systems of visual signification have any autonomy from the cultural and international systems in which they are necessarily situated?

The second element in this approach concerns the significance of the visual in any particular society or civilization and, related to this, how a given history affects the use made of a visual technology, such as photography. Do some societies place a much greater emphasis on the visual communication of knowledge, and religious truths than do others? It has been suggested, for example, that in particular societies, the young learn how to do things, particularly artisanal production, by watching experts at work, rather than by explicit verbal and conceptual instruction. How far are singing, dance styles, facial expressions, body postures, clothing forms and usages, the whole range of physically performed elements of cultural behavior, deeply and implicitly shaped by visually led cultural learning? Are there austerely ‘unvisual’ societies in which speech ‘leads’ and visibly performed action is less strongly marked? Once, industrial societies relied on reading, memorizing, classroom and radio listening for knowledge transfer, but now television and digital memory storage are major inputs into many lives. What difference does this shift in culturally packaged techno-learning make?

The third element concerns what is broadly termed issues of (visual) representation. The word represent has several senses—to bring something into existence, to make visible, to exhibit or reproduce an action, or a person, as upon the stage, to take the place of something, and to stand as an example of something. French anthropology, through the work of Durkheim and Mauss promoted the idea of rituals as ‘collective representations,’ but the term influenced visual anthropology more through Edward Said’s Orientalism: ‘The idea of representation is a theatrical one: the Orient is the stage on which the whole East is confined. On this stage will appear figures whose role it is to present the larger whole from which they emanate. The Orient then seems to be not an unlimited extension beyond the familiar European world, but rather a closed field, a theatrical stage affixed to Europe’ (Said 1978, p. 63). The paragraph goes on to list some of the stock characters on this stage including the Sphinx, Cleopatra, Babylon, Babel and Mahomet. Said’s deeper concern is with the production of reductive, and often negative stereotypes of peoples and cultures. Simply put, then, the issue of representation in visual anthropology has become a many-sided discussion of how far a painting, a postcard, a photograph, a film, a video, can be understood to have reasonably and sensitively portrayed the persons or issues with which they are concerned. A good starting point is Roland Barthes’ account of his difficulty in finding a photograph of his mother which really did justice to his memories of her. A sensitive discussion of more impersonal representation issues in film-making appears in Ruby (1991): ownership, collaboration, informed consent, censorship, and the right to make representations of other people are searchingly discussed.

2. Intellectual Contexts

Visual anthropology can be said to begin when, in the middle of the nineteenth century, photographs are first used as ethnological records of human diversity, as images of colonized peoples for the appreciation of metropolitan publics, and, before long, for portraiture by all, metropolitan or colonial, who had access to the technologies. We discuss these issues in more detail below. However, in the modernist sense, visual anthropology could, and perhaps should, begin with a consideration of all visual systems employed in depicting human action, before photography became a dominant mode. This implies a discussion of the cave drawings, etchings, woodcuts, lithographs, paintings, and many other forms of image employed in early African, Arab, Chinese, European, Hindu, Japanese, Moghul, and many other sources, whenever faced with the task of communication of cultural differences. As yet, such interests are mainly pursued by archeologists and historians of art, but their preoccupations are inevitably somewhat different from those of anthropologists. Not only would illustrations in texts be of interest, but so would objects used in ritual, and the decorations of objects in daily use.

Visual anthropology has in fact developed differently. First, there has been the practical use of photographs from 1860 to the twenty-first century at first untheorized, taken-for-granted as unproblematic additional field research tools. The second component has been an interest in the use of film as a scientific recording medium. In the 1950s and 1960s, articles started to appear which argued forcefully for the importance of ‘ethnographic film’ as a complementary field research tool for mainstream anthropology. This approach was summarized in Hockings (1995). In the spirit of recording for posterity, several large collections of ethnographic film were created (see below). The third major development, in the 1980s, was a growth of intellectual interest in how photography had been used by anthropologists in the colonial period. In the 1990s, visual anthropology includes many new areas for inquiry, and there is increasing boldness in its claims to raise questions ignored by visually nonliterate, concept-fixated anthropologists.

3. Photography

The first great achievement of scholars engaging with photography has been to reverse the truism that ‘Every picture tells a story’ so that it reads ‘Every picture needs its history.’ An example is H. L. Seneviratne’s essay on a photograph taken at the Temple of the Tooth, Kandy, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), at some point between 1870 and 1900. The photograph shows the Temple building, with three monks in the top righthand corner, looking down upon a circle of some 30 persons, many of whom are monks in positions for formal reverence grouped around a table, at a lower level. The author argues that what is visually central in the photograph is in fact politically and semantically peripheral. The author is able to identify the ‘central’ figures as numerous Burmese monks, and the three elevated ones as Sri Lankan monks, dressed relatively casually. The fact that an electric light fitting is visible helps date the picture. However, the analysis raises serious doubts about the probability that the object on the ‘central’ table is the Sacred Tooth relic which the ritual postures of the ‘central’ monks seems to imply. Three reasons are offered: first, a lack of supporting attendants; second, the relative simplicity and austerity of the table on which the objects are displayed; and third, the Relic is never brought down from the higher level of the building. Seneviratne concludes

‘The occasion of the picture thus represents a variety of possibilities, the more so for want of precise information’ (Edwards 1992, p. 156). It should be noted that this analysis depends on significant historical knowledge external to the photograph itself: every photograph is historical from the moment it has been taken, and every photograph needs its historian. The second achievement has been to question implicit realist assumptions about how photography ‘works.’ That the camera permitted ‘stern fidelity’ and ‘penetrating certainty’ (Pinney 1997) was a dominant assumption of many European colonial photographers. Pinney suggests that one use of the camera in colonial India was linked to the task of ethnological classification: photographs were taken of exemplary ‘representatives’ of cultural groups. Faces, clothes, hair-styles, and adornments were held to characterize named castes and ethnic groups decisively. Foucault’s concern with definitive classification and state surveillance helps us see that the evidential fingerprint and the police arrest photograph are inherently realist, too. However, Pinney also describes the enthusiasm with which elite Indians under British rule took up this European invention and developed it for their own purposes, at first employing European conventions of formal portraiture. He also shows how some early British photographers in India used portraiture in a more sensitive way than Foucault’s focus would allow, with empathic regard for the qualities of the person portrayed.

The third achievement is to identify specific ‘ways of seeing.’ Pinney’s account of how contemporary Indian villagers in Nagda, Madhya Pradesh, use photographs is illuminating. They opt for portrayals of persons not ‘as they are,’ spontaneous, informal, and unadorned, but rather ‘formalized and theatrically staged images … are most desired.’ This may include adorning a photographic image with watercolors, the juxtaposition of a villager with a famous film star, palaces or temples as backgrounds, or wearing special clothes as if a rajah, a bandit, a warrior, or a princess. The ‘Indian Eye’ is not primarily a naturalistic eye but is concerned to make ‘traces of the person endure, and to construct the world in a more perfect form than is possible to achieve in the hectic flow of the everyday’ (Pinney 1997, p. 149) (see also the film by David and Judith MacDougall, Photowallahs, 1991).

4. Ethnographic Film

Film was used by ethnologists as early as 1898, and although travelers and ethnologists continued to make filmed records of native peoples, such material hardly received serious anthropological attention until the 1950s. Enthusiasts for film tended to stress its assumed objectivity and its capacity for contributing to anthropology as a behavioral science, and fitness for tasks of ethnographic salvage, conserving records of rituals, techniques, and practices among peoples threatened with extinction or radical transformation. Certain film makers in the naturalistic documentary tradition undertook large-scale filming projects among particular peoples, such as Ian Dunlop’s work with members of the Mandjindjara and Ngadajara groups in the Australian Western Desert, and his subsequent work with the Baruya of East Highlands, Papua New Guinea, Timothy Asch’s collaboration with Napoleon Chagnon, among the Yanomami, Christopher Curling and Melissa Llewelyn-Davies’ work among the Loita Maasai in Kenya, David Turton and Leslie Woodhead’s films among the Mursi of southwest Ethiopia, and some of Jean Rouch’s work among the Dogon and Songhay of West Africa.

Such attempts to film naturalistically and objectively, for the historical or archival record, were soon challenged by a different approach, in which the aims were not scientific, but more exploratory, celebratory, observational filming without authoritative commentary, and with a sense of intimacy between film makers and subjects. This has been described as ‘participatory’ or ‘collaborative’ cinema (MacDougall 1998) in which the film maker’s aim was to allow the personal qualities of individuals to be conveyed, as well as characteristic themes and emphases from the particular society in which they lived. It also encourages what has been termed ‘reflexivity’ (Ruby 1980), in which the film maker made the intellectual premises on which the film was being made transparent to the audience.

This approach required a decisive break with any suggestion that films were made by detached, all-seeing, and all-knowing scientists presenting ‘objective truths’ about those filmed. ‘Reflexivity’ was sometimes understood superficially to mean that the film-makers should introduce themselves and the filming project as the framework within which the film developed. While some anthropological film-makers still work in the observational tradition, more experimental forms of narrative are gaining adherents.

5. Changes In Emphasis And Future Developments

Visual anthropology has been influenced by the wider theoretical changes which have affected mainstream anthropology in North America, and Europe— skepticism about objectivity, successive impacts of French structuralism, Marxism, feminism, and postmodernism upon choice of subjects and their treatment. The simplest way to sum up the current state of thinking is to say that visual anthropology, like mainstream anthropology itself, is becoming ever more inclusive, in several different senses.

First, there is an inclusiveness of subjects for description and analysis. As the world continues to change under the impact of global technology transfer and market forces, so new social relations and new social issues emerge, and classical assumptions need reconsideration. Labor migrations and the formation of diaspora communities who keep in touch with their recent origins by cheap air travel, the telephone, and the internet are examples. The wedding video, enthusiastically adopted in India, as in Europe, represents a new field of study, and the styles, the emphases, the inclusions and exclusions, and the contexts of use and reuse are being described and analyzed. The consumption of media products, particularly television soap operas, and national cinema productions are attractive to visual anthropologists because they tend to miniaturize and bring into relief deep cultural themes, and this is doubly the case when the diffusion, both positive flows and negative obstructions, can be included. For example, Greek Cypriots who in the 1970s were likely to watch Greek and Turkish fiction films and US-originated soap operas, in the 1980s started to favor a Mexican soap. In the UK, Australian soaps aimed at teenagers are now more successful than US ones. In Africa, Hindi films were once much viewed, and Australian Aboriginal peoples have enjoyed Kung-Fu films.

Second, the inclusiveness involves what has come to be termed ‘indigenous media’ activity. This takes several forms. First, there are broadcasting systems run by and for ethnic minorities. Australia and Canada have led the way in these matters, with aboriginal peoples producing local materials in their own languages, to celebrate cultural survival and resistance to national cultural impositions of uniformity. Indigenous media may show films by ethnic minorities to promote their political interests in the face of national systems. Thus films about land rights and the connection between a group and their territory through ancestral religious cults are prominent, as are films celebrating the tribal past, documenting the tribulations of previous generations, and movements for revitalization.

Third, indigenous visual anthropologists came forward to ‘speak about’ (make films about) cultures with which they are intimately connected by various links. Such work may implicitly or explicitly challenge the expertise of the ‘outside’ observer. Once there was a widespread assumption (underpinned by ideas about the necessity of scholarly detachment) that the best anthropology had to be done in a society to which the anthropologist came as a cultural outsider. Most scholars would now say that as anthropology has shifted from being primarily a Euro-American discipline to being a more international one, it has become clear that it is the nature of the intellectual training and not the anthropologist’s originating culture which makes illuminating cultural analysis possible. Visual anthropology has been at the cutting edge in these matters.

The major claim from postmodern visual anthropology which has yet to be accepted by mainstream practitioners is that a great intellectual role for ‘the visual’ will challenge conventional thinking, and refresh it (Devereaux and Hillman 1995, Banks and Morphy 1997, MacDougall 1998). Since all postmodern anthropology questions all taken-for-granted classifications, hierarchies, and orthodoxies, the provisual anthropologists are unlikely to ‘come to power’ intellectually, but rather ‘the visual’ will probably be quietly and painlessly incorporated into mainstream anthropology courses. There will be little resistance to proposals to think freshly about ‘visual systems,’ although there will always be scholars who continue to argue in support of writing as the best mode of intellectual communication and the written ethnography as superior to any other form of discourse (see, for example, Hastrup in Crawford and Turton 1992). However, just as the ethnographic museum can be reconfigured to become a place which makes us think actively about history, power, tolerance, creativity, and core values, so too can a photograph, a Benin bronze, a fish trap, an MTV pop video, a British imitation of a Japanese garden, and a set of ‘dirty’ postcards be appropriately re-presented and freshly analyzed.


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