Visual Anthropology Research Paper

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Visual anthropology is typically considered a subfield of cultural anthropology that developed out of the study and production of ethnographic photography and film. However, there are some anthropologists who disagree and instead place it “squarely within the discipline of anthropology” (El Guindi, 2004, p. 19). Visual anthropology is useful for ethnographic research, media analysis, and studies of material culture. Visual anthropology also encompasses the anthropological study of representation, including areas such as performance, museums, art, and the production and reception of mass media. However, to date, photography and film have been the primary concerns of visual anthropologists and will be the main focus of this research paper.

Visual anthropology emphasizes the cultural meanings of visual expressions and visually recording cultural practices within an ethnographic context. This encompasses the idea that “culture is manifested through visible symbols embedded in gestures, ceremonies, rituals and artifacts situated in constructed and natural environments” (Ruby, 1996, p. 1345). Visual anthropology utilizes visual media to practice anthropology and to investigate the social realm. The discipline of visual anthropology has unclear boundaries ranging from the narrow to the broad and complex. It has been defined in a variety of ways: as audiovisual aids to supplement the teaching of cultural anthropology; as another descriptor for ethnographic films; as the anthropological study and production of media (Ginsberg, 1994); as pictorial and visual communication, which consists of anything “made to be seen” (Ruby, 1996); and as “anthropology of visual systems or, more broadly, visible cultural forms” (Morphy & Banks, 1997, p. 5).

History of Visual Anthropology

Before visual anthropology was considered an academic discipline, early ethnologists were using photography as a research tool (Ruby, 1996). Many of these photographs, like those of Native Americans made by Edward S. Curtis, were made in an effort to preserve societies and their way of life (Prins, 2004). Historically, anthropological filmmaking was associated with documentary filmmaking; Barnouw suggests that a person who made such a film was a “documentarist as travel lecturer” (1993, p. 29), for instance, some of the first ethnographic films (e.g., Promenades des Éléphants à Phnom Penh [Elephant Processions at Phnom Penh], 1901) with the intent of exposing “pristine” cultures. This same pattern persisted in later ethnographic films, such as Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, in 1922, about the lives of Arctic peoples and Robert Gardner’s Dead Birds, in 1965, about the Dani people of New Guinea (Barnouw, 1993).

In the history of visual anthropology within the scientific realm, early pioneers and their accomplishments included the following:

  • Félix-Louis Regnault, chronophotographic film of a Wolof woman making pots and later a study of body movement and behavior, 1888–1896
  • Alfred Haddon, photography of Torres Strait, 1898
  • Baldwin Spencer, photographs, films, and recordings of aboriginal society in central Australia, 1899
  • Franz Boas, 16-mm films of the Kwakiutl, 1930
  • Marcel Griaule, 35-mm films Au Pays des Dogon and Sous les Masques Noirs, 1935–1938

Some credit Regnault, a physician interested in anthropology, as the first ethnographic filmmaker (El Guindi, 2004). All of these early research projects were marked by difficulty in transporting heavy, rudimentary equipment to the field (El Guindi, 2004). In the ethnographic arena, the work of John Marshall (Bushmen series), Tim Asch (Yanomamo series), Ian Dunlop (Yirrkala project), David MacDougall (Wedding Camels), and John Bishop

(Himalayan Herders) served as a bridge between anthropology and indigenous practice (El Guindi, 2004; Morphy & Banks, 1997). By the 1940s, anthropologists such as Hortense Powdermaker, Gregory Bateson, and Margaret Mead were incorporating anthropological perspectives into mass media and visual representation. Powdermaker is best remembered for her anthropological studies of an African American community in Mississippi (Powdermaker, 1939/1993) and one of the few substantial examinations of the American film industry (Powdermaker, 1950). Mead, a student of Boas, worked with Bateson to use visuals and film throughout their collaborative work in Bali and beyond (see, e.g., Bateson & Mead, 1942). Much has been written about Mead and Bateson’s approaches to using the visual within the anthropological scope, especially their breakthroughs in incorporating film and photography. In the history of American visual anthropology, Mead and Bateson’s work is unparalleled with respect to the sheer volume of footage they produced.

Karl G. Heider noted in his revised edition of Ethnographic Film (2006) that after Bateson and Mead, the history of visual anthropology is defined by

the seminal works of four men who were active for most of the second half of the twentieth century: Jean Rouch, John Marshall, Robert Gardner, and Tim Asch. By focusing on these four we can see the shape of American ethnographic film. (p. 15)

In addition, the depth of the work of leading ethnographic filmmakers David and Judith MacDougall, in both their observational approach to filmmaking and the extensive writing by David MacDougall over the past 20 years, has shaped ethnographic film outside the United States. Collaboratively, the MacDougalls have documented groups of people in Uganda, Kenya, Sardinia, Italy, Australia, and more recently, India, where David filmed a series of films about the prestigious all-boys boarding school called The Doon School (Doon School Chronicles, 2000).

The term visual anthropology was coined after World War II and slowly grew to include visual records about culture and the study of social systems ethnographically using description and comparison (El Guindi, 2004). Mainstreaming of visual tools in anthropology began in the 1980s. In 1984, the Society for Visual Anthropology (SVA) was formed as a section of the American Anthropological Association. The SVA publishes a regular newsletter now known as the Visual Anthropology Review. The SVA described itself as promoting

the use of images for the description, analysis, communication and interpretation of human (and sometimes nonhuman) behavior. Members have interests in all visual aspects of culture, including art, architecture and material artifacts, as well as kinesics, proxemics and related forms of body motion communication (e.g. gesture, emotion, dance, sign language). The Society encourages the use of media, including still photography, film, video and non-camera generated images, in the recording of ethnographic, archaeological and other anthropological genres. Members examine how aspects of culture can be pictorially/visually interpreted and expressed, and how images can be understood as artifacts of culture. Historical photographs, in particular, are seen as a source of ethnographic data, expanding our horizons beyond the reach of memory culture. The society also supports the study of indigenous media and their grounding in personal, social, cultural and ideological contexts, and how anthropological productions can be exhibited and used more effectively in classrooms, museums and television. (SVA, n.d.)

Several things are important about the SVA’s statement: It includes diverse forms of media, including public media; it includes different domains of culture (including material manifestations of a culture), and it covers multiple approaches to the study of visual anthropology.

The first attempt at an academic home for visual anthropology was made in 1958 with the creation of the Film Study Center at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. In 1994, the review section in the journal American Anthropologist formerly called “Ethnographic Film” was renamed “Visual Anthropology.” At present, the SVA represents the subfield in the United States as a section of the American Anthropological Association. Ethnographic films are shown each year at the Margaret Mead Film Festival, and the yearly American Anthropological Association conference features a coinciding visual anthropology conference at which many emerging ethnographic films are viewed and screened. Films are also shown at other international annual festivals and conferences.

Early Ethnographic Photography

Much of early ethnographic photography cannot be separated from the popular scientific paradigms and cultural biases of the time. For instance, anthropometrics and race were central to early ethnographic photography, with the assumption that visual depictions provided insight into the intellectual and moral characteristics of their subjects (i.e., indicating a hierarchy, with the more “civilized” at the top and the more barbaric further down). The next theme in early ethnographic photography challenged evolutionary origins of polygenesis (multiple races with differing origins) versus monogenesis (single origins, same evolutionary path). Next was a demonstration of cultural tools, dress, traits, and practices. Finally, early ethnographic photography was characterized by salvage ethnography with the goal of preserving cultures thought to be dying out (Morphy & Banks, 1997; Ruby, 1996). Overall, early ethnographic photography can be characterized by one of two themes: (1) romantic primitivism—a cultivated, artistic approach such as that seen in the photographs of Edward S. Curtis, who made images of American Indians and their cultural practices, rituals, and customs; or (2) salvage ethnography, best exemplified in the fieldwork of Franz Boas, a cultural relativist who intended to preserve aspects of American Indian life before they disappeared.

Taking photographs in anthropology was not new. Even as early as 1912, in Notes and Queries on Anthropology, there was a discussion of how to take photographs in the field. One of the first to use photography and film for research was French ethnographer Marcel Griaule. During the Mission Dakar-Djibouti, an expedition in Africa from 1931 to 1933, Griaule used aerial photography not only to analyze the spatial organization of societies but also as a stimulus to evoke responses in interviewing individuals to acquire knowledge about their religion (what is now typically referred to as photo elicitation).

Visual Media as a Research Tool

Margaret Mead and others in the field advocated the use of visual tools in research for the purpose of recording and discovering knowledge. In a classic article, Mead (1975/2003) criticized other anthropologists for being overly reliant on words in anthropology when they should be using visual media. Photography can be used in qualitative and ethnographic research for investigative purposes. In ethnographic research, photographs offer striking, rich data that can transcend the photograph’s visual content (Collier & Collier, 1986). With photos, researchers can examine aspects of people and life not easily studied with other methodologies. Because visual images can often reveal more than words, researchers may gain a deeper understanding beyond the objective content of data (Asch & Asch, 2003). Photographs can also help researchers to “push their analysis” when the data do not fit previously conceptualized theories and ideas.

Researchers use photos in interviews with participants to understand how participants define their world and to reveal what they take for granted or what they assume is unquestionable. Visual data can strengthen research through the use of multiple data sources (this is also known as triangulation) and can offer a deep authenticity to an otherwise singular dimension of data. Adding a visual means of data collection like photography can enhance fieldwork, since no one method of data collection can adequately record and explain all aspects of a phenomenon (Asch & Asch, 2003). In addition, photographs provide an opportunity for researchers to take the photos back to the participants and review them to get feedback, explanation, and interpretation. This strengthens the study and gives voice to the participants in the research process and results (Collier, 2003). Photographs can prompt participants’ memories and help researchers discover information that may not be as easily exposed with traditional interview methods (Beloff, 1984).

There are several notable examples of this kind of work. In a study of the immigration experiences of Latino adolescents living in rural North Carolina, photographs were utilized as a basis for interview discussions (Streng et al., 2004). Kruse (2004) asked elderly women to take photographs about their perceptions of a recently deceased loved one. Gaskins and Forte (1995) combined photos and interviews in order to enhance the richness of their data. Four participants in their study were provided with single-use, automatic cameras and asked to take images they felt were suggestive of hope. The researchers used the resulting photographs to guide in-depth interviews with the participants in order to further explore the meaning and experience of hope.

In another research study using photos, Radley, Hodgetts, and Cullen (2005) interviewed homeless people about their experience with homelessness. After taking photos of a typical day, the homeless participants were asked to describe the story and focus of each of their photos and their response to the person, place, or object in the photographs. All photographs were then spread out, and each participant was asked to identify the ones that best captured their experience of homelessness. Participants were also asked about their experience of taking the photographs and the feelings that accompanied the pictures they had taken. Interviews were audio-recorded and later transcribed for analysis.

In addition to photos taken as part of studies, there is an enormous amount of extant photographic material available to researchers, such as yearbooks, family photo albums, historical images of indigenous people, and historical society collections. The historical activities associated with people or places in these photos supply nonverbal, historical data and offer perspectives on the changes between the past and present. Researchers can gain a considerable amount of data from a photograph alone, but the combination of archival photos with interviews allows for identification of the individuals and events in the photos (Collier & Collier, 1986). Another benefit of using archival photos alongside interviews is that researchers can access feelings that are connected with the moment depicted in the photograph. Photos viewed during an interview that occurs at some point after the photos were taken can invoke the same feelings and emotions as those of the moment the photos were taken (Akeret, 2000). This is of great value to the researcher, because the information from the interviews is enhanced, and the data associated with the photos come alive (Collier & Collier, 1986). The use of visual images “inject(s) the emotional context that is such a crucial component of all social problems” (Huff, 1998, p. 577).

Photo elicitation is a research methodology used primarily in anthropology and sociology as a way to explore social class, community history, individual and community identity, and cultural studies (Harper, 2002). Through symbolic meanings assigned to photographs, the social world of individuals, families, and communities can be revealed and connected to the larger society, culture, and history (Harper, 2002). Photographs may also elicit visions of what is possible for the future.

Ethnographic Film

Visual anthropology is probably best known for producing ethnographic films. With the invention of photography in 1839, early pictures of the “other” accompanied the written word, when anthropology was still an armchair science. In 1895, the silent movie was invented, and sound was first added in 1930. With the establishment of sync sound in 1960, doors opened to produce films that allowed the moving image and sound to work together simultaneously. In 1990, digital technology opened up even more opportunities, and with the rise in technology, the viewing and seeing experience has changed significantly over the past 20 years.

Currently, the ethnographic filmmaker often films in situations that allow for an in-depth understanding; this requires long-term participant observation with the camera, whether it occurs in another culture or in the visual anthropologist’s own backyard. Filmmakers are concerned with making a contribution to anthropological knowledge and are always critical of the films they produce. Filmmakers such as Robert Flaherty, Robert Gardner, John Marshall, and Dennis O’Rourke have contributed greatly to the emerging field of visual anthropology. These filmmakers, often educated in cinema or documentary filmmaking, typically have worked collaboratively with anthropologists or have had backgrounds in anthropology themselves. They helped set what today is considered the standard in ethnographic filmmaking in that they spent long periods of time with the people they filmed.

Modes of Documentary Film

In the 1960s, observational and interactive styles of filmmaking blossomed, with sync-sound making it easier to record the words of the individuals in the film. These methods imitated television and radio journalism styles, which included heavy interviewing techniques. Bill Nichols, professor of cinema and director of the Graduate Program in Cinema Studies at San Francisco State University, has written extensively on documentary and ethnographic film. By looking at key features within documentary film, Nichols (1991) developed four modes of representation, comparable to those used to classify written texts, which allow for a system of classification for the ethnographic film: expository, observational, interactive, and reflexive. Each mode addresses the issue of how people and issues can be represented appropriately. Further, each of the four modes has been emphasized in a particular time period or in certain regions or countries (Nichols, 1991). It is important to note that most films will have elements of various modes with one dominant form of content.


The expository mode in ethnographic film might be considered “classic documentary.” This mode contains much description, as it usually sets up an argument, often from the anthropologist’s point of view. It then provides visuals and film footage as evidence to support the argument. Voice-over dominates throughout the expository film and controls and leads the argument. The expository film can be viewed as the visual equivalent to a written essay, and as Nichols (1991) suggested, the visuals in the film illustrate and support for the viewer what is being commented on throughout the film. The editing is subordinated to the “voice of god,” with the use of words providing the logic. In the absence of sync-sound, subtitles may act as voice over, as evidenced in the 1922 film, Nanook of the North, by Robert Flaherty.

The editing process in the expository mode is usually not done in a chronological way where events unfold; rather, it is organized so that the visuals support the underlining argument, which is articulated through the spoken word or subtitles. Other classic visual anthropological examples of the expository mode include Basil Wright’s Songs of Ceylon (1934), John Grierson’s Coalface (1935), Jean Rouch’s Les Maitres Fous (1955), and Melissa Llwelyn-Davies Maasai Women (1974). In Grierson’s Coalface, heavy voice-over tells viewers what they should know about the coal industry, making this a film about the process of the coal industry. In Maasai Women, the voiceover, that of the anthropologist herself, powers and controls the argument set out within the film. Here, viewers listen as the anthropologist tells them what to think and what is happening while the film footage shows what is being described, all of which support the anthropologist’s words.

For this last example, it is noteworthy that the target audience was a television audience. This may have affected the type of mode used, thus illustrating further the importance of keeping the audience in mind when choosing whose story is being told and what type of film an anthropologist or filmmaker will set out to produce. Within the expository mode generally, there may be elements of interviews, but they are used to support the main argument of the film or provide evidence (Nichols, 1991). The viewer finds these films to be logical, with cause and effect— similar to the evening news. The viewer expects a problem to be solved in the film, making it solution-oriented.


The observational mode is also known as direct cinema according to Erik Barnouw (1993), or cinema vérité according to Stephen Mamber (see Barnouw, 1993, for more information on direct cinema and cinema vérité). This mode of ethnographic film is usually a favorite among ethnographer filmmakers who utilize long periods of time in participant observation. Here, the focus of the film is usually on the details of everyday life, often in intimate settings. It can be thought of as the “fly on the wall” type of approach. The final version of the film is not dominated by voice-over, and the point of view is that of the characters in the film; there is no script. The viewer is looking in on and overhearing the people’s lived experiences. Sync-sound, long takes, and everyday life activities and events are what make the content in the observational film. As Nichols (1991) suggested, the observational mode is missing commentary and generalized images, which encourages filmmakers to focus on specific social formations of the family, the local community, or an institution.

Classis ethnographic films that use the observational approach include David and Judith MacDougall’s films, most notably To Live With Herds (1974), John Marshall’s Bitter Melons (1971), and Gary Kildea’s Celso and Cora (1983). Another example of an observational film that also has expository elements is anthropologist Jerry Leach and Australian filmmaker Gary Kildea’s Trobriand Cricket (1976). Here, although the anthropologist’s voice dominates that of the Papua New Guinean’s chief throughout the film, the visuals illustrate a game of cricket played the Trobriand Islander way. This film is from the native point of view, and while it does have expository attributes, it is one of the most recognized ethnographic observational films. It is expected that the viewer of an observational film will have to do some work to understand it, and it is the skill of the filmmaker to capture viewer interest. There is typically some type of tension or movement that is created throughout an observational film. (See Kildea’s Celso and Cora, for example.)


Interactive films are often based on interviews within the film. The filmmaker here is trying to get many points of view across, and typically the film becomes a film with words as the central subject. According to Nichols (1991), interactive documentary often includes testimony, verbal exchanges, and demonstration. One of the most famous examples of the interactive mode is Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronicle of a Summer (1960), even though it does have elements of an observational film as well.

The interactive form raises ethical questions of its own, in that interviews are a form of hierarchical discourse deriving from the unequal distribution of power, as in the confessional and the interrogation (Nichols, 1991). A comparison of the interview technique used in the expository mode versus that used in the interactive mode reveals that interviews in the former are used as evidence to promote the anthropologist’s or filmmaker’s argument, whereas in the latter, the interaction itself between filmmaker and subject is part of the evidence to support the film’s argument. The viewer of the interactive mode expects to be informed, to come to an understanding of something through listening to the words and viewing the interactions of the individuals in the film (Nichols, 1991).


The reflexive mode is based on the filmmaker’s reflections on the content and form of the film itself as well as on the filmmaking process. The reflexive ethnographic film is about the actual encounter between the filmmaker and the people being filmed, and it “addresses the question of how we talk about the historical world” (Nichols, 1991, p. 57). Examples include Man With the Movie Camera (Vertov), Lorang’s Way (MacDougall), and Tim Asch’s Ax Fight (1975). In Asch’s Ax Fight, the viewer’s assumptions about reality are challenged, not only by the content of the film itself, but also by how the film was made, including the chronology depicted in the film.

Asch, who was never educated in filmmaking, viewed film as a method for teaching anthropology (Ruby, 1995). He began working with Napoleon Chagnon in 1968, and over the course of 10 years made 39 films among the Yanomami of Venezuela. According to Ruby (1995), along with the !Kung Bushmen in Africa, the Yanomami have become one of the most filmed non-Western groups of people. Two of Asch’s best-known films, The Feast and Ax Fight, came from this time period. In Ax Fight, Asch produced four versions of the same footage, resulting in a fourpart film. Unedited raw footage is shown first. Next, a voice-over narration is added (using the voice of Napoleon Chagnon, the anthropologist Asch was working with), along with slow freeze frames, including on-screen arrows that point out the particulars that are being discussed. Next come kinship diagrams describing the people being filmed and who is related to whom. Finally, there is an edited version of the film without voice-over that almost appears to be a somewhat observational finished product.

One of the main differences between this type of film and observational films, like MacDougall’s, is the filmmaker’s approach and reason for making films in the first place. Asch has always been concerned with making films for teaching anthropology, while MacDougall was more concerned with using film as a way of producing knowledge.

Challenges Within Visual Anthropology

One major critique of visual anthropology is the degree of “ethnographicness” of the visual medium. To address this concern, several anthropologists have defined what makes a film truly ethnographic. For instance, Ruby (1975) proposed that ethnographic films should focus on entire cultures or specific portions of cultures, be informed by theories of culture, include an explanation of the research and film methodologies, and use an anthropological lexicon. Others believe that ethnographic film is suitable for use in undergraduate teaching, archiving of cultural material, design and presentation of research studies, fieldwork, and publicizing anthropology.

Many anthropologists are uncertain about the parameters of visual anthropology. They might have little to no background in critiquing the photographs or films as opposed to the written word most often used in anthropological research. Visual media do not have the same attributes, methodologies, and theories as the written word. While most ethnographic films are made today by anthropologists trained in the academy, many films in the past were made by professional filmmakers working collaboratively with anthropologists (Ruby, 2000). These filmmakers often did not have a strong anthropological understanding and, according to Ruby, depicted their subjects as exotic “others” and were “actively hostile to anthropology and [knew] next to nothing about issues of reflexivity, giving the subjects a voice or any other post-modern issues that have dominated anthropology for decades” (2008, p. 3). Deficient in theory and analysis, ethnographic film still lacks clear and rigorous principles to make a significant contribution to cultural anthropology (Ruby, 2008).

Other questions that concern visual anthropologists about ethnographic film include (Ruby, 1996): (1) Who is doing the filming? (2) Is he or she an anthropologist or a filmmaker? and (3) If the film is made by a nonethnographer, then was an anthropologist involved in the project and in what capacity? Ruby is clear that if the film is to be considered “ethnographic,” then the filmmaker must have the intention of doing ethnography, must use ethnographic field methods, and must seek validation among those competent to judge the work as ethnography using the standards of evaluation from anthropology (2000).

Another issue with ethnographic films is their degree of reflexivity. Filmmakers have addressed reflexivity in three main ways: (1) including comments about the filming process by the subjects, (2) identifying themselves as filmmakers (normally in a visual way) early in the film, and (3) leaving traces of material that demonstrate the workings of filming (Morphy & Banks, 1997). Without the conscious effort of reflexivity, visual anthropology runs the risk of objectifying and exoticizing others, which may connect the discipline with colonialism and the ethnocentric view of indigenous peoples (Smith, 2003).

A major issue for ethnographic filmmakers is deciding whose story is to be told—the filmmakers’ story or that of the subjects in the film. “Filming selves” connotes visual anthropology projects in which members of a population under study participate in the filming of themselves or actually film themselves directly (El Guindi, 2004). The indigenous population can serve as “local assistants, culture bearers, collaborators, native ethnographers, filmmakers or filmed” and can offer views of culture to anthropologists (p. 121). Within the “filming selves” genre, films can be (1) procedural, to demonstrate the traditional culture; (2) investigational, to analyze assertions in anthropological theories; and (3) made for the purpose of self-empowerment, advocacy, and self-representation of marginalized populations (El Guindi, 2004).

Harald Prins (1997) described himself as an action anthropologist who uses video technology to give indigenous people a way to oppose political oppression and resist cultural assimilation. Through his work, Prins offers an alternative to the typical discrimination, incarceration, exile, abuse, torture, and even murder that indigenous people have experienced. He provides a way for these populations to highlight their homelands, distinctive sociocultural practices, language, and spiritual belief systems.

Future Directions

While historically ethnographic filmmaking might have been the predominant method used within visual anthropology, there is much room within the field for other techniques covering the visual sphere of analysis. The future of visual anthropology is concerned, according to Pink (2006), with thinking about and exploring visual research methods across disciplines, anthropology of the senses, and media anthropology, including digital and hypermedia technology. She believes that developing innovative visual technologies and new ways to work within the field will result in creative and novel research projects within visual anthropology. In the future of visual anthropology, Pink foresees more applied projects, greater recognition in the public sphere, and more theoretically and methodologically informed research projects (2006).

Multimedia Forms

Today, images are ubiquitous and ever present on cell phones, the Internet, family photos, and billboards. These images highlight the importance of understanding the sociocultural significance of images. Although the importance of societal images has long been acknowledged by anthropologists, the burgeoning of the visual media has resulted in a visual emphasis in the analysis of people and culture. The consequence of this change has been a transition from the very limited use of imagery by anthropologists to its use as mainstream technique that continues to increase with advances in new visual technologies. Contemporary traditions of visual anthropology include self-representation, culture reconstruction, research film/photography/video, digital/multimedia presentations, and visual ethnography (El Guindi, 2004).

Jay Ruby’s innovative work short films, various photographs, and stories on a Web site is one direction in which the field of visual anthropology seems to be headed in the United States. This new approach to conducting visual ethnographic fieldwork follows from Biella (1993), who proposed that interactive multimedia blending text, photographs, and film offered a viable alternative to traditional methods. Ruby’s Some Oak Park Stories project includes four interactive digital CD-ROMs containing ethnographic portraits of three diverse families and one portrait of The Oak Park Regional Housing Center (Ruby, n.d.). This innovative project includes text, photographs, video clips, and other media showing Oak Park, Illinois, a middle-class suburb outside of Chicago that consciously constructed itself to be ethnically diverse.

Ruby was interested in the suburb’s idealism and the everyday impact of this idealism on the residents. In addition, Ruby was interested in notions of reflexivity, since the suburb was his hometown. In addition to CD-ROM portraits, Ruby utilizes the Internet, the Web, and other digital technologies as fieldwork devices and for output. His Web site includes his academic biography, a preliminary description of the project, copies of funding proposals, his professional lecture material from American Anthropology Association meetings, newspaper interviews, and quarterly progress reports. He created a listserv with 100 subscribers, mostly Oak Park residents, and obtained regular feedback through this outlet. An interesting aspect to this project is that viewers and readers of the Web site can start anywhere, since it is nonlinear—each portrait section includes a slide show with family snapshots and their corresponding comments. Video clips are less than 10 minutes in length and serve as a way of producing life histories on each of the adults involved.

Pink (2004) discussed the use of hypermedia as a mechanism to share research and as a vehicle for teaching and learning. Her Web project, Visualising Ethnography (Pink, 2002), exemplifies this modality and is both a resource in and of itself and an access point to other resources in visual anthropology. Visualising Ethnography offers instruction on using the visual during the ethnographic process. Pink’s Web project includes interviews with and written works by visual researchers, exhibitions, introductions to different media, and useful Web links.

Participatory Forms of Photography

Photovoice is a participatory form of research where participants take photographs to document their lives, concerns, and communities. Participants then share and discuss the photos in order to identify personal and community/ group issues. Photovoice has been used with numerous diverse populations, including rural Chinese women; neighborhood groups; people with mental illness in New Haven, Connecticut; homeless men and women in Michigan; youth peer educators in South Africa; American Latina girls; and many more (e.g., Vaughn, Rojas-Guyler, & Howell, 2008; Wang, Yi, Tao, & Carovano, 1999). Worth and Adair (1997) initiated autophotography, a method similar to photovoice. Worth and Adair gave movie cameras to Navajo Indians so they could describe themselves from their own perspective. Ziller and colleagues extended this approach to instamatic cameras and asked various groups to take pictures within their environment. They believed that taking photos allowed one’s true self to be expressed (Ziller & Lewis, 1981).

Community photography is a photographic methodology in which participants take photos of their daily lives in order to increase knowledge about issues in a community. It gives community members a way to inform policymakers and other people who control resources about community issues that are both strengths and challenges. Photography has been implemented as a methodology for studying social issues and for understanding people’s lives in various communities. For example, participatory forms of photography have been instrumental in work with homeless children, children living in the Guatemala City garbage dump, children of Appalachia and India, children of poverty and affluence in Mexico, women in rural China, and the Kayapo in Brazil. Community members are given permission to tell their own story from their own perspective simply because they have cameras in their own hands. Thus, understanding of these communities is enriched because the data are being produced directly by the community participants. It is important that the photos and the corresponding stories offer a focal point for discussions of change and involve directly the people who will be affected by the changes.

Participant forms of photography permit people to explore and articulate their lived experience. Participatory photography gives participants freedom to depict their actual surroundings, to choose the people and places that are important, to reflect on priorities and belief systems, and to decide what issues are most salient in their lives.

Interdisciplinary Projects

Another way in which new approaches may be applied to visual anthropology is by looking to disciplines outside the field of anthropology. Other disciplines incorporating visual analysis include cultural studies, psychology, semiotics, media studies, sociology, and cultural geography. Incorporating visual research methods and visual applications used in cultural studies, cultural geography, and sociology as well as other social sciences allows room for innovative research and new knowledge within visual anthropology. According to Pink (2006), the following criteria should be considered in visual research regardless of discipline: “the context in which the image is produced; the content of the image; the contexts in and subjectivities through which images are viewed; and the materiality and agency of images” (p. 31). Pink (2006) proposed three sets of questions to ask while conducting social research on images: (1) What is the image of, what is its content? (2) Who took it or made it, when, and why? (3) How do other people come to have it, how do they read it, what do they do with it?

Quantitative Research in Visual Anthropology

Anthropological visual analysis is emerging in a crossdisciplinary way. Katie E. Englert’s anthropology master’s thesis, Pictures Worth Thousands of Words: Youth, Ethnicity and Photography (2005), used content analysis following Philip Bell’s (2001) methodology. Here, as a methodology for quantitative analysis, Englert devised a visual content analysis while researching the visual representation of Lebanese-Australian Muslim youth in two Sydney newspapers during a series of rape trials in 2001–2002. Initially, Englert utilized the four steps of content analysis, which, according to Bell (2001), include image selection, coding, analysis, and results. While such quantitative analysis may have ignored issues surrounding reflexivity and the audience view, she turned to a semiotic approach method after the visual content analysis in an attempt to investigate possible meanings produced once the images in question were viewed and consumed.

During the fourth step in visual content analysis (analyzing the quantitative results), Englert chose images and newspaper editions for the semiotic analysis. While Rose (2001) suggested developing graphs and tables with numbers of results from the coding process, Englert produced a finer semiotic analysis of the visuals she analyzed, which provided a deeper analytical view of how images were used within a wider set of components. These components included the images, captions, and headlines as well as the structure of the whole newspaper page in question and the entire newspaper edition, all of which allowed for broader interpretations from the large quantitative visual content analysis.

By looking at semiotic concepts of denotative and connotative meanings developed by Roland Barthes (1975) and his notion of mythologies, while also keeping the viewer in mind, Englert developed several attributes residing in the visuals analyzed that denoted wider anthropological themes. Salient themes included generational differences between Muslim immigrant parents and their children and issues surrounding multiculturalism and tolerance of the “ethnic other” in a Christian dominated society. The widespread Anglo-Australian idea of “mateship,” media use of language, and notions of honor and gender were also investigated. Finally, the nature of the Muslim immigrant friendship group, as opposed to that of organized ethnic gangs, was considered, as were issues around sexual assault (Englert, 2005). Englert was able to carry out original anthropological visual analysis while reaching across disciplines, incorporating both visual content analysis (often found in other social science fields like cultural studies, sociology, and psychology) and semiotics.

Visual Anthropology in Academia

Most universities with anthropology departments offer a range of courses in anthropology, but few offer courses in visual anthropology specifically. Many undergraduate courses, especially introductory cultural anthropology courses, utilize visual anthropology only in the viewing some of the well-known classic anthropology films. Even within this sphere, the films viewed are often more than 20 years old. For example, most professors show films known to be classics within anthropology, like Dead Birds, John Marshall and Adrienne Miesmer’s N!ai (1980), the various films made for television such as Granada Television’s Disappearing World series (Leslie Woodhead & David Turton, 1974–2001), Maasai Women, and other films relating to language, rituals, religion, gender and so on. Few universities offer in-depth courses on visual anthropology, and even fewer offer master’s or doctoral programs. Universities that offer more extensive courses or training in visual anthropology in the United States include San Francisco State University, Temple University, New York University, and University of Southern California. Outside the United States, visual anthropology is offered at the Australian National University, the University of British Columbia, the University of Kent, the University of London (Goldsmith’s College), the University of Manchester, and the University of Troms.


While historically the field of anthropology has been dominated by the use of words, the visual world has always played an important role within ethnography and the representation of people and culture. In the early years, anthropologists brought exotic “others” to museums, world fairs, and colonial expositions, putting them on show “as curiosities at circuses and other entertainments” (MacDougall, 1997, p. 276). Anthropologists then realized that this approach was problematic, because unless the indigenous people were filmed or photographed in their home environments, they were stripped from their cultural context, and the people themselves couldn’t be incorporated into the written word. Enter the role of visual anthropology as a mechanism to bring the real people front and center. Visual anthropology has a robust history using photography and ethnographic film in the production of knowledge about various people throughout the world, particularly in a cross-cultural context. Visual anthropology continues to be an emerging subfield of anthropology, constantly finding new ways to produce meaningful visual accounts, films, and research.

While visual anthropology has often been equated to the production and use of ethnographic films, the scope is much broader and includes photography, art and material culture, research on the body and movement, and more. Throughout history, many anthropologists have probably been doing a version of visual anthropology without knowing it (Jacknis, 1988). New avenues, such as interdisciplinary approaches of visual research, participatory photography projects, and interactive multimedia Web projects are adding to the complexity and richness of visual anthropology as it continues to grow and define itself as a subfield of anthropology. Advances in technology, globalization, and a greater emphasis on collaborative approaches to research not only within academia but also in partnership with community members and indigenous populations offer many exciting possibilities for the future of visual anthropology.


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