Hello fellow anthropologists!

As a passionate photographer and a student of Anthropology, I feel like these two areas have a lot to offer to each other. Photography is a very good instrument that can help portraying several aspects of human life. It can illustrate what is described in the books, sometimes it even shows what can not be written in words. As the known cliché defines: "A picture is worth a thousand words".

But, as I start to think about Photoetnology, some questions do rise.

Can photography be regarded as a reflection of what is real? Can it define or stand for/by a reality?
Can it be trusted as proof for some thesis? How can we define a reality through a picture?
Photography is not impartial, is this agreed by anthropologists? But, even so, acknowledged as important and valuable?
With the new advances in digital photography and technology, can photography still have the same place in anthropology and ethnography as it used to before? Has anything changed? What?

Would you like to share some opinions? Please do!
Lúcia Pinto

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Replies to This Discussion

Well I'd say the answer is no, photography cannot portray Reality (with a capital R). But that's not really the issue, because neither can video. Or words. Or human perception for that matter. Portraying Reality isn't what anthropology is about. In fact I'd say that the importance of anthropology lies in proving the opposite, that realities are multivariate, positioned and constantly in flux. To that end every tool at our disposal, photography included, becomes important and valuable.

Although I haven't had much opportunity to use photography in my fieldwork, as far as technological advances go the most relevant to ethnographers are the decrease in camera size and increase in memory size. Also, the ability to immediately upload files so you don't have to worry about losing them. I'm not sure if the technology has really changed the place of photography, but it certainly has made it more convenient.
I believe that photography--further more a photograph--can portral an image of A reality, as opposed to THE reality. However, even the concept of reality is a bit ambiguous as the real is constantly in a state of flux, and never the same from individual to individual, spirit to spirit, animal to animal, etc.

Lets take your image as an example. What does this image tell us about the society? about the woman? about the fish? about the landscape? about the context?? I look at this picture and immediately conjure a story of a woman who has worked in this 'market' since she was a child. She comes from a family of fishermen, and wakes up every morning at the crack of done to prepare the morning meal before going to the market where she will stay until it is time for her siesta. You may confirm my story, or it could be that this is the story of her neighbour or family member who has fallen ill and she has offered to help for the day. Hence, a picture can create a variety of realities for the person viewing it. The old saying "a picture is worth a thousand words," may then be translated to "a picture is worth a thousand meanings" in this context.

Scrolling down, I feel as though I am just reiterating what Jonathan has said, as he also points out this constant state of flux. Yet, I do see some importance of photographs in visually positioning the anthropological data, especially (or maybe particularly) when putting forth ideas to a non-academic or/and non-anthropological crowd.
I made a feeble attempt to write something about this when I reviewed Robert Frank's "The Americans" in American Ethnography Quasimonthly (http://www.americanethnography.com/article_sql.php?id=71). Here's a couple of paragraphs from that review:

MOST PHOTOGRAPHS ARE deceivingly realistic in form; they are very precise documentations of a scene, and we see them as truthful depictions with little room for interpretation.

“There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph,” photographer Richard Avedon once pointed out. “All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.”

And Diane Arbus expounds: “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.”

Sometimes the most accurate account is the least factual.
I’m in total agreement with how you see photography in it’s role as recorder of social behavior. Whether it’s words or images anthropological observations are imagined realities.
dennis marsico said:
Whether it’s words or images anthropological observations are imagined realities.

I think that's a little extreme. Certainly, from a strictly physical aspect, what we see, either in photo or in natural light striking the eye, is only a partial reality. We do not see the world as the honeybee does, nor does the honeybee see as the squirrel. From that standpoint, our interpretations reflect what we imagine to be reality. But to say that all our observations are imagined realities discounts much. We operate in a world constrained by our senses. Within those constraints, what we sense is our real world, not imagined. If it were otherwise, we would have no social order, no distinction between the sane and the insane, and utterly no reason to conduct social science.

Given that, I would still say that, no, (the image in) a photograph is not "reality." And, yes, it can portray reality. To quote René Magritte, Ceci n'est pas une pipe.
Isn't "imagined" the wrong word here? Photography and the written word both see what is there; but the seeing is inevitably selective and partial. Thus the careful reader asks similar questions of both: Who created what I see before me? What perspective did they bring to what they are trying to show me? What am I not seeing? What else could be there? Is there evidence of deliberate bias or fraud? If not, what possibly unconscious assumptions affected what I see? In most cases, the only way to be reasonably sure of the answers is careful comparison of as many similar cases as possible — or, if there are too many — a large enough random sample of them.
In my research I find that photography is a particularly powerful metaphor for knowledge. That is, the photographic process of building a camera, choosing a camera, choosing accessories, setting aperture, lenses, shutter speed, film medium, and developing/editing mirrors very well the intricate and constructed (framed?) nature of how anthropologists (and in my case archaeologists) come to describe and understand any given reality. I treat images like archaeological sites, to be analyzed layer by layer in order to describe a particular event and, reflexively, to reveal how an anthropologist comes to utilize that event. Understanding this, I think we can start to move beyond the problem of aesthetics, or how and what we choose to see (like the questions of proof and representation and editing asked above), and really make photos an integral part of any cultural research project. These problems will always arise with the use of photos, but I think they're heightened when a photo is left to stand alone and not treated as an artifact of research.
Photography illustrates both a subject and the anthropologist's perspective on it. What we choose to shoot, what we choose not to, what we find meaningful, even beautiful. We even learn, as researchers - I am always learning from reviewing my photos, sometimes years later. I see details that I had previously missed, as my focus was elsewhere. Field notes can never accomplish this; if I haven't captured it, it's not there to review.



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