A forum to discuss the role of photography in and for anthropology

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Photography and Ethnography

Since its invention in 1839, photography has regularly been used in anthropology
in a variety of ways and with changing intentions; but the discipline’s handling of the
medium has still not reached full maturity. Anthropology still remains first and
foremost a science of words (Mead 1975). So, for example, there are scarcely any initiatives for making the photographs taken during field research accessible to a wider
public. Pictures are simply used as aids in presentations, or in publications merely as
»support« for academic texts. The anthropologist David MacDougall made the trenchant
point that anthropologists were indeed interested in the visual, but had no idea what to do with it (MacDougall 2006). The anthropologist Barbara Wolbert assumes
that photography has remained a blind spot for anthropology because of its manipulative
potential. Identifying the fact that a photograph always gives away as much about
the person who took it as the person depicted, she concludes that anthropologists are
concerned to keep the origins of their texts, their local fieldwork, and their relationships
with the local population away from the public (Wolbert 1998). This may well
be correct in individual cases, but apart from the fact that texts are also capable of
doing this, anthropology would be depriving itself of an essential resource for mediating
cultures if it failed to take full advantage of photography’s potential.
One common feature of photography and anthropology is that both can show what is particular to us and what is alien, and at the same time to make us aware of this. The American literary and cultural critic Susan Sontag came up with the following analogy in one of her most famous essays, On Photography:

Like a pair of binoculars with no right or wrong end, the camera makes exotic things near, intimate; and familiar things small, abstract, strange, much farther away. It offers, in one easy, habit-forming activity, both participation and alienation in our own lives and those of others – allowing us to participate, while confirming alienation. (Sontag 1977: p. 167).

(from the Introduction of “Kyrgyzstan: a photoethnography of Talas” 2007 Hirmer Verlag)

Discussion Forum

What lens for fieldwork?? 7 Replies

Started by Agustin Diz. Last reply by Agustin Diz Jun 24, 2012.

Can Photography portray Reality? 8 Replies

Started by Lucia Pinto. Last reply by lisa l galarneau, ph.d. Jun 21, 2010.

A Flickr group for ethnographic images 1 Reply

Started by Martin Hoyem. Last reply by Martin Hoyem Jan 11, 2010.

Comment Wall


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Comment by Martin Hoyem on November 23, 2011 at 6:49pm


I don't have a book title, but I know that Howard Becker's 1974 article from Studies in the Anthropology of Visual Communication is good: “Photography and Sociology”. The best place to look this article up would be the original publication, if you can find it (anthrosource maybe), because it has a lot of photo examples to go along with the text. Meanwhile you can find the text here:


It might not be exactly what you asked for, but perhaps it's a starting point? Howard Becker is such a masterful writer, always nice to read. Other than that I would also love to hear if anybody have suggestions for other texts about this theme.

Comment by Susan Falls on November 22, 2011 at 2:43pm

Does anyone have suggestions for books for a photo-ethnography course? 

Comment by Sheyma Buali on April 25, 2011 at 1:01pm
as someone looking to create visual ethnographies of place, i often find myself unsure if my work can be categorized as anthropology or art. my portfolio in progress: I welcome comments
Comment by Christos Varvantakis on March 20, 2011 at 10:08pm
I've uploaded part of a photo-essay here:
Comment by Jonathan on January 25, 2011 at 6:04pm

This might be of interest to some. I will probably submit something from my iPhonography collection (NY street photoethnograhy with the iPhone).



Comment by Martin Hoyem on January 1, 2011 at 7:16am
Portraits from a country where “90% of the population is Catholic and 100% of the population is Vodou,” Phyllis Galembo's photos reveal what she herself calls “the hidden vitality of the Haitian Vodou tradition.” We are proud to present to our readers this gallery of pictures from Galembo’s book.
Comment by dennis marsico on November 21, 2010 at 7:15pm
This is more storytelling rather than social science but might be of interest to this group.age-specific looks at the present status of the counterculture generation.
Comment by Sheyma Buali on November 2, 2010 at 12:33pm
The RAI's 'Anthropology of Sport' Photo Contest is open to everyone, deadline December 10. for more info:
Comment by Sheyma Buali on August 29, 2010 at 4:29pm
i just put up a post on my own blog of photographs with translated captions from late 1800's early 1900's Egypt. If it interests anyone, please take a look
Comment by Martin Hoyem on July 9, 2010 at 8:01pm

We have spent some time looking through the Edward S. Curtis Collection at the Library of Congress, and picked out a few photos which are currently our favorites. From these we have selected the ones showing different examples of masks, because – as William Butler Yeats pointed out in 1910 – mask are just so damn cool:
It was the mask engaged your mind,
And after set your heart to beat,
Not what's behind.

These are wonderful, captivating images. Enjoy a stroll through our gallery, and see for yourself.

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