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 Joella Davis on May 12, 2010 at 10:52pm
I believe documentary photography/straight-forward photography is a wonderful glimpse of reality. Without visual documentation, many would not be aware of the world. If one were to take a photo of the ecosystem in the Caribbean and alter the color using Photoshop or even hand coloring it, would it still be considered documentary? How could on trust an image that is not of true representation. Cyanotype and any other alternative photographic process are usually seen as works of art nowadays. Only "pure" photographic images are written by light. Whether it is through the lens of a camera or negative through an enlarger, the image itself as a whole is pure until some action is taken to alter/combine the subject(s). As for Ansel, I have never been to Yosemite and only hope that the beauty of his photographs are realistic interpretations.
Comment by ryan anderson on May 12, 2010 at 10:17pm
Mr. Hoyem is not Ansel Adams, the lowrider color manipulation alters the message and reality of the moment.

How does the color/BW split alter the message and reality? Is it suddenly a lie to foreground part of the image in this way? Is the "reality of the moment" altered if the image is all black and white?

By way of Mr. Hoyen’s post-production manipulation the lowrider photo-essay has moved from a photographic document to a photoshop/darkroom exercise.

This is interesting because I was not aware of this set of anthropological/documentary rules. At what point did this shift from "document" to "exercise" occur? How can we tell when our photographs leave the document category and become mere darkroom/photoshop exercises? Can a cyanotype be a photographic document? Do images have to be either all color or all black and white to qualify as a true document? Do you put black and white images into the "photographic document" category?
Comment by ryan anderson on May 12, 2010 at 9:39pm

Adams manipulated more than just light. He manipulated exposure and film development combinations, used on camera filters, printed with a whole series of different filters or grades of paper, altered print developers to achieve certain results, toned prints, bleached prints, and so on. His negatives were starting points, and they were hardly literal representations of reality. He just used more subtle means than someone like Uelsmann (who admittedly took things much further).

Photography is always a departure from reality. I guess the question is how far to take it.

Photoshop is just another tool, like an enlarger, a multi-contrast print head, or a contact print frame. Anything can be used in excess, but that does not mean that any tool inherently devalues photography. Photoshop is simply another technological advancement in a long line. If we reject these innovations, then the only "pure" photograph is a Daguerreotype or a Calotype, or maybe something produced a la Niepce in the 1820s.

The whole argument about value and purity in photography seems kind of silly to me. There is tons of potential with all sorts of technologies, and great photographs can be made with the use of older technologies (platinum printing + view cameras) or newer technologies (digital Canon SLR + Photoshop + inkjet printers).

So what? The real proof is in the images themselves. I could care less if they are made with the help of a Macbook Pro or an old Omega enlarger in someone's basement.
Comment by dennis marsico on May 12, 2010 at 9:31pm
Like all visual arts, photography has endless aesthetic variants. Mr. Hoyem is not Ansel Adams, the lowrider color manipulation alters the message and reality of the moment. The role of the visual anthropologist is more akin to the photography of a photo-journalist, using image alterations in a more subtle way. By way of Mr. Hoyen’s post-production manipulation the lowrider photo-essay has moved from a photographic document to a photoshop/darkroom exercise.
Comment by Joella Davis on May 12, 2010 at 8:45pm
I concede with the statement "the tricks of photoshop devalue the medium" made by Dennis. Ansel Adam did manipulated light to enhance ( or to some alter) his famous images. However, they are actual representations of his subject. Jerry Uelsmann may be a better candidate on manipulation of imagery. He does a lot of composite imagery that are just amazingly realistic. Although, photoshop would be an ideal application for him I think he still enjoys the "hands-on" technique the darkroom allows him to have.
Comment by ryan anderson on May 12, 2010 at 6:11pm

I guess you are talking about manipulation of imagery, which of course is nothing new in photography. Have you ever seen the printing instructions for some of Ansel Adams' famous photographs? Plenty of alterations going on there. Interpretation--especially in printing and final presentation--has been around for a LONG TIME in photography. That's pretty much the whole art of printing, whether digital or via the darkroom. Of course, some people take things further than others, but that's what makes things interesting.
Comment by Martin Hoyem on May 12, 2010 at 5:15pm
Dennis: Was that ("sometimes the tricks of photoshop devalue the medium") a comment to my lowrider photos below?
Comment by dennis marsico on May 12, 2010 at 3:57pm
Visual Ethnography has made many strides forward with the digital advances of photography, but sometimes the tricks of photoshop devalue the medium.
Comment by Martin Hoyem on April 23, 2010 at 8:25pm

We just released another feature with lowrider photos on American Ethnography:

"Back in 2005, while doing fieldwork among lowriders in the southwestern states of USA, American Ethnography’s owner and editor Martin Hoyem photographed the people he met and their cars.

Now, as part of our ongoing research on “Car Customizing and Outlaw Aesthetics” we give you a gallery of photos from that fieldwork."

Comment by Sheyma Buali on March 19, 2010 at 3:56pm
wondering how many people engage in experimental photography in their photoethnographies...

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