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Photoethnography

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.

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Comment by ryan anderson on May 13, 2010 at 4:30am
What I was trying to make clear is with the advent of digital photography everyone who buys a DSLR considers themselves a photographer.

So? Everyone who takes pictures is a photographer of some sort of another. This includes the Sebastiao Salgados of the world and everyone else in between. I am not a big fan of taking all of this too seriously. Photography can of course be marshaled toward some pretty interesting and impressive ends. It can also be used to document a 5 year old's birthday party. There is a spectrum of uses and possibilities, and I don't see the use of getting concerned about who is the "real" photographer.

In academia it’s easy to dismiss a layman’s opinion compared to a PH.D in a field.

That doesn't mean that the dismissal is necessarily valid. People with PhD's don't hold the keys to all valid knowledge.

In photography everyone is an expert, from the engineer to the accountant to the graduate student in sociology. The line between amateur and artist, tasteful and tacky has been blurred.

Again, so what? What is "tasteful" and "tacky" is open to debate. These kinds of trends in photography (and all art) shift over time. Some people like Paul Strand, some like Peter Beard, and some like Nan Goldin. To each his own. I am not all that worried about policing some standard about taste or style.

As art, the lowrider prints are amateur in quality.

Well, there's an opinion if I have ever seen one. What makes something "amateur in quality" in your opinion? I think this is an interesting statement. I think it's interesting that you feel compelled to describe the photographs in this way. What's your point? What are you really trying to say here?
Comment by Martin Hoyem on May 13, 2010 at 4:07am
I've been trying to figure out why you would claim that “the photographs (…) were presented as art,” Dennis, until I suddenly realized the gallery was indeed published under the sub-header of “art.” Now I guess I have to look into if this is a confusing sub-category, but the idea was that this particular photo gallery somehow is ethnography about art (in this case the folk-art of lowrider cars), not that the photos themselves are art. I might need to clear that up within the American Ethnography web interface.
Comment by dennis marsico on May 13, 2010 at 1:29am
My apologies for a misleading comment. I have no issue with print manipulation, as someone mentioned, it is part of the photography process. It is not a question of B&W vs. color or photoshop vs. darkroom or this process vs that process. What I was trying to make clear is with the advent of digital photography everyone who buys a DSLR considers themselves a photographer.
In academia it’s easy to dismiss a layman’s opinion compared to a PH.D in a field. In photography everyone is an expert, from the engineer to the accountant to the graduate student in sociology. The line between amateur and artist, tasteful and tacky has been blurred.
The photographs in lowrider were presented as art and art opens itself for critical review. As art, the lowrider prints are amateur in quality. Unlike anthropology art is not a science.
Comment by Michael Yorke on May 13, 2010 at 1:18am
I am stunned by the naivete of this discussion. Perception is never absolute or real. I will never forget the day my cataracts were removed and the whole world seemed saturated with colour, joy and precision. But even that only lasted for a few days. Howeevr I am also sure that that week or so of delight did have a more profound affect on my visual and emotional view of the world. As an anthropologist who started out as a photographer's apprentice in 1963 and now teach an MA in practical ethographic filmmaking at UCL, no one involved in the course thinks that they are doing anything other than making the real more real and striving to encapsulate as much information into the captured image, be it still or movie with added audio. The joy of photoshop means that it is possible to redress the vagaries of technology with subjective judgement. I will never forget how in 1978 some techno-frak of the time persuaded me to use Agfa stock for my postdoctoiral research project in India. When I finally came back and got it all developed I wqas horrified at the drained and colurlessmauve of the images. Then came the great moment of joy four years ago when I sat down, digitised everything, got it into photoshop and brought joy, spirit, and a sense of the original back to all those drab images that did nothing to represent the profilmic. Long live the abilitiy of ever advancing technologies that allow us to approximate that which we felt and knew was true when the shutter clicked.
And never forget that the camera is incapable of telling even a faint degree of truth. The human eye has a dynamic contrast range 9 times greater than any film, 9.5 times greater than a CCD chip and ten times greater than a CMOS chip.
Comment by SusanLayne Nielsen on May 13, 2010 at 12:37am
starting with framing and lens choice, angle, exposure and ending with how the final image is displayed/printed

Not to mention that, until recently, it all depended on a chemical reaction of silver to light. It is all, always, secondary to the phenomenon in front of the lens. I challenge anyone to define 'pure' in this context. (For that matter, I don't know what it might mean in any context except a clean room.)
Comment by ryan anderson on May 13, 2010 at 12:28am
Joella,

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).

There is nothing pure or straightforward about photography, IMO. Photographs are the end result of a long series of choices and editorial decisions (starting with framing and lens choice, angle, exposure and ending with how the final image is displayed/printed).
Comment by SusanLayne Nielsen on May 13, 2010 at 12:13am
I have never been to Yosemite and only hope that the beauty of his photographs are realistic interpretations.

It will disappoint you. It's in color.
Comment by ryan anderson on May 13, 2010 at 12:12am
So, clearly Adams already manipulated the representation of whatever was in front of the camera, even before he started work in the darkroom.

Exactly. Manipulation and alteration starts immediately.

Not to mention that the photos are two-dimensional, and also really much smaller than the original Yosemite landscape he photographed!

Ha. Just a BIT smaller and flatter than El Cap and Half Dome.

Good points, Martin.
Comment by Martin Hoyem on May 13, 2010 at 12:03am
Ryan Anderson wrote: "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."

I'll give all of you a preview of a gallery I will officially publish shortly, with Jack Butler's pinhole camera Polaroids of Southern California car culture. I wonder if this group would consider Butler's images truer representations of reality, than what my photos constitute?

http://www.americanethnography.com/gallery.php?id=103
Comment by Martin Hoyem on May 12, 2010 at 11:52pm
Leaving aside the suspicion that some of this discussion addresses the quality of my manipulations, rather than the nature of it (it is true, I'm not Ansel Adams), it's touching to see this nostalgic faith in old technology's ability to represent a “true” image of a situation, and simultaneously the distrust towards more modern technology.

Ansel Adams, like most photographers, used lenses on his camera. And he shot in black and white. He also framed his shots (anything else would be impossible with a photo camera.) Not to mention that the photos are two-dimensional, and also really much smaller than the original Yosemite landscape he photographed! So, clearly Adams already manipulated the representation of whatever was in front of the camera, even before he started work in the darkroom. Ultimately he made his choices about what manipulation techniques to use, so that he could show clearer the objects he photographed, so that his recreation of the scene would be easier for his audience to understand, so that his message would come trough.

In fact, that is the exact same thing we do when we write. We don't publish all our head notes, scratch notes and field notes – we select from them, edit and polish the sentences, so that the words we end up using best describes what we want to describe. It would be funny to argue equally conservatively about the ethnographic writing we present to our readers. What are acceptable writing techniques? Should we only write with a pencil? Must the text be left unedited (unedited from which stage of the writing process)? Can we use adjectives, or must it be only verbs and nouns? Can I write in English about a culture in Cameroon?
 

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