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

Comment by mouli g marur on June 11, 2009 at 10:50pm
hmmmm.... felix: "especially considering how digital media allow us to merge stills, film, and text in ways which have hardly been exploited yet"... this is what i have been involved in for about 27 years of my life... we did it in advertising long before the advent of digital tools, and now do it FASTER with the digital tools. entire MFA thesis (well, not PhD theses) have no words at all! and involves very sophisticated ways of combining the said elements! i am not sure what you mean by '... have hardly been exploited yet". artists, typographers, designers, filmmakers AND photographers have been doing this for over two decades to my knowledge (since at least the Macintosh in 84!) at the School of the Art Inst of Chicago (my alma mater for MFA) as well as every good design school that i have come across...

i think Anthropologists are discovering these media now that they have become affordable and ubiquitous (with cell-phones with one touch video and sound -- not just stills) and no longer the domain of 'art' schools!

Comment by Judith Beyer on June 12, 2009 at 4:47pm
Dear Mouli,
thanks for your interesting contributions which made me think more about possible differences between photoethnography and classical documentary photography. One difference is, for example, that I use the camera as a means of communication, too: to establish contacts, to get in touch, to reciprocate (by taking pictures of my informants, having them developed and bringing them back to my field site, for example). Also, I experiment with the camera by having my informants taking pictures of what they like to document, thereby turning Susan Sontag's observation (see above) about participation and alienation around. Another difference - to me - is also the way I contextualize the photographs. I have, for example, no archive to which I go back in order to "illustrate" later texts of mine (which might speak about the same phenomena visible on the photograph, but are not related in any other way). Since a photograph has a story already, I cannot decontextualize it and attach it to another story. This, as I have shown in the case of is frequently done in documentary photo essays. So in this case photoethnography and classical documentary photography are different genres which draw upon the same kind of technology and require equal interest for and engagement with the "material".
I would like to more about your work - do you have a website?
Best, Judith
Comment by Felix Girke on June 12, 2009 at 4:50pm
Hi, interesting comments. My comment specifically referred to anthropology; I am sure that other people, in other fields, are much more diversified and technologically competent in their ways of expression and representation. But I am interested not in what photographers do an get paid for, or designers, or typographers - with all due respect for their work, I myself am getting paid to find ways to communicate the results of my work scientifically. Thus, I am under a totally different set of constraints - and when I say that some venues have not been explored, and "hardly been exploited", this is to say that anthropology as a discipline, an academic, publishing, teaching discipline, has been slow to integrate the new technological possibilities in methodologically sophisticated and reflexive ways.
And anyone who has ever attempted to get an anthropological film accepted as a professional publication on an equal rank with a journal article will have felt the effects of that.
And I guess this will take some time; and I am saying that looking at the possibilities of doing anthropology in photography is a good step towards it.
I always like to send people to the unfinished project - check it, and tell me what you think of it.
Comment by mouli g marur on June 13, 2009 at 12:39am
design as a discipline cannot not be with the latest technologies. and there is also a lot of symbiosis between design practice and academia, each sort of nudging the other in utilizing emerging technologies. i realize that may not be the case with anthro.

the main reason why a 'film' is not accepted as a verbose article may also lie in the fact that more than technology, it is the strength of the script and appropriate use of editing approaches. i can not see how a properly edited and presented audiovideo 'documentation' be less convincing than a written thesis with THE SAME CONTENT. courts of law accept video as evidence... i think photography and film as media require skillsets that should be taught as part of the Anthro curriculum at the UG level.

alternatively, anthro majors should be given opportunities to collaborate with artists and filmmakers to use emerging technologies collaboratively.

unfortunately, academia all over the world have needlessly raised the importance of the written word over oral/aural/visual expressions.
Comment by Judith Beyer on June 29, 2009 at 9:34pm

hi everybody - this is a photograph that was taken during an exploratory field trip to Myanmar. It shows a tourist encounter btw two local tourists from the country and a foreign tourist (me). I was approached by a group of domestic travellers and asked to be photographed with these two women. What is interesting is that there were two pictures taken in that very moment: one by my partner and one by a friend of theirs. While i was looking into "my" camera, the two women looked into "theirs". What does this say about the encounter? I am curious how you would interpret this situation ... Judith
Comment by Judith Beyer on August 30, 2009 at 10:55pm
hi everybody,
i have been absent from this site lately as i am in the last stages of writing my PhD (I'm at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Germany, member of the project group "Legal Pluralism" and writing about customary law in Kyrgyzstan) ... Feel free to post whatever comes to your mind. I am looking forward to getting to know all of you. Best, Judith
Comment by dennis marsico on January 18, 2010 at 11:39pm
Twenty-five of my working years were spent as an editorial photographer, working mostly for travel publications. I was fortunate to have collaborated with the leading editors and writers of the genre, including Saul Bellow, Diane Ackerman, Jan Morris, Simon Winchester and Calvin Trillin. Spaced within this time frame were scholarly grants and museum exhibits, all relating to my visual interpretation of peoples and their environs. From this role I saw the world as being divided between word-based and image-based contributors with the word-based camp dictating the look and feel of the visuals.

In a typical editorial workflow the photographer was handed the writer’s manuscript and sent off to cleverly illustrate the writer’s and editor’s intent. When working with first-tier writers the photographer stayed on a tight leash (not always the case with lesser known scribes). A task easier said then done!

After the 9/11 disaster and the simultaneous decline of print publishing I looked to recenter my world focused on societal observations that retain integrity in both the art and social science spheres. Again, I’m looking at a difficult task.

Most people in the arts look at science with some level of skepticism and I’m confident the opposite is true. I would like to open a dialogue, looking beyond the stereotypes of the scientist as data manipulator and the unchecked poetic license of the artist, into the beneficial collaboration of the two disciplines.
Comment by John McCreery on January 20, 2010 at 9:12am
Dennis, I applaud your desire to, "open a dialogue, looking beyond the stereotypes of the scientist as data manipulator and the unchecked poetic license of the artist, into the beneficial collaboration of the two disciplines." I am particularly impressed by your candor about having seen the world as, "divided between word-based and image-based contributors with the word-based camp dictating the look and feel of the visuals." Working in advertising it was often the other way around, with the wordsmith under pressure to find the right words to fit the art director's visual concept.

That said, a lot of the dialogue to which you aspire took place as copywriters, art directors, TV commercial planners, market researchers, and account executives pitched in from their several perspectives. The discipline imposed by deadlines and client requirements might result in work that no one really liked very much. In the best cases, however, it drove moments when team members found themselves saying, "In that case, let's...," enriching both word and image and producing work that left everyone feeling, "Wow!" That's something I too often miss when I work with academic friends and colleagues. Lacking that discipline, they are free to ride their hobby horses forever, never coming together to say, "Yes, that works for me....and me....and me....and me...," let alone, "Wow! This is insanely great."
Comment by Sheyma Buali on March 19, 2010 at 3:56pm
wondering how many people engage in experimental photography in their photoethnographies...
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."


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