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

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

Comment Wall


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Comment by Àngels Trias i Valls on June 1, 2009 at 12:15pm
I recently twitted on many examples of photoethnographies, have a look at the twitter entries for a list of different projects, maybe we could have these projects and surely, many more, outlined here on a side widget? the twitter reference is at (look out for 26 May)
Comment by Sarah Pink on May 30, 2009 at 11:11am
Hi Judith and all, I have edited a book called VISUAL INTERVENTIONS, which is published with Berghahn. It has chapters from anthropologists doing applied work in a series of different contexts (health, conflict and disaster, 'community' development, industry, development. Most of these anthropologists have been working with video, although some with photography.
Comment by Judith Beyer on May 30, 2009 at 10:42am
@ Sarah: thanks. I ordered the book for our library at the MPI in Halle.
Question to you (and all others): Can you think of an (ethnographic) documentary or other visual materials on 'visual interventions' by anthropologists?
I am currently teaching a seminar on concepts of development and transformation in postcolonial and postsocialist societies to undergraduates. Part of the seminar is devoted to applied anthropology. Since half of my students would like to work in the development sector later on, I will be discussing the various roles anthropologists have had in this regard ... But we also want to explore anthropologists' contemporary engagement that goes beyond pure consultancy for international organizations. I am particularly interested in discussing with them how applied visual anthropology (esp photography) is/could be used in development cooperation. So the question is: does anybody know of visual material which could be shown to students in order to give them not only an idea but also images of this kind of applied anthropology?
Comment by Sarah Pink on May 30, 2009 at 12:19am
Well in my own work I have used my own or tried to understand other people's photography in different ways. So when I was doing research about women and bullfighting in Spain I became a serious amateur bullfight photographer, then in more recent work about the slow city movement here in UK I have been trying to understand how people use photography in their own local projects to represent aspects of their own embodied and affective experiences. But apart from that there are a series of interesting works that I discuss in my book on visual ethnography. But I think the essential thing is to find the appropriate use of the camera - and the right medium too - when working with the visual in ethnographic research
Comment by Judith Beyer on May 30, 2009 at 12:10am
@Jan: interesting comment. I would like to hear more about this dilemma and how you solve it during fieldwork. In my case it was the opposite: I used the camera not as a documentary instrument, but as an important means of communication. In the beginning of my fieldwork photography was a way to establish the first connections to my informants and during and after fieldwork it was a way to reciprocate in a way which was locally considered appropriate ...
@Dan: Right.
@ Sarah: Hi! Yes there are and it would be nice to bring them together here and see whether we can come up with new ones ... Do you have some specific ones in mind?
Comment by Sarah Pink on May 29, 2009 at 11:50pm
I think this is a great idea for a group, although personally I would be a bit more optimistic than the introductory statement, as I think there already exist plenty of rather interesting uses of photography in ethnographic practice.
Comment by Dan O'Maley on May 29, 2009 at 11:48pm
I tend to agree with Judith that a separate space for still photography might be in order since Visual Anthropology tends to focus on film. That being said I am also concerned about anthropology being split up into so many subfield that eventually the various subfields can hardly communicate with each other. I think we should use this as a nice little experiment and see how it goes.
Comment by Jan Begine on May 29, 2009 at 11:47pm
As a professionally trained photographer myself, and a student of anthropology, I'm quite interested to see where this group is going.

I don't know why, but I'm always hesitant taking pictures when I'm travelling. And I have the same problem with photo-ethnography.

Maybe it's because of my professional training, with all it's attention to composition, depth, etc. that I have a problem with it. I switch to 'photographer mode' and I forget that I have an obligation to the subject and not to the art.

Digital photography and snapshot camera's help (I was a big fan of polaroids) but they never convinced me. And I can't afford a DSLR...
Comment by Judith Beyer on May 29, 2009 at 11:39pm
Hi Maximilian,
thanks for your comment - nice getting to know you. Rgd. your question: I thought I start with what I know best. But of course we could later merge the group with a more general visual anthropology group. I personally think that photography could use a little support. It has become the stepchild of visual anthropology which is mostly associated with film...

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