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 Jaroslava Bagdasarova on May 18, 2010 at 8:53am
Thanks a lot! inspiring!
Comment by SusanLayne Nielsen on May 17, 2010 at 7:44pm
Comment by Mark Kirchner on May 17, 2010 at 7:25pm
The "View from the window at Le Gras" image has recently undergone conservation treatment and documentation at the Getty in Los Angeles. I am attaching a link, but you will have to do a little searching to see the photograph in their conservation lab. The 1839 date that Jaroslava relates to Sir John Herschel's is the date of his discovery of the properties of Sodium Hyposulfate (fixer).
Comment by SusanLayne Nielsen on May 16, 2010 at 8:44pm
not the first one

Which one are you referring to? According to the timeline offered at the Harry Ransom Center, where the print resides, though the exact date of the print's creation is uncertain, previous attempts were to copy engravings by contact exposure, not to originate an image from light, through a lens, onto a secondary medium. There was the 1816 silver chloride image which, though visible, was unfixed and faded.

I think a person can quibble about the naming of these results, whether they are 'photographic processes' or 'photographs.' If there was an earlier, lost, print, I'd be interested to know what it was. So would the Ransom Center. Their timeline is copied below:

# 1826 - Earliest possible date in which all the elements come together - the pewter plate, the bitumen of Judea coating, and the improved camera optics - so that he could produce the first permanent photograph from nature. The "View from the Window at Le Gras" is made from an upper window of his home looking out ironically upon the outbuildings and courtyard of his heavily mortgaged estate.
- His earliest known application of the term "heliography" to his work.
- He receives his first letter from Daguerre and establishes a guarded correspondence.

# 1827 - Latest possible date for the creation of the First Photograph.
Comment by Jaroslava Bagdasarova on May 15, 2010 at 9:14pm
not the first one
Comment by SusanLayne Nielsen on May 15, 2010 at 8:58pm
... talking about evidence, Niépce's image from 1826 was irretrievably lost...

I believe it is in the Photography Collection of the University of Texas in Austin.

See this page:
Comment by Jaroslava Bagdasarova on May 15, 2010 at 7:38pm
... talking about evidence, Niépce's image from 1826 was irretrievably lost...
Comment by Jaroslava Bagdasarova on May 15, 2010 at 7:09pm
Photography was invented earlier than in 1839. It is just that Sir John Herschel popularized the word 'photography' at about this time. ...does the object need to be named to come to its full existence? or is visual evidence enough? is it sufficient for photography to justify itself by the means of its own visual sake? ... or is it another paradox regarding images vs. words (or images along the words?)
Comment by Martin Hoyem on May 13, 2010 at 10:57pm
Ryan Anderson wrote: “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.”

While I agree with your point that “what is 'tasteful' and 'tacky' is open to debate”, I'd still say that one thing all those three photographers whom you mention have in common, is that they all strike me as … well ... good. And even though trends shift, and thus our means of measuring quality shift, we still maintain some way of analyzing if a piece of art is “good” or not. (… Whatever definition of “good” we choose to entertain for the argument.)

And similarly – perhaps even more so – we (at least we in this discussion group) must surely have some criteria for deciding (perhaps only to ourselves) if a work of ethnographic photography is “good” or not?

As an example, let me tell you about a comment I received on these same photos from a person in a different forum. This person said that the selective desaturation of the photos, draws the attention away from the background. (This is true, of course – it was the exact effect I was aiming for.) “And in the case of the lowrider car,” this person continued, “getting a sense of the cluttered background is important for understanding why the lowrider car looks like it does” (not a direct quote). The pristine, clean look of the lowrider car is meant to contrast “the messy surroundings of the neighborhoods where the lowrider cars can usually be found” (still not a direct quote). And so, argued this person, it's wrong to draw attention away from the background of the photos. If this hypothesis – about why the lowrider cars look like they do – is correct, I think this particular person's critique of my photos makes sense.
Comment by Martin Hoyem on May 13, 2010 at 8:05am
Commenting on my own posts, now, just to introduce some confusion:

I wrote: "... until I suddenly realized the gallery was indeed published under the sub-header of 'art.'"

On a second look, I realize that what I just wrote is incorrect. The gallery of the lowrider photos was presented on American Ethnography under the "auto" sub-header, not the “art” sub-header. This leaves me, once again, curious: Why would you claim that “the photographs (…) were presented as art”?

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