The Need for Visual Anthropology
Since the advent of modern photographic technology (still and moving), the use of visual methods for anthropological documentation and inquiry has been an integral part of the discipline, although it was not formally known as visual anthropology until after World War II. Visual anthropology has been used to document, preserve, compare, and illustrate culture manifested through behaviors and artifacts, such as dance, proxemics, and architecture. As well, archaeologists and primatologists have respectively employed visual methods in their research to capture images of elevations and excavations, and individuals and their behaviors. While critics of visual anthropology cite that it is unscientific in method, only serves to illustrate written ethnography, and does not propose theoretical positions, visual anthropology today is a means for seeing and presenting anthropological thinking in its own right. Over time, visual methods have evolved to foster new research questions and analysis, redefining how visual researchers approach the study of culture.
Visual anthropology, whether photographed, taped, filmed, or written, is a method of observation, but more important, it is a means for developing questions and analyzing data. Visual anthropologists provide their observations for other anthropologists and social scientists to consider in their own work, presenting an alternative way of seeing culture through the lens, which instigates only further inquiry, not certainty. By embracing collaboration between observer and observed and recognizing the relationship between the visual and textual, visual anthropologists have created theoretical objectives that redefine the boundaries of the subdiscipline, exploring new ways to study and understand culture, society, identity, and history. These are the characteristics that separate visual anthropology from documentary film, photography, and journalism; and these are the issues that will promote the use of visual methods in the anthropology of the future.
This entry will discuss several facets of visual anthropology, noting its origins, its significant influences, its current status, and given new innovations in technology, where it will be in the next decade. While important to the evolution of the subdiscipline, this entry will not discuss, analyze, or compare in detail ethnographic films, filmmakers, or their histories and instead will suggest a number of books dedicated to this subject at the end of the piece. Two examples from my own research serve to illustrate different types of photo-elicitation methods, recognizing that these techniques would be impossible to conduct without significant developments in technology and analysis. Inexpensive cameras, faster films, ubiquitous photo-minilabs, more powerful laptop computers, and the digital revolution have facilitated the use of photography and video in the field. Not only can researchers accomplish more, but they can place technology in the hands of the subjects themselves. Furthermore, with Internet access, researchers can immediately distribute data and edited material from the field to share with colleagues, students, and the mainstream public.
In the late 19th century, anthropologists employed photography and filmmaking as tools to augment their research, as a means for illustration, description, and preservation of people they observed. Although rudimentary, bulky, clumsy, and sometime dangerous, photographic equipment found its way to the field with the express purpose of quickly gathering accurate information about the local population. Baldwin Spencer, Alfred Cort Haddon, Félix-Louis Regnault, and the Lumière brothers were among the first ethnographers to employ photographic cameras in their research. From 1922 through 1939, government anthropologist Francis E. Williams made thousands of glass plates and negatives of the people in 18 different cultural groups in the Australian colony of Papua (New Guinea). Although Franz Boas had used a still camera since the 1890s, it was not until late in his career, 1930, that he employed filmmaking to capture various activities of the Kwakiutl for documenting body movements (dance, work, games) for his cross-cultural analysis of rhythm. Similarly, Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson relied on photographs and film as visual tools in their research, because they felt that their images could explain behavior more clearly than they could describe it. Bateson shot hundreds of photographs and hours of film, which they analyzed and published, arguing that their anthropological understanding of the cultural context in which the images were made recognized the linkages between the action and the deep cultural meaning of the images.
Ethnographic film, video, and photography remain the primary methods of visual anthropology as a means to record visual phenomena and obtain visual data. Using qualitative methods, one may seek data to investigate a particular question or seek a question from a set of data. In visual anthropology, one may film a topic of interest or make images and discern patterns and questions from them. Today, visual anthropology spans the spectrum of inquiry and analysis, from materialistic perspectives and positivist analysis to symbolic interpretations and informant participation. The former is represented in ethnographic works capturing culture in situ. Like synchronic slices of life preserved on celluloid, the footage is later used for teaching, documentary, and scientific research. From this point of view, the lens is objective, capturing behavior for preservation, description, and accuracy. At the other end, the most humanistic level, visual anthropology questions the material, the subjects, and the investigators themselves, as an experiential nexus of culture and reflexivity. Moving away from a literal or textual description of visual expression requires a shift to thinking about culture through images themselves. In this case, the visual becomes a medium through which to enhance knowledge and develop questions that are not possible otherwise. To accomplish this task, the methodology extends beyond the researcher herself and invites the informants to participate in the work itself. Visual anthropology explores visual phenomena and visual systems in the process of cultural and social reproduction. With that in mind, the anthropologist must be open to all visual material, behaviors, and interactions and recognize that by capturing them on film, they inherently modify the content and context of the message and must question their own role in the process in which they are a part.
Within anthropology, ethnographic films are the most popular form of cultural description. Usually shown in classes as teaching aids, anthropologists have relied upon visual material to bring indigenous cultures and behaviors to the classroom so that students can glimpse “the other.” In the 1950s and 1960s, the Peabody Museum at Harvard funded film projects to collect material on cultures from around the world, with the intent of having researchers view these films in lieu of traveling to the field. In this case, as well as others, the use of film to depict culture is laden with the biases emphasizing their interests rather than focusing on the subjects’ priorities. For this and similar reasons, ethnographic film has been criticized for its colonial heritage, citing how filmmakers maintain power over what and who they represent. For example, governments with colonies in Africa and Asia sponsored filmmakers to depict the lives of natives in their colonies. These films were shown to their citizens in support of government programs to civilize the “savages” and bring them Western values and beliefs.
Filmer, Filmed, and Audience: The Triadic Relationship
The positivistic mode of making anthropological films and photographs requires researchers to position themselves as objectively as possible. Critics argue that such objectivity is nullified by subconscious cultural prejudices. When conducting research, one must recognize the inherent triadic relationship between the filmmaker (photographer), the filmed (subject) and the audience (viewer). Although as anthropologists, we want to be culturally relative when we enter another culture, our biases affect how we see the people we live with and the work we conduct. Reflexivity is the recognition of when and how researchers apply their cultural filters to their observations and fieldwork. In turn, as anthropologists, we are influenced by our notions of who will review our work, that is, the audience (graduate committees, colleagues, popular media, informants, family, and so on). Who we have in mind as audience affects our approach to the final product. We must also consider the relationships between the anthropologist and the subject (observer/observed), as our biases will color the way we portray the subject in print or on screen. The final leg of the triad is the relationship between the subject and the audience. As informants, who do they expect to read the work or see the resulting images? As an audience member, the understanding we already have about the subject affects our perspective of the film. Because there is no direct interaction between audience and subject, the anthropologist becomes the mediator and wields significant responsibility.
However, with innovations in digital and film equipment, it has become easier to give or loan equipment to subjects and have them film their lives. Either means has validity, although it depends upon one’s relationship with the subject and one’s objectives for the research. Photo-elicitation has become a common method today because it pivots on the idea of participation. By removing the anthropologist from behind the camera and asking the informants to film their lives and events (or working with images people already have), it reassigns the roles of filmer and the filmed and actuates a dialogue between the two. Participant ethnography is an attempt to divert power to the subjects so they can represent themselves to an audience the way they feel is best. Photo-elicitation capitalizes on position and perspective to enhance ethnographic data while respecting the subject’s position.
For example, during my early fieldwork in Bolivia, my informants occasionally asked me to photograph objects, people, or events for them, even though I believed these images did not fit into my scope of research. I neglected their perspectives because I was too influenced by what I thought made a “good” photograph as well as my own research initiatives. Eventually, I realized that by taking photos of their interests, I was tapping into information that explained more about them and respected their wish for photos. Later, I gave cameras to these same informants to take photos of their own subjects so we could discuss them. When reviewing their photos, they explained their lives in terms I would not have otherwise understood. Other times, they commented that they took a photo because they thought Americans would like to see certain aspects of their lives, illustrating their own preconceived ideas about my culture and their audience.
Social scientists conduct elicitation by showing their informants photographs or other visual media in order to obtain the informants’ views of reality based upon their interpretation of the images. Such information may be new to the research or confirm what the researcher may already know. Photo-elicitation seeks to discover how cultural informants experience, label, and structure the world in which they live. However, this technique is affected by the photos the researcher presents, depending very much upon his or her own perspective when taking and editing the photos.
By recognizing the triadic relationship between the observer, the observed, and the audience, the visual anthropologist discovers how content and context affect the communication process. However, simply handing someone a camera, which he may never have used before, in order to express himself does not adequately remove the Western bias from the project. In some cultures, individuals’ view of media may be quite different than the anthropologist’s. Participation will also require the ethnographer to listen and understand the means through which their informants best express themselves (e.g., art, dance, theater, or oratory.)
There are minimally four types of photo-elicitation techniques that are employed by visual researchers:
- Photo-elicitation directed at ascertaining the ethno-meanings and ethno-categories of subjects directed at their material cultural environments, and objects or things: photo surveys of homes, stores, parties, families, and others (see the following example of the Rutucha, first hair cutting).
- Photo-elicitation directed at the examination of the meaning of behavior and/or social processes central to the lives of our subjects.
- Photo-elicitation based on environmental portraiture, which explores the social conditions under which par-ticular groups of individuals live and most often tries to explore the meaning of their membership in a community (see “24 Horas de Puno” following).
- Photo-elicitation that more explicitly explores a subject’s own sense of social self and biography, through either contemporary photographs and/or historical images that can be used to trace development of self and biography as perceived by the subject.
In the following ethnographic examples, I illustrate how different photo-elicitation techniques were employed to glean information about relationships, perspectives, customs, and beliefs.
The Andes: Examples of Visual Anthropology in Action
For the past 15 years, I have conducted visual ethnographic research in two urban centers in the Andean Altiplano (Peru and Bolivia). Photography is my primary means of gathering empirical data, which I also use for eliciting information from local residents about their lives as migrants. Specifically, I have focused on how migrants’ health care decisions reflect their sense of community. In the early 1990s, I lived with Alvaro Quispe and his family in an impoverished, peripheral neighborhood (barrio) in the city of El Alto, Bolivia. El Alto sits above the capital of La Paz and sprawls across the Altiplano, as it is home for more than 500,000 people, many of whom are migrants who work in the capital below. Over the past two decades, Aymara migrants have moved to El Alto (and La Paz) to improve their economic well-being by seeking employment and education. Due to financial constraints brought about by agrarian reforms, collapse of the tin industry, and various government programs (military, health, and education) people have flocked to El Alto to make a better life for themselves, in hopes of improving their opportunities and better supporting their families.
In El Alto, my camera equipment and photographs became points of conversation and contention for myself and my neighbors. Some barrio residents vehemently requested that I not take their photos because I may misuse or sell them. However, several of the same individuals later asked me to make images of their families, as a recuerdo or keepsake. Taking photographs of family members (especially the elderly) became a means for learning more about family histories and their migration stories. Sometimes I made multiple copies so images could be sent back to the campo (countryside) to share, while they kept one for their wall at home. Others sought my photography as a means to document an event, specifically weddings, high school graduations, baptisms and rutuchas (first-hair-cutting ceremonies). Around the barrio, I became known as “the gringo who takes photos,” which was a good moniker, because people knew I could give them something in return for the many questions I asked, and they understood the role of a photographer, much better than that of an anthropologist.
By taking photographs of events, I provided my neighbors a service that they could not otherwise afford. They invited me into their homes to make images of people or special events, and in return I gave them a stack of photographs, which I could do because of the minilabs in the city. I intentionally did not frequent churches or other venues with my cameras where local photographers made a living, but instead depended on word of mouth to be invited to photograph various events around the barrio.
My images created a wide variety of reactions from the families, most of which were positive. When returning photos to a family, everyone would gather around and pass the photos between themselves, laughing out loud and making comments about their appearance. I noted which images created the most discussion and further inquired as to what the photos meant to them. For the most part, residents enjoyed seeing themselves on paper, because “being photographed made them feel important.” Frequently, I initiated informal interviews about the people and the subjects of the photos, to glean an understanding of how they interpreted the images, viewed the event, and were related to the people attending. As I discovered, migrants’ sense of community was not defined by the geographical space they lived in, but rather the social contacts they maintained, often reflected in the images of those they invited to their parties and events. Two distinct occasions illustrate the method as well as the utility and serendipity of approaching research with a camera in hand.
Rutucha: The First Haircut
Within the first 2 months of my research in El Alto, Alvaro invited me to participate and photograph his 3-year-old daughter Cristina’s baptism and rutucha. Although these two separate events do not always occur on the same day, the Andean rutucha incorporates the Christian baptism, reflecting the influence of colonial traditions as they both serve to present the child to the society at large.
The baptism was held on a Saturday morning in the Rosario Catholic church in a considerably “middle-class” Aymara neighborhood down in La Paz. Immediately following the service, the rutucha took place at Alvaro’s family’s home up in El Alto. At this church, many baptisms are held on the same day, so after several other ceremonies were performed, Cristina’s name was read aloud by the officiant. Alvaro, his wife, and their daughters, the godparents, Srs. Vallejo, and I walked to the baptismal font located at the crossing of the nave and transept. Acknowledging my presence, the Father nodded when I asked to take more than one photo. I documented the ceremony and the celebrants, fulfilling Alvaro’s wish to capture the moment on celluloid. Afterward, both the god-parents (fictive) and immediate (consanguinial) kin posed for photos on the church steps. However, once we reconvened at the family’s house in El Alto, the number of guests multiplied fourfold, and my duties as photographer and anthropologist significantly increased as well.
In El Alto, guests announced their arrival at the rutucha by lighting small packets of firecrackers and tossing them to the ground. The loud, rapid bursts summoned Alvaro and his wife Silvia to answer the door and invite their guests inside. Upon entering, guests brought with them a case of beer and exchanged the customary greeting with the hosts, involving a friendly hug, a handshake, and another hug. Alvaro’s nephew noted each guest’s name and the number of cases given to his aunt and uncle, so they would later know how many cases to reciprocate at the next special occasion. The guests placed confetti on Alvaro and Silvia’s heads, designating their position as sponsor of the festivity. Along with the baptized daughter, I too became the focus of guests’ attention, having confetti thrown all over me and many comments made about my appearance, cameras, and ability to speak Aymara. Besides their inquiries and observations, I was frequently invited to partake in the free-flowing beer and hard alcohol, noting to always “ch’allar” or pour a bit on the ground before taking a sip. The ch’alla is a ritual offering of respect for and a sharing of the beverage with the Pachamama, or Mother Earth. Around the courtyard, the men stood while their wives and other women sat on wooden benches, both groups drinking, smoking, and talking. Lunch consisted of sajta depollo (chicken picante) and a half-dozen different varieties of potatoes, which the guests readily devoured. After the nearly 50 guests were sated, the rutucha began.
Alvaro set a large wooden table in the middle of the courtyard and draped a colorful handwoven cloth (manta) on top. Still in her white baptismal dress, Christina’s mother placed her on the table between a few bottles of beer and woven wool bags (chhuspa). Scared by everyone crowded around her, the child covered her face with a small stuffed animal she held in her hand and nibbled on a slice of orange with the other. Sr. Vallejo, her godfather, addressed the family, remarking on what fine parents she had and how honored he was to be associated with them for the rest of their lives. Compadrazco relationships, or god-parenthood (fictive kin), are important for migrants’ urban survival, as the godparent relationship solidifies access to resources the migrants may not have otherwise. Alvaro followed his compadres speech by toasting his guests, who were seated and standing around him in the small dirt courtyard. After other guests toasted the child and her family, Alvaro handed me a large pair of scissors. “As the godfather of the rutucha,” Alvaro pronounced, “it is your duty to invite these guests to cut Christina’s hair. Their generosity will reflect their level of commitment to our family. As a foreign friend, you bring prestige to all of us here today.” When originally asked to participate in the rutucha, I had assumed it would be only to take photos, not solicit the neighbors for cash on behalf of the daughter. I had not expected to become the sponsor or “padrino de la rutucha,” but I was seen as a resource, and it was their way of formally establishing a relationship with me that would benefit them and their need to survive. Compadrazco ties solidify trust between the parties, which ultimately leads to relationships as strong as blood (consanguinial) ties.
In my capacity as “padrino” I cut a lock of hair from Christina’s head and placed it and a Boliviano note in the ch’uspa behind her. Then, I offered the scissors to Alvaro’s brother, Javier. The group scolded me for first asking a family member, and then suggested that I invite one of Alvaro’s neighbors whom I had recently met. Ruben took the scissors and cut a larger patch of hair off of the child’s scalp. Now Cristina began to cry and was comforted by her parents while everyone else chuckled. As the afternoon turned to evening, each guest had cut Christina’s hair two or more times, resulting in a very disheveled coiffure, and stuffed bags of money, which they said would go toward her education.
In the Andes, women take pride in their long, thick, black hair, usually braided in two long strands that hang down below their waist. Women’s hair connotes their femininity, and their hair care and styling are important to their formal appearance. After her rutucha, Cristina had only short patches of hair, and although only 3 years-old, she understood what it meant to be without her hair. From that point onward for the following few months, Cristina was embarrassed to go outside with her boyish haircut and wore a floppy hat to cover her bald head.
Two days following the rutucha, I gave my photos to Alvaro and Salome. Immediately, they sat down and looked through them all, passing the images between themselves and the other family members present. Laughing and pointing, we relived the party together. At that time, I did not understand the value these images would develop for Alvaro as well as my research. For my friends, the images were more than simple keepsakes, but rather represented a tangible record of their hospitality and networks within the barrio. As for my research, the images both documented a cultural ritual and became keys for conversations with local residents, as I gave copies of the images to the neighborhood residents. The images stimulated discussions to verify names, explain relationships, compare occupations, identify political affiliations, and recall geographic locations. Women who looked at Christina’s rutucha photos always commented on how her short hair made her appear like a boy. At subsequent rutuchas I attended while living in El Alto, I asked a friend to videotape the rituals, which we copied for the families and viewed together. Like the photos, the video elicited a great deal of information about the participants, their relationships with each other, and the ritual itself.
One afternoon 16 months later, Alvaro and I reviewed Christina’s rutucha images, casually sifting through more than 100 photographs I had taken that day. I recognized everyone who had been there, because by that time I had had other experiences with several of them beyond this event. In retrospect, I understood why Alvaro had invited them to his home that day and how they fit into his life in El Alto. The images revealed his definition of “community,” because he held those persons in confidence or shared similar political beliefs with them. After months of dissecting what community means to Aymara migrants by observing their health care decisions, the images made within the first few months of my stay illustrated how community manifested itself politically, socially, and locally, but it took me that long to recognize their underlying message. In reviewing the hundreds of images I made for people in El Alto, it became clear that the common denominator for community is trust, and while trust cannot be photographed, photographs do capture people’s associations in their formal and informal environments.
A different experience illustrates how photo-elicitation can be an effective method when conducted by a group focused on one purpose.
24 Horas de Puno: A Participatory Photo Project
In 2003, I was teaching anthropology courses at the National University of the Altiplano in Puno, Peru, when I recognized a useful application of photo-elicitation. Resources being few, I had to figure out how the students in my visual anthropology course could afford to conduct their semester-long project and collect enough material to complete it by the end of the term. Since the class was populated with students from the city of Puno as well as other provincial villages, I modified the concept of Photovoice, a participatory photo-elicitation method, to create a project for the entire class. Photovoice promotes social change through photography by asking people to record and reflect on their community by using images to stimulate discussion within and beyond the group itself. My interest for the class, and for research, was to engage the students to think about the city of Puno from their own perspectives and experience. As a resident or migrant, what was important to them about the city? How could they make photos that expressed such a view? However, this would not be an ongoing process, because I placed a temporal as well as geographical limit on their exploration. They would only have 24 hours in which to take their photographs of Puno, and they could not venture beyond the city limits. These restrictions made them think about the mundane aspects of life in Puno, instead of recreating the popular image it holds as a tourist town.
The students spent a majority of the semester preparing themselves by studying photography, reading various anthropology texts, practicing their note-taking and interviewing skill, and viewing ethnographic films. As a class, they also began discussing which places around the city would be best to photograph at various times of day, outlining strategies for covering as much of the city as possible. With a large map of Puno, they divided the urban region into 15 sectors. Students created groups of two and chose at least 4 sectors to explore on foot. The day we would conduct the project held little culturally significant meaning to anyone, so it represented “any day” in the life of Puno. Several other people besides the students were invited to participate, including several Aymara-and Quechua-speaking migrants, colleagues, and friends so they too could add their view of what Puno means to them.
Beginning at 6 a.m. one November day, the groups spread out across the city and photographed Puno for 24 hours. After spending two hours in their chosen sectors, the teams returned to our central headquarters and wrote notes about their observations and experiences. Upon completing their notes, teams returned to the streets but to different sectors to continue the process. Some participants chose to photograph in the afternoon and through the night, instead. As their instructor and the sponsor of the project, I provided the film, processing, and all meals.
Within the 24-hour period, 22 photographers shot more than 2,800 images. The rolls were collected, processed, and returned within a few hours of being shot so participants could edit their favorite images from each roll and augment their notes about the photos. In all, they wrote more than 100 pages of observations about their experiences in the sectors, which they could refer back to once the final edit occurred. From each roll, participants selected their best three images, noting the frame number on the envelope. Two days later, we placed the selected photos on tables by sector. Everyone voted on the photos by placing small stickers near the 25 images they thought best represented Puno. When all of the votes were cast, 46 photographs stood out as most representative of the groups’ understanding of life in Puno. Their group decision abated individual bias about the images and instead became a reflection of how all of the participants envisioned life in Puno, a distribution that did not represent the “best” photos by my standards, but instead those images that participants identified with as being relevant in the discourse about life in their city.
The photographers whose images were selected were asked to write 8 to 10 sentences about each photo they took, referring back to their notes and including data about the time, place, and subject. More important, they described why they felt the image represented life in Puno and how they specifically related to the subject. After the selected photos were enlarged, matted, and framed, they were dis-played with the appropriate text at the university, and later at the mayor’s office in the city center.
The spontaneity of the photography was balanced by the participants’ decisive organization and imple-mentation on where, when, and how to visit each sector. Most revealing were the interpretations participants wrote about their images based upon their earlier notes and observations. As one may presume, there were fundamental differences in approaches toward the photographs themselves, as locals tended to document places or events and noted specific names and people. Migrants’ photos and commentaries, on the other hand, presented a much more abstract perspective of the city. For example, one female resident took a photo of a man in a hospital bed with his son standing to the side. She described his illness, length of time in the hospital, his prognosis, and that it made her sad to see so many sick people in the hospital. On the other hand, a migrant made an image of a shoeshine boy working in an esplanade and explained how this vocation represents the bottom rung on the work ladder for boys who venture to the city to find a better life. He did not mention a name or place, but instead dictated/ wrote (in Aymara and translated to Spanish) about the process of finding work in the city as a boy and the progressions migrants go through in order to maintain sources of income. He concluded by stating, “I took the photo to show what it takes to live in the city.” The general pattern of the images demonstrated that migrant photographers drifted toward abstract subjects and explanations, while the urban residents focused on specific aspects of city life. Their perspectives reflected similar dichotomies in the urban/rural divide and surprised the participants when these were pointed out to them.
Overall, the participants embraced the project, taking ownership of the work and responsibility for how they presented their ideas to a larger audience. As a public exhibit, the participants interacted with the general populace by describing their visions of Puno and creating a discourse so others could also reflect on the city they live in. More important, the audience reacted to the contrast between locals’ and migrants’ perspectives, noted in their visual expressions and comments as they browsed the exhibit. Soon after, I scanned the images and shared them with my students in the United States via the Internet, expanding the audience another degree.
The Value of Visual Anthropology
Although they share similar interests in people, visual anthropologists are neither journalists nor documentarians. The ethnographer is someone who establishes and maintains a unique relationship with informants and develops an understanding of the culture within which they live. Furthermore, while the resulting images may document and describe the people and cultures where they live, the anthropologist sees patterns and asks questions of the images themselves—not simply asking informants for commentaries, but seeking deeper meaning within the body of work to develop a theoretical understanding of human behavior. In this case, photos are data, and they are a record of life and people that can be reviewed and analyzed by the researcher, who under-stands the context in which they were taken and recognizes the content they illustrate. Moreover, they can be interpreted by many different people, to solicit various reactions. Perhaps the slippery nature of interpretation alienates visual anthropology from the more popular written discipline. While photojournalists may spend time with their subjects and broach meaningful and deliberate themes, telling a story and developing behavior theory are ultimately not the same endeavors.
Visual anthropology brings to the discipline a unique, sometimes difficult way of understanding culture. While written and filmic data are edited before distribution, only the researcher understands the context and content in which the notes and images were made. Unlike field notes, which few anthropologists publish, placing images in the public record invites others to criticize the analysis and conclusions, interpretations that the researcher may not necessarily agree with or desire. Because images are interpreted in multiple ways, anthropologists hesitate to make analysis of their meanings and instead prefer to use photos or film exclusively for description. At this point, visual anthropology must redefine itself by transcending the political nature of what it represents and establish new strategies for engaging with the world.
The value of the visual exercise lies in its ability to document and preserve, but most important, in its inherent character of combining knowledge with experience to ask questions of the information conveyed to reach a more profound understanding of the people involved with the research. As a scientific endeavor, visual anthropology continues to probe and explore the relationships between people, illustrating their behaviors and objects, which convey a sense of who they are and their worldviews, but such practice must also acknowledge its position in the process.
New Directions in Visual Anthropology
With the advent of new technologies and innovations that make the world “smaller,” visual anthropology will lead the discipline to an image-based discourse. As more machines (for example, digital cameras, video and audio recorders, handheld computers and satellite phones) become available to capture movement, behaviors, environments, and objects, researchers will employ these technologies to facilitate their work. The World Wide Web, e-mail, instant messaging, Power Point presentations, and other interactive media will transform the one-way street of researcher to colleague/student/classroom—to a discussion between them as the research unfolds and analysis ensues. Internet technology will bring about classroom participation in research and teaching, making the “other” tangible by enabling subjects to be “online” and accessible even when anthropologists are not in the field. However, such a perspective unfortunately applies only to the most developed countries and ignores the people in the world who have never even used a phone, much less a computer. As more powerful, lighter, and inexpensive hardware becomes available, researchers will experiment with its offerings and produce work that expands the boundaries of what we consider visual anthropology.
As technology evolves, the use of the image will also change, not only in format but also in meaning. Images and content will become more arbitrary, blurring the lines between “truth” and observation, vision and experience. Knowledge gleaned from images will therefore be less reliable, but more available, and the potential for learning and experiencing culture increases, while its validity decreases. Visual anthropology will either become more of the language of anthropology or continue being the subdiscipline that only other visual researchers take seriously. To overcome the inherent bias toward text-based anthropology, visual researchers must change the language of knowledge to one which emphasizes nonverbal levels of understanding and develop alternative objectives and methodologies that will benefit anthropology as a whole. In other words, visual anthropology must provide more than accompanying illustrations and sequence-style films, and develop theories not only obtainable through visual media, but applicable across the discipline. Technology accounts only for the tools to define visual anthropology’s future; students and researchers alike must recognize that anthropological communication is founded in observation and that visual methods allow them to describe and discuss culture in ways that complement and expand our understanding of the human condition.
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