Visual anthropology is a subfield of
social anthropology that is concerned, in part, with the study and production
of ethnographic photography, film and, since the mid-1990s, new media. More
recently it has been used by historians of science and visual culture. Although
sometimes wrongly conflated with ethnographic film, Visual Anthropology
encompasses much more, including the anthropological study of all visual
representations such as dance and other kinds of performance, museums and
archiving, all visual arts, and the production and reception of mass media.
Histories and analyses of representations from many cultures are
part of Visual Anthropology: research topics include sandpaintings, tattoos,
sculptures and reliefs, cave paintings, scrimshaw, jewelry, hieroglyphics,
paintings and photographs. Also within the province of the subfield are studies
of human vision, properties of media, the relationship of visual form and
function, and applied, collaborative uses of visual representations.
History Even before the emergence of
anthropology as an academic discipline in the 1880s, ethnologists used
photography as a tool of research. Anthropologists and non-anthropologists
conducted much of this work in the spirit of salvage ethnography or
attempts to record for posterity the ways-of-life of societies assumed doomed
to extinction The history of anthropological
filmmaking is intertwined with that of non-fiction and documentary filmmaking,
although ethnofiction may be considered as a genuine subgenre of ethnographic
film. Some of the first motion pictures of the ethnographic other were made with
Lumière equipment. Robert Flaherty, probably best known for his films
chronicling the lives of Arctic peoples, became a filmmaker in 1913 when his
supervisor suggested that he take a camera and equipment with him on an
expedition north. Flaherty focused on “traditional” Inuit ways of life,
omitting with few exceptions signs of modernity among his film subjects. This
pattern would persist in many ethnographic films to follow.
By the 1940s and early 1950s, anthropologists such as Hortense
Powdermaker, Gregory Bateson, Margaret Mead and Mead and Rhoda Metraux, eds.,
were bringing anthropological perspectives to bear on mass media and
visual representation. Karl G. Heider notes in his revised edition of
Ethnographic Film that after Bateson and Mead, the history of visual anthropology
is defined by “the seminal works of four men who were active for most of the
second half of the twentieth century: Jean Rouch, John Marshall, Robert
Gardner, and Tim Asch. By focusing on these four, we can see the shape of
ethnographic film”. Many, including Peter Loizos, would add the name of
filmmaker/author David MacDougall to this select group.
In 1966, filmmaker Sol Worth and anthropologist John Adair taught a group
of Navajo Indians in Arizona how to capture 16mm film. The hypothesis was
that artistic choices made by the Navajo would reflect the ‘perceptual structure’
of the Navajo world. The goals of this experiment were primarily ethnographic
and theoretical. Decades later, however, the work has inspired a variety of
participatory and applied anthropological initiatives – ranging
from photovoice to virtual museum collections – in which cameras are given
to local collaborators as a strategy for empowerment.
In the United States, Visual Anthropology first found purchase in an
academic setting in 1958 with the creation of the Film Study Center at
Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. In the United Kingdom,
The Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology at the University of
Manchester was established in 1987 to offer training in anthropology and
film-making to MA, MPhil and PhD students and whose graduates have
produced over 300 films to date. John Collier, Jr. wrote the first standard
textbook in the field in 1967, and many visual anthropologists of the 1970s
relied on semiologists like Roland Barthes for essential critical
perspectives. Contributions to the history of Visual Anthropology include
those of Emilie de Brigard, Fadwa el Guindi, and Beate Engelbrecht, ed.. A
more recent history that understands visual anthropology in a broader sense,
edited by Marcus Banks and Jay Ruby, is Made To Be Seen: Historical Perspectives
on Visual Anthropology. Turning the anthropological lens on India provides a
counterhistory of visual anthropology. At present, the Society for Visual
Anthropology represents the subfield in the United States as a section of the
American Anthropological Association, the AAA.
In the United States, ethnographic films are shown each year at the Margaret Mead
Film Festival as well as at the AAA’s annual Film and Media Festival. In
Europe, ethnographic films are shown at the Royal Anthropological Institute Film
Festival in the UK, The Jean Rouch Film Festival in France and Ethnocineca in
Austria. Dozens of other international festivals are listed regularly in the
Newsletter of the Nordic Anthropological Film Association [NAFA].
Timeline and breadth of prehistoric visual representation
While art historians are clearly interested in some of the same objects
and processes, visual anthropology places these artifacts within a holistic
cultural context. Archaeologists, in particular, use phases of visual
development to try to understand the spread of humans and their cultures
across contiguous landscapes as well as over larger areas. By 10,000 BP, a
system of well-developed pictographs was in use by boating peoples and was likely
instrumental in the development of navigation and writing, as well as a
medium of story telling and artistic representation. Early visual
representations often show the female form, with clothing appearing on the
female body around 28,000 BP, which archaeologists know now corresponds with
the invention of weaving in Old Europe. This is an example of the holistic
nature of visual anthropology: a figurine depicting a woman wearing
diaphanous clothing is not merely an object of art, but a window into the
customs of dress at the time, household organization, transfer of materials and
processes, when did weaving begin, what kind of weaving is depicted and what
other evidence is there for weaving, and what kinds of cultural changes were
occurring in other parts of human life at the time.
Visual anthropology, by focusing on its own efforts to make and understand film,
is able to establish many principles and build theories about human visual
representation in general. List of visual anthropology academic
programs Aarhus University: Master in Visual
Anthropology Australian National University: The
Research School of Humanities and the Arts Centre for Visual Anthropology
California State University, Chico: Home to the Advanced Laboratory for Visual
Anthropology which offers students use of RED Digital Cinema cameras in its
Masters of Anthropology program. Students receive a four-fields degree
but complete an ethnographic film as partial fulfillment of their thesis
requirement. A Certificate in Applied Anthropology is also available for
students who would like to pursue Visual Anthropology, and make ethnographic
films as Undergraduates. Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias
Sociales Ecuador: offers a master program in visual anthropology .
Freie Universität Berlin: – M.A. in Visual and Media Anthropology.
Harvard University: Harvard offers a PhD in Social Anthropology with Media in
conjunction with its Sensory Ethnography Lab
Heidelberg University: The chair of Visual and Media Anthropology offers BA
and MA courses in the field of visual and media anthropology.
New York University: The Program in Culture and Media
Pontifical Catholic University of Peru: The Social Sciences Department at PUCP
offers a two-year MA program in Visual Anthropology.
San Francisco State University: Visual Anthropology program and Peter Biella
Temple University: Undergraduate track in Visual Communication. Graduate
specialization in Visual Communication. Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana:
Laboratorio de Antropología Visual Universitat de Barcelona: postgraduate
and Master’s programs in Visual Anthropology
University of British Columbia: The Ethnographic Film Unit at UBC
University College London: offers postgraduate courses that can be taken
as part of a master’s degree for credit or they can be audited with a
certificate of completion provided. University of Kent: The Department of
Anthropology offers a Masters in Visual Anthropology that explores traditional
and experimental means of using visual images to produce/represent
anthropological knowledge. University of Leiden: offers the
Bachelor course Visual Methods and Visual Ethnography as a Method as part
the Master’s programme. It teaches students how to use photography, digital
video and sound recording both as research and reporting tools as part of
ethnographic research. University of London, Goldsmith’s
College: The anthropology department offers an MA and PhD in Visual
Anthropology. University of Manchester: The Granada
Centre for Visual Anthropology offers MA, MPhil and PhD courses that combine
practical film training, editing and production, photography, sound
recording, art and social activism. Established in 1987, the Granada
Centre’s postgraduate programme has produced over 300 documentary films. Its
students have made films for numerous international broadcasters, including
the BBC and Channel 4. Manchester includes an Oscar nominee, two BAFTA
winners, and a BAFTA nominee among its alumni.
University of New South Wales: offers a PhD in Visual Anthropology
University of Oxford: The Institute of Social & Cultural Anthropology
collaborates with the Pitt Rivers Museum to offer the highly ranked one-year MSc
and two-year MPhil in Visual, Material, and Museum Anthropology and also awards
DPhil degrees with numerous competitive funding opportunities.
University of South Carolina offers a Graduate Certificate in Visual
Anthropology for graduate students enrolled in M.A. or Ph.D. programs in
Media Arts and Anthropology but which also serves graduate students in such
areas as Education, the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, as
well as Sociology and Geography. University of Southern California – USC
Center for Visual Anthropology: The MAVA was a 2–3 year terminal Masters program
from 1984 to 2001, which produced over sixty ethnographic documentaries. In
2001, it was merged into a Certificate in Visual Anthropology given alongside
the Ph.D. in Anthropology. A new digitally based program was created in
the Fall of 2009 as a [new one year MA program in Visual Anthropology
e.usc.edumasters-in-visual-anthropology/ ]. . Since 2009, the program has
produced twenty five new ethnographic documentaries. Many have screened at
film festivals and several are in distribution.
University of Tromsø: The University of Tromsø offers a program in Visual
Culture Studies Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität
Münster: Visual Anthropology, Media & Documentary Practices Programme which
accompanies employment. Master of Arts degree within 6 semesters.Provides
skills in the area of visual anthropology, documentary films,
photography, documentary art, culture media and media anthropology.
List of films See also
Ethnofiction Ethnographic film
Gregory Bateson Visual sociology
Alloa, Emmanuel Penser l’image II. Anthropologies du visuel. Dijon: Presses
du réel 2015. ISBN 978-2-84066-557-1. Banks, Marcus; Morphy, Howard:
Rethinking Visual Anthropology. New Haven: Yale University Press 1999. ISBN
978-0-300-07854-1 Barbash, Ilisa and Lucien Taylor.
Cross-cultural Filmmaking: A Handbook for Making Documentary and Ethnographic
Films and Videos. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
Collier, Malcolm et al.: Visual Anthropology. Photography As a Research
Method. University of Mexico 1986. ISBN 978-0-8263-0899-3
Daniels, Inge. 2010. The Japanese House: Material Culture in the Modern Home.
Oxford: Berg Publishers. Coote, Jeremy and Anthony Shelton. 1994.
Anthropology, Art and Aesthetics. Clarendon Press.
Edwards, Elisabeth: Anthropology and Photography 1860–1920. New Haven, London
1994, Nachdruck. ISBN 978-0-300-05944-1 Engelbrecht, Beate. Memories of the
Origins of Ethnographic Film. Frankfurt am Main et al.: Peter Lang Verlag, 2007.
Grimshaw, Anna. The Ethnographer’s Eye: Ways of Seeing in Modern Anthropology.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Harris, Claire. 2012. The Museum on the Roof of the World: Art, Politics and the
Representation of Tibet. University of Chicago Press.
Harris, Claire and Michael O’Hanlon. 2013. ‘The Future of the Ethnographic
Museum,’ Anthropology Today, 29(1). pp. 8–12.
Heider, Karl G. Ethnographic Film. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006.
Ruby, Jay. Picturing Culture: Essays on Film and Anthropology. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 2000, ISBN 978-0-226-73099-8.
Morton, Chris and Elizabeth Edwards 2009. Photography, Anthropology and
History: Expanding the Frame. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing
Mead, Margaret: Anthropology and the camera. In: Morgan, Willard D.:
Encyclopedia of photography. New York 1963.
Peers, Laura. 2003. Museums and Source Communities: A Routledge Reader,
Routledge Pink, Sarah: Doing Visual Ethnography:
Images, Media and Representation in Research. London: Sage Publications Ltd.
2006. ISBN 978-1-4129-2348-4 MacDougall, David. Transcultural Cinema.
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.
Pinney, Christopher: Photography and Anthropology. London: Reaktion Books
2011. ISBN 978-1-86189-804-3 Prins, Harald E.L.. “Visual
Anthropology.” pp. 506–525. In A Companion to the Anthropology of
American Indians. Ed. T. Biolsi. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.
Prins, Harald E.L., and Ruby, Jay eds. “The Origins of Visual Anthropology.”
Visual Anthropology Review. Vol. 17, 2001–2002.
Worth, Sol, Adair John. “Through Navajo Eyes”. Indiana University Press; 1972.
Further reading Visual Anthropology – Encyclopedia of
Cultural Anthropology, article by Jay Ruby
Watching Anthropology Films and Videos, article – University of South Dakota
Visual anthropology in the digital mirror: Computer-assisted visual
anthropology, article by Michael D. Fischer and David Zeitlyn, University of
Kent at Canterbury Legends Asch and Myerhoff Inspire A New
Generation of Visual Anthropologists – article by Susan Andrews 
External links Organizations
European Association of Social Anthropologists Visual Anthropology
Network SVA Society for Visual Anthropology
Publications Visual Anthropology Review
OVERLAP: Laboratory of Visual Anthropology
Visual Anthropology Archive Visual Anthropology Films & Educational
Resource Library Royal Anthropological Institute,
Ethnographic Film National Anthropological Archives and
Human Studies Film Archives – collect and preserve historical and contemporary
anthropological materials that document the world’s cultures and the history of
anthropology. Audio-Visual Resources
Films of anthropological and other “ancestors”
A kiosk of films and sounds in Ethnomusicology – Robert Garfias
Documentary Educational Resources Documentary “El mal visto”.
Interpretation about the evil eye from the visual anthropology.
Visual anthtropology Articles on Fieldwork
The Ovahimba Years Collection Visual Anthropology of Japan
Artpologist an Art project using Art and Anthropology
Ethnographic Terminalia – A curatorial collective and exhibition series.