Viewpoints: Visual Anthropologists at Work

Viewpoints: Visual Anthropologists at Work

Viewpoints: Visual Anthropologists at Work

Viewpoints: Visual Anthropologists at Work


Early in its history, anthropology was a visual as well as verbal discipline. But as time passed, visually oriented professionals became a minority among their colleagues, and most anthropologists used written words rather than audiovisual modes as their professional means of communication. Today, however, contemporary electronic and interactive media once more place visual anthropologists and anthropologically oriented artists within the mainstream. Digital media, small-sized and easy-to-use equipment, and the Internet, with its interactive and public forum websites, democratize roles once relegated to highly trained professionals alone. However, having access to a good set of tools does not guarantee accurate and reliable work. Visual anthropology involves much more than media alone.

This book presents visual anthropology as a work-in-progress, open to the myriad innovations that the new audiovisual communications technologies bring to the field. It is intended to aid in contextualizing, explaining, and humanizing the storehouse of visual knowledge that university students and general readers now encounter, and to help inform them about how these new media tools can be used for intellectually and socially beneficial purposes.

Concentrating on documentary photography and ethnographic film, as well as lesser-known areas of study and presentation including dance, painting, architecture, archaeology, and primate research, the book's fifteen contributors feature populations living on all of the world's continents as well as within the United States. The final chapter gives readers practical advice about how to use the most current digital and interactive technologies to present research findings.


Visual anthropologists are anthropologists, as surely as cinema
tographers are photographers. The fundamental task of the
former is no different from that of all sociocultural anthropolo
gists, including most primatologists: namely, to document,
describe, and understand how social relations are structured
in the context of particular cultural traditions. Do these people
use machines to help in the documenting? Commonly. And
if those machines make a visual record, they are likely being handled by visual anthro
pologists. So far, so good. But different machines achieve different results. The still camera
makes a chemical or electronic image on a flat plane of lit three-dimensional scenes that
were at one time, and only one time, in front of the lens. The cassette or tape recorder adds
another dimension altogether to this, but at the expense of a total loss of the visual record:

it records only the sounds. The digital or film movie camera does something else again: it can record visible motion in real time, provided this too is well enough lit and is occurring in front of the lens; further, each recording of motion will be completed in minutes rather than in hours—or in an extreme case, hours rather than days. Normally this sort of recording is now achieved together with any synchronous sound. Clearly these three types of recording machine have different functions and bring us distinct kinds of results. There is no doubt at all that they can be productively used in a complementary fashion and that they can vastly extend the powers of observation that a research worker can bring to bear on a topic. For let us not think of those results as an end in themselves: they are a form of data that the anthropologist will use in order to understand social relations in a cultural context and to present them to her “public.”

In this regard, we can note a certain “division of labor” that is rudimentary, if not much dwelt upon: the still camera is best at recording visible cultural phenomena; the cassette recorder is best at recording nonmaterial, aural cultural phenomena, such as music and speech; and the cine-camera, no matter of what vintage, is best at recording social interactions, either between members of a particular community or between one or two of its members and the cameraman/ anthropologist. So, just as the craftsman will choose which kind of chisel will best create a volute he is to carve on a cabinet, the anthropologist must choose carefully which equipment will best suit the needs of his research project.

Much of what ethnographers record “in the field” concerns relationships. These may be recorded in a present tense by means of a mobile cine-camera, or . . .

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