Visual Anthropology

By Flaherty, Joseph | Afterimage, May-June 1998 | Go to article overview

Visual Anthropology


Flaherty, Joseph, Afterimage


Visual anthropology, for all of its Robert Flahertys' and Edward Curtis' of the past, is a relatively new and open area of the social sciences exhibiting all of the adolescent insecurities (and possibilities) inherent in the growing process. The recent Anthropological and Documentary Film Conference held at Temple University in Philadelphia said as much about the nature and structure of conferences as it did about the subject of visual anthropology. It was, however, an important arena for bringing some important questions into the open The fact that few answers were given was of little importance; the time and setting called more for whys than hows.

A split developed first and most obviously over the old question of visual versus verbal anthropology: can pictures as well as words serve as objective data? One anthropologist suggested that the only way film could be useful as an objective tool would be to turn the camera on and let it run twenty-four hours a day. While this was admittedly one of the more extreme suggestions, it reflected a still-held distrust, not especially of the camera, but of its operator. A constant criticism of the films shown and especially of Robert Gardner's Dead Birds (which ironically was not shown but generated more discussion than any film presented), was that they told more, or at least as much, about the filmmaker as the culture being studied. It is precisely and paradoxically because this criticism has some validity, that visual research can be such a strong tool for the anthropologist. It may be in the very nature of visual materials, and the way we look at them. that the unconscious decisions of the researcher are made clear. In effect, they crystalize the structure of the anthropologist's decision-making so that he may then deal with that structure as another element affecting his analysis of data. The same subjective procedure occurs with the choice of words, of course, but the familiarity and control of them gained through our overwhelmingly verbal educational background makes this less obvious. Viewing written data somehow hasn't allowed us that separation, the chance to be both observer and participant-operator, that we get from visual materials. The search for objective measures is certainly a noble aim, whatever the ultimate possibilities of that attainment may be, but the recognition of our subjective choices may be a bit more important as well as being the only guidepost leading toward that goal.

Part of this problem is that more work has to be done concerning the question of whether to use visual materials simply as raw data or rather as supplementary or primary illustrations in the anthropologist's final presentation of his study. Some anthropologists who do use visuals in information gathering transpose it back into an entirely verbal format, perhaps because they've gotten what they want out of that material, or perhaps to avoid the criticism of subjectivity. While Ray Birdwhistell may film a person's face in order to count the number of eye-blinks per second in different situations, this is a type of information that is not necessarily useful or interesting when presented visually to an audience. Visual material, however, can often show relationships that can be obscured or difficult to grasp entirely in a written presentation. It would be to the mutual benefit of both the anthropologist and his audience if a clearer understanding of the nature and singular properties and potentials of visual materials were understood. The integration of the visual and the verbal can be very powerful and revealing when done well, as in Danny Lyon's book The Bikeriders and to a great extent in Larry Salzmann's "SRO" exhibit at the conference. …

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