Visual anthropology

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

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. While the term is sometimes used interchangeably with ethnographic film, visual anthropology also encompasses the anthropological study of visual representation, including areas such as performance, museums, art, and the production and reception of mass media. Visual representations from all cultures, such as sandpaintings, tattoos, sculptures and reliefs, cave paintings, scrimshaw, jewelry, hieroglyphics, paintings and photographs are included in the focus of visual anthropology. Human vision, its physiology, the properties of various media, the relationship of form to function, the evolution of visual representations within a culture are all within the province of visual anthropology. Since anthropology is a holistic science, the ways in which visual representation are connected to the rest of culture and society are central topics.[citation needed]


Even before the emergence of anthropology as an academic discipline in the 1880s, ethnologists were using photography as a tool of research.[1] 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 (see, for instance, the Native American photography of Edward Curtis)[2]

The history of anthropological filmmaking is intertwined with that of non-fiction and documentary filmmaking, although ethnofiction may be considered as a genuine sub-genre of ethnographic film. Some of the first motion pictures of the ethnographic other were made with Lumière equipment (Promenades des Éléphants à Phnom Penh, 1901).[3] Robert Flaherty, probably best known for his films chronicling the lives of Arctic peoples (Nanook of the North, 1922), 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 to that end any signs of modernity among his film subjects (even to the point of refusing to use a rifle to help kill a walrus his informants had harpooned as he filmed them, according to Barnouw; this scene made it into Nanook where it served as evidence of their "pristine" culture). This pattern would persist in many ethnographic films to follow (see as an example Robert Gardner's Dead Birds).

By the 1940s, anthropologists such as Hortense Powdermaker,[4] Gregory Bateson, Margaret Mead (Trance and Dance in Bali, 1952) and Asen Balikci (with Netsilik Inuits' movies) were bringing anthropological perspectives to bear on mass media and visual representation. Karl G. Heider notes in his revised edition of Ethnographic Film (2006) 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" (15). 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.[5]

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.[6] 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 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 seventies relied on semioticians like Roland Barthes for essential critical perspectives. In 2011, Marcus Banks and Jay Ruby published the first history of the field - Made To Be Seen: Historical Perspectives on Visual Anthropology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

At present, the Society for Visual Anthropology (SVA) represents the subfield in the United States as a section of the American Anthropological Association.

In the United States, Ethnographic films are shown each year at the Margaret Mead Film 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.

Timeline and breadth of prehistoric visual representation[edit]

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[7] 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 (where they are found), transfer of materials (where the clay came from) and processes (when did firing clay become common), 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[edit]

List of Films[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jay Ruby. "Visual Anthropology." In Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology, David Levinson and Melvin Ember, editors. New York: Henry Holt and Company, vol. 4:1345–1351, 1996 [1].
  2. ^ Harald E.L. Prins, "Visual Anthropology." Pp. 506–525, In T.Biolsi. ed. A Companion to the Anthropology of American Indians. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing].
  3. ^ Erik Barnouw. Documentary: A history of the Non-Fiction Film. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  4. ^ Hortense Powdermaker. Hollywood, the Dream Factory: An Anthropologist Studies the Movie Makers. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1950.
  5. ^ Darnell R. Through Navajo eyes: An exploration in film communication and anthropology. American Anthropologist, Vol 76, pp 890, Oct. 1974
  6. ^ Jay Ruby. The Professionalization of Visual Anthropology in the United States - The 1960s and 1970s." 2005 The Last Twenty Years of Visual anthropology – A Critical Review. Visual Studies, vol. 20, no. 2, pgs. 159–170.
  7. ^ Jim Bailey, Sailing to Paradise

See also[edit]


  • Banks, Marcus; Morphy, Howard (Hrsg.): 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
  • Edwards, Elisabeth (Hrsg.): Anthropology and Photography 1860–1920. New Haven, London 1994, Nachdruck. ISBN 978-0-300-05944-1
  • Engelbrecht, Beate (ed.). 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.
  • Heider, Karl G. Ethnographic Film (Revised Edition). 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.
  • Mead, Margaret: Anthropology and the camera. In: Morgan, Willard D. (Hg.): Encyclopedia of photography. New York 1963.
  • 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 (2), 2001–2002.
  • Worth, Sol, Adair John. "Through Navajo Eyes". Indiana University Press; 1972.

External links[edit]