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VISUAL ANTHROPOLOGY

by apursansar
Visual anthropology logically proceeds from the belief that culture is manifested through visible symbols embedded in gestures, ceremonies, rituals, and artifacts situated in constructed and natural environments. Culture is conceived of as manifesting itself in scripts with plots involving actors and actresses with lines, costumes, props, and settings. The cultural self is the sum of the scenarios in which one participates. If one can see culture, then researchers should be able to employ audiovisual technologies to record it as data amenable to analysis and presentation. Although the origins of visual anthropology are to be found… Read more

Visual anthropology logically proceeds from the belief that culture is manifested through visible symbols embedded in gestures, ceremonies, rituals, and artifacts situated in constructed and natural environments. Culture is conceived of as manifesting itself in scripts with plots involving actors and actresses with lines, costumes, props, and settings. The cultural self is the sum of the scenarios in which one participates. If one can see culture, then researchers should be able to employ audiovisual technologies to record it as data amenable to analysis and presentation. Although the origins of visual anthropology are to be found historically in positivist assumptions that an objective reality is observable, most contemporary culture theorists emphasize the socially constructed nature of cultural reality and the tentative nature of our understanding of any culture.

There is an obvious relationship between the supposition that culture is objectively observable and the popular belief in the neutrality, transparency, and objectivity of audiovisual technologies. From a positivist perspective, reality can be captured on film without the limitations of human consciousness Pictures provide an unimpeachable witness and: source of highly reliable data. Given those assumptions, it is logical that as soon as the technologies were available, anthropologists attempted to produce wit] the camera the sort of objective research data the could tee stored in archives and made available for stud by future generations.

Contemporary thought is more tentative than positivist theory about the nature of cultural know edge and about what film can record. In a postpositive and postmodern world, the camera is constrained by the culture of the person behind the apparatus; that is, films and photographs are always concerned with two things-the culture of those filmed and the culture of those who film. As a result of viewing pictures representations of an ideology, it has been suggested that anthropologists use the technology in a reflexive manner, alienating viewers from any false assumptions about the reliability of the images they see, and that visual ethnographers seek ways to share their authority with the people they study.

Conceptually, visual anthropology ranges over all aspects of culture that are visible-from nonverbal communication, the built environment, ritual and ceremonial performance, dance, and art to material culture. (Excluded from this discussion are the varied research uses of audiovisual technologies in physical anthropology and archaeology.) Although some visual anthropologists do work in all of these areas, the field lacks a tradition of a commonly accepted all encompassing theory-an anthropology of visual or pictorial communication. Given the fragmentary nature of contemporary theorizing, it seems unlikely that such a grand theory will ever become commonly accepted. The field may be conceptually wide-ranging, but in practice visual anthropology is dominated primarily by an interest in pictorial media as a means of communicating anthropological knowledge, that is, ethnographic films and photographs and, secondarily, the study of pictorial manifestations of culture.

Visual anthropology has never been completely incorporated into the mainstream of anthropology. It is trivialized by some anthropologists as being mainly concerned with audiovisual aids for teaching. The anthropological establishment has yet to acknowledge the centrality of the mass media in the formation of cultural identity in the second half of the twentieth century. Consequently, visual anthropologists sometimes find themselves involved with the research and thinking of professional image makers and scholars from other disciplines-visual sociology, cultural studies, film theory, photo history, dance and performance studies, and architectural theory-rather than with the work of other cultural anthropologists.

Ethnographic film is the dominant interest and practice among visual anthropologists. There is no standard agreed-upon definition of the genre, and the popular assumption is that it is a documentary about “exotic” people, thereby broadening the term “ethnographic” to stand for any statement about culture. Some scholars argue that all film is ethnographic.

The literature about ethnographic film has been hampered by a lack of a conceptual structure sufficient to the task of allowing anthropologists to theorize about how film can be used to communicate knowledge. It is a failure that burdens all discourse about nonfiction film. As a result, authors have concentrated on making proscriptions and programmatic admonitions, and telling war stories about how a film was made. Other topics of discussion have been the assumed dilemmas between science and art; questions of accuracy, fairness, and objectivity; the appropriateness of the conventions of documentary realism; the value of film in the teaching of anthropology; the relationship between a written and a visual anthropology; and collaborations between filmmakers and anthropologists and the native production of visual texts.

Theoretical explorations are consequently limited to arguing about whether or not a particular film is objective, accurate, complete, or even ethnographic. With the erosion of the positivist underpinnings of anthropology and documentary film comes the possibility of a new examination of the politics and ideology of filmed ethnography. Like the documentary, the ethnographic film seems on the verge of some serious theoretical debates. Perhaps as a result of the criticisms from film theorists such as Bill Nichols and the challenge of indigenously produced media, visual anthropologists have become increasingly aware of the need for a more secure conceptual basis.

The earliest ethnographic films-one-reel, single-take episodes of human behavior were indistinguishable from theatrical actualities. Anthropologists, like everyone else, were fascinated with the technology and its promise to provide an unimpeachable witness. Felix-Louis Regnault, perhaps the first anthropologist to produce researchable footage, proposed in 1900 that all museums collect “moving artifacts” of human behavior for study and exhibit. Scholars, explorers, and even colonial administrators produced footage for research and public display. The crude technology, the lack of familiarity with the equipment, and the vagueness of the makers’ intentions greatly limited its use.


Sergei Paradjanov

Filmmaking conventions eventually developed that tended to interfere with the assumed scholarly needs for researchable data. The perceived conflict between the aesthetic conventions of filmmaking and the scholarly requirements of positivism for researchable data caused film to be underutilized as an analytic technique. For example, filmmakers tend to fragment and reconstitute action into synthetic sequences that suggest time relationships sometimes at variance with the photographed action. Some anthropologists believe that only footage shot at eye level with a minimum of camera movement and with real-time coverage of the event are scientifically usable.

Strategies appropriate to fiction were believed to create barriers between anthropologists and film professionals. These naive assumptions about the differences between the art of film and the science of anthropology are slowly being replaced by a conception of film as a culturally bound communication usable in a variety of discourses. The lack of a method for extracting researchable data about cultural behavior from film footage continues to inhibit the use of the camera as a research tool.

In the 1930s Mead and Bateson extended Regnault’s ideas. The results of their fieldwork were such published films as Bathing Babies in Three Cultures (1941), which were designed to make their data available for other scholars. The tradition of group research of filmed behavior they championed continues with Alan Lomax’s Choreometrics study of dance as cultural behavior. Whereas Ray Birdwhistell (1970) and Edward Hall (1959) have proposed the cinematic study of body movement and the use of space as culturally conditioned communications, and dance ethnologists often employ video and cine cameras, the microanalysis of filmed behavior has been more attractive to social psychologists like Paul Ekman than to anthropologists.

In the 1950s the Institut fur den Wissenschaftlichen Film in Gottingen launched its Encyclopedia Cinematographica project, which included an archive and center for the study of filmed behavior. A similar organization, Human Studies Film Archives, is housed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Although the idea of generating researchable information about culture with a camera remains theoretically possible, few anthropologists have actually conducted a study employing motion-picture footage produced by other people. Some indigenous people have begun examining film footage of their culture’s ceremonial life stored in archives in the hope of revitalizing their old traditions.

A number of impressive ethnographic films emerged in the 1950s and 1960s from diverse institutions in the United States that were directed toward university audiences as well as the larger world of documentary-film viewers. The Hunters (1958) was the first North American ethnographic film to gain worldwide attention. The story of some hunters and gatherers living in the Kalahari desert, it continued the Nanook theme of humans struggling with a hostile environment in order to eke out a living. It is part of John Marshall’s thirty-year-long film study of the San (Bushmen) of southern Africa. He has produced dozens of African and North American films including N’ai (1980), a life history of a San woman, which was broadcast on U.S. public television. Since the late 1980s, Marshall has combined his role as a filmmaker with that of an activist by assisting the San in their efforts to create a cultural and economic identity for themselves while he films the process.

In 1964, Robert Gardner, a former associate of Marshall’s at the Film Study Center at Harvard University, released Dead Birds, a study of ritualized warfare among the Dani of New Guinea. The film grew out of a project in which ethnographers, a novelist, and a filmmaker all described the same culture, permitting audiences to compare the presentations. Gardner later produced films in East Africa, India, and South America and was instrumental in establishing the Program in Ethnographic Film, subsequently renamed the Society for the Anthropology of Visual Communication and now known as the Society for Visual Anthropology. Gardner’s films are a source of constant debate, because his evocative style seems altogether too implicit for some anthropologists.

Timothy Asch, former director of the University of Southern California’s Center for Visual Anthropology, worked collaboratively with anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon to create a series of popular films on the Yanomamo of Venezuela, including The Feast (1968), Ax Fight (1971), and A Man Called Bee (1972). The films, along with written ethnographies and study guides, were designed to teach cultural anthropology to college undergraduates. Asch, working with his wife, Patsy, pursued his interests in collaborative filming in Indonesia with James Fox, creating The Water of Words (1983), and in Bali with Linda Conner, making Releasing the Spirits (l990).


Jean Rouch

The pioneering work of anthropologist-filmmaker Jean Rouch at the Musée de l’Homme brought new impetus to the field in Europe, gaining the attention of both academics and cineastes. In the early 1960s technical advances made it possible for small crews to produce synchronous-sound location films. The equipment encouraged some filmmakers to record actions and events as detached observers, naively assuming that they were not significantly influencing the actions being followed. Rouch adopted an opposite approach. He felt that the presence of the camera could provoke a cine-trance in which subjects revealed their culture.

Chronique d’un été (1961) was produced with sociologist Edgar Morin and was the first cinema vérité film combining the ideas of Flaherty with those of Soviet film theorist and practitioner Dziga Vertov. Rouch took cameras into Paris streets for impromptu encounters in which the filmmaking process was often a part of the film. Filmmakers and equipment were in evidence in the frame. Those filmed became collaborators, even to the extent of participating in discussions of the footage, which were in turn incorporated into the final version of the film. Chronique marks the advent of portable synchronized-sound 16mm equipment, which made possible modern participatory and observational documentary styles. The impact of Rouch’s work was immediately evident in the films of French New Wave directors, such as Chris Marker and Jean-Luc Godard and later among documentarians and ethnofilmmakers.

Rouch developed his collaborative approach for almost forty years in a number of films made with West Africans. Some early efforts, such as Les Maitres Fous (1955) were criticized as ethnocentric by some because of an assumed overemphasis on the bizarre, but others celebrated Les Maitres as a definitive surrealist text. Rouch wanted to produce a shared anthropology in which those in front of the camera shared the power with the director. This idea reached an apex with his so-called ethnographic science-fiction films, such as Jaguar (1965), Petit a petit (1968), and Madame l’eau (1992). His attempts at collaborative filmmaking are mirrored in the Native Alaskan Heritage Film Project of Sarah Elder and Leonard Kamerling. Since the early 1970s, this team has produced more than twenty community films, such as Drums of Winter (1988) in which the people filmed played an active role in the film from conception to realization. Given the shift in power and awareness in a postcolonial and postmodern world, some argue that the only ethnographic films that should be produced in the twenty-first century are those that result from an active collaboration and sharing of power between ethnofilmmakers and the subjects of their films.

Rouch’s desire to allow us to see the world through the eyes of the natives was shared by Sol Worth and John Adair in the Navaho Film Project (1966), in which Native Americans were taught the technology of filmmaking without the usual Western ideology (Worth and Adair 1972). The project of Worth and Adair was part of a more general movement in the 1960s and 1970s toward the expansion of production to people who were traditionally the subject of films.

The idea of a reflexive ethnography that actively seeks the participation of those who are studied and that openly acknowledges the role of the ethnographer in the construction of the culture’s image reflects a growing concern voiced by both anthropologists and documentary filmmakers about the ethics and politics of actuality filmmaking. Through the efforts of such people as Vincente Carelli in Brazil (l980s), Eric Michaels in Australia (1987), and Terence Turner in Brazil (1992), indigenous people have started producing their own videotapes, thus raising anew the possibility of making available new visions of the world. (from: Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology)

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