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  • Writer's pictureEmily Baker

Visual Anthropology Part 1: What is Visual Anthropology?

Hi everyone! My name is Emily Baker, and today, we are going to talk about the origins of visual anthropology. This is Slightly Problematic, but we are getting better.

You’ve heard from the creators of Slightly Problematic. Now get ready to hear from one of their former classmates and a practicing visual anthropologist. Traditionally, there are four branches of anthropology: cultural or social anthropology, linguistic anthropology, biological or physical anthropology, and archaeology. But as we have learned from previous lessons here, anthropology can and should adapt to who is studying and benefiting from it. If you were to place my experience with visual anthropology in the traditional categories, I’m a cultural anthropologist by training. However, my research and work concentrates on studying and creating cultural media. This practice isn’t exclusive to anthropologists, but visual anthropology as a discipline has epistemological roots in both scientific and cinematic methods used in anthropology for decades.

Fadwa El Guindi wrote the book Visual Anthropology: Essential Method and Theory in 2004. Guindi was a professor of visual anthropology with the Master’s program at the University of Southern California as well as the president of the Society for Visual Anthropology at the time of her writing. She is now an anthropology professor at Qatar University. Her book, Visual Anthropology, gave currently practicing visual anthropologists a field guide like many of the other anthropology subdivisions possess.

According to Guindi,

The term ‘visual anthropology’ was coined after World War II… and gradually became associated with conceptualizations and research activities integrated with the use of visual tools to make records about culture and to study social systems using the ethnographic method of description and comparison.

Guindi 2004: 23

Documentary film is similar to visual anthropology but not necessarily rooted in anthropology. As a result, cinema developed a closer relationship with documentary-style research as ethnographic and scientific research became more closely linked (Guindi 2004: 83). The various anthropological thinkers of the 20th century - Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, Eleanor Leacock - aligned themselves accordingly, many of the more traditional ethnographers strengthening the ethnographic-scientific link through writing while dulling their connections with filmmaking.

This led to a delineation of types of visual data. Guindi identified the first type of data as ethnographic film. Ethnographic films aren’t necessarily made by anthropologists but with applied anthropological theory through film. They are often made by filmmakers with personal ties to the communities they document. For example, Last Train Home (2011) was directed by Lixin Fan, a Chinese-Canadian filmmaker born in China while it was rapidly modernizing (“Last Train Home” 2011; Taylor 2010). The film followed the lives of a family from Guangzhou in the Guangdong Province, China who were trying to travel home during the Chinese New Year, the busiest migration period in China. It contrasted the rural ancestral homes of the older generation with the industrious lives of children and young adults whose parents relocated to work in the denim factory capitol of the world. While Fan was not an anthropologist, he used what Roxana Waterson calls a built environment. According to Waterson, maintaining a built environment is a cultural impulse: “...The remembering of important origin houses, and the branch houses associated by descendants who spread out to establish themselves in new locations, creates a genealogy of the houses themselves, their life spans surpassing those of any of their individual inhabitants” (Waterson 2011: 75). Placing feelings of togetherness in the ancestral home, the parents who left rural China to relocate to Guangzhou wanted their children to experience this togetherness as they struggled to secure passage out of the city. Meanwhile, their daughter, Xin, disclosed during the film that she wanted to forgo education and work in a factory like her parents. This beautifully shot documentary brought their lived environment into their understanding of home, togetherness, and success.

Compare this to the second type of visual data, research film. Research films originated with Margaret Mead’s use of films made to teach ethnographers about culture through an “objectively” filmed lens as well as the positivist gaze of 20th century archaeology (Guindi 2004: 154). By positivist, I mean the school of thought where every scientific finding can be measured and verified using logic. The scenes were sometimes posed by the researcher or filmed from one spot for a single shot so as to gather “unbiased” content. My quotations indicate that I and other visual anthropologists don’t believe film can be entirely separate from the perspective of the filmmaker. Our internal biases influence our ways of understanding the world around us. A more reflexive version of a single-shot research film is People’s Park (2012) by former Harvard Ph.D. candidates J. P. Sniadecki and Libbie D. Cohn. Taking place in the Chinese city of Chengdu, Sichuan Province, this 78-minute single shot walks the viewer through many pockets of park activities like aerobics classes, amphitheater performances, and groups young and old milling about this gigantic park. While definitely framed by academics, it was informed by the creators’ knowledge of the culture and guided by a variety of stimuli you could only find at a public park. Waterson explained the processual approach to discovering built environments: “...Architectures, far from being merely inert physical structures that passively reflect cultural or symbolic concerns, actively help to constitute social life, cosmology, and the transitions of personal biographical experience” (Waterson 2011: 90).

The final kind of visual data is visual ethnography. As Guindi iterated about visual ethnography as a research tool,

Visual anthropology is not confined to the visible or the material. Cultural and social relations can be visually manifested, and invisible domains, including underlying rules and hidden premises, are part of [any] visual anthropology project.

Guindi 2004: 17

As a form of research, the visual anthropologist uses ethnographic tools to film, deconstruct, and analyze their data as filmed cultural depictions (Guindi 2004: 217). This is what I did with my own research about public storytelling while at the University of Denver. I reviewed about 10 hours of footage I took with the storytellers at Rocky Mountain PBS before making a visual ethnography. In this way, I combined the cinematic and scientific practices associated with the research pedagogy of visual anthropology. I will talk more about the practical applications in research in my next conversation about visual anthropology.

In review, visual anthropology is used to apply ethnographic research practices to visual data which includes ethnographic film, research film, and visual ethnography. Ethnographic films aren’t always made by anthropologists but apply similar methods as a form of documentary film. Research films are captured as a form of visual data for later analysis by social scientists. Visual ethnography is the visual anthropologists’ medium of study while they conduct ethnographic research captured on film and later edited into a documentary-style ethnographic film.

Visual Anthropology: Essential Method and Theory was written almost 20 years ago when people had little access to digital video capture and publishing. We now have so much visual media to study. What methods are visual anthropologists using in the postmodern, reflexive world of cultural media today? We will talk about this and more in the next video about visual anthropology’s applied practices. This is Emily Baker slowly fading herself from your screen. Please like and subscribe to see more Slightly Problematic content!


Emily Baker: I'm a well-rounded museum and media professional. My specialty is in visual anthropology, the study of people through film. I make media - video, photo, graphic design, audio, and writing - which captures culture. Imagine the media you experience in a museum. Check out my portfolio and experience the communities I've worked with.


References Part 1 & Part 2

Arendt, Hannah. 1998. "The Public Realm: The Common." In The Human Condition.

London: University of Chicago Press, 50-58.

Blum-Ross, Alicia. 2013. "“It Made Our Eyes Get Bigger”: Youth Filmmaking and

Place-Making in East London." Visual Anthropology Review 29, no. 2: 89-106.

Guindi, Fadwa El. 2004. Visual Anthropology: Essential Method and Theory. Walnut

Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

“Last Train Home.” 2011. POV Site. PBS. Web.

Last Train Home. 2011. Directed by Lixin Fan. PBS. Film.

“North to Me: Multigenerational High School Memories in a Changing City.” Directed

and Produced by Alix and Amber. October 13, 2018.

People’s Park. 2012. Directed by J. P. Sniadecki and Libbie D. Cohn. Cambridge: Critical

Media Practice. Film.

Storytelling and Self in Public Broadcast: A Visual Ethnography of Rocky Mountain

PBS. 2019. Directed by Emily Baker. Denver: Digital DUMA Films. Film.

Taylor, Ella. 2010. "Following Workers’ Trails of Tears in China." New York Times.

Waterson, Roxana. 2011. "Visual Anthropology and the Built Environment:

Interpenetrations of the Visible and the Invisible." In Made to Be Seen

Perspectives on the History of Visual Anthropology, by Marcus Banks and Jay

Ruby. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 74-107.

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