top of page
  • Writer's pictureEmily Baker

Visual Anthropology Part 2: Why Use Visual Anthropology?

Hi guys! My name is Emily Baker, and today, we are going to talk about the applications of visual anthropology in today’s research environment. This is Slightly Problematic, but we are getting better.

Have you ever been conducting your field work and thought, “Boy, I wish I could have recorded that.” Well, look no further, social scientist. As discussed in my first video here on Slightly Problematic, I am a visual anthropologist. I use ethnographic media to study cultures around the Denver area where I currently live. While American anthropologists have traditionally conducted their research overseas, folklorists documenting American traditions domestically, more anthropologists are shedding the often exploitative relationships developed as a foreign researcher and looking inward. You have heard from Lucor about applied anthropology. Think about local visual anthropologists as applied anthropologists with a camera. Why put a camera between you and your subject? It has to do with a reflexive understanding of our modern, digital public realm.

In her work “The Public Realm: The Common,” Hannah Arendt emphasized, “To live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common as a table is located between those who sit around it; the world, like every in-between, relates and separates men at the same time” (Arendt 1998: 52). Using this framework, I see film as the table at which to sit with your research community. Filmmakers are often members of the communities they document, amplifying a story they find vital to their culture. Since a film will be shown to some public, whether exclusive or just released on the internet, there are certain implications about where this information will go. How can we keep a healthy amount of rapport between communities and us when their conversations are destined to be shared, especially when we are also members of the community? There are two methods used by visual anthropologists today that I will discuss: place-making and self-ethnography.

In “‘It Made Our Eyes Get Bigger’: Youth Filmmaking and Place-Making in East London”, author and visual anthropologist Alicia Blum-Ross saw the utility of filmmaking as a form of creating and maintaining a place’s story: “Young people used the process of film-making as a means to engage with minute and little-noticed aspects of known and unknown places, as a form of place-making” (Blum-Ross 2013: 92). As a form of social geography, Blum-Ross collected visual media about East London from locals. Whether concentrated on landscapes, favorite places, or gentrification, her participants helped visualize their home through thoughtful media capture.

My own research was a form of place-making. Storytelling and Self in Public Broadcast: A Visual Ethnography of Rocky Mountain PBS (2019) followed the lives of RMPBS producers creating historic programming about Colorado. I toured their studios and production spaces, filmed the city directly surrounding the station, and went with them to the Denver Botanic Gardens while they interviewed executives about the history of their organization. The film was released 14 months before RMPBS moved from its former station headquarters on 11th and Bannock in downtown Denver to the newly built Buell Public Media Center. Longtime volunteers, producers, and executives at the station spent decades in the old Bannock location. My ethnographic film captured its halls while still populated. As place-makers for Colorado themselves, the public of RMPBS and I shared a table in this film. While the station location has changed, its storytellers embody place in their work and the stories they told in Storytelling and Self (2019).

Many of my participants denied personal influence or involvement in the stories that they told. This is true to an extent as nonfiction filmmakers often pride themselves on objective storytelling. Through my analysis, the theory which outlasted most notions I had at the beginning was that storytelling methods are entirely up to the creator and what their documented community chooses to share. This is where I think self-ethnography is an asset to the modern visual anthropologist. While discussing the responses from participants, Blum-Ross revelled in the effects of self-ethnography in their sense of place and self: “The process of embodied place-making through film was not an abstract concept but one that several of the young people consciously articulated. For example, Zak explained how he had ‘liked focusing your ears to find the sounds,’ and Siraaj talked about ‘not just recording anything, but recording a nice shot.’ ...At the end of the project, I asked [Zahira] to reflect on what she had thought of the filming process, and she said, ‘You know with this film, it made our eyes get a bit bigger, like we can see things a bit more.’” (Blum-Ross 2013: 98).

This feeling held up in research I participated in right here in Denver. This is My Denver, a self-ethnography research project led by University of Denver anthropology professor Esteban Gómez and writing program instructor Zoe Tobier, brought ethnography to high schoolers who volunteered to learn creative media production. North Denver High School students Amber and Alix crafted a storyboard. Together, we interviewed students and staff about their North High memories. Some were alumni or high school seniors, others brand new to the school. Intergenerational stories about North High’s history were told below images of the neighborhood, old archival photos, and current footage of the high school. Their combined interview and B-roll footage resulted in the short film “North To Me: Intergenerational High School Memories in a Changing City” (2018).

In an increasingly global and digital world, it feels fruitless to capture what is in front of your participants using visual ethnography. However, as members of a global public, establishing a sense of place is essential to hyper-local storytelling. In addition, providing what we visual anthropologists call “photovoice” to local members of the community can vitalize their experience of home (Blum-Ross 2013: 92). As reflexive ethnographers, we want to facilitate place-making and self-ethnography as a form of cultural expression through collaborative research. For example, a local history program on RMPBS involved the memories of American Indians whose land was forcibly taken by white settlers. They collected and verified memories with local tribal leaders before releasing an episode about the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre when Colorado territory governor John Evans ordered Colorado’s Third Cavalry to indiscriminately kill hundreds of Cheyenne Native American elders, women, and children. I live south of Denver on the lands of Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Ute peoples. As an organization meant to represent all of Colorado, the story would be incomplete without this land’s Indigenous history.

Hopefully this helps you curious social scientists wondering how they can apply visual anthropology to local research. It’s worth capturing because it will never again be exactly like how you see it now. This is Emily Baker finishing her story about visual anthropology. Please like and subscribe to see more content from Slightly Problematic!


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.

22 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page