In 1895 the cinematograph was presented to a public audience by Auguste and Louis Lumiére. Their presentation included ten short films that each lasted roughly a minute. The interest sparked by the innovation of recorded movement spread like wild fire across Europe, Asia and even America. Three years after this presentation anthropology’s first organized fieldwork expedition was underway, and it included a cinematograph. Alfred C. Haddon’s Torres Strait expedition in 1898 is generally used to mark the birth of modern anthropology. In his search for new methods and techniques to study native peoples living on a group of islands north of Australia, Haddon was quick to adopt this visual tool, calling it “an indispensable piece of anthropological apparatus.” It was the combination of new methodologies, including the visual ones, that made the Torres Strait expedition “the first scientific anthropological project seeking knowledge within the natural history paradigm.” By 1912 discussions about the proper method of taking photographs in the field appeared in editions of Notes and Queries on Anthropology. Anthropologists had been utilizing still images since the advent of the camera, however the moving picture was the first time images could be used as more than illustration. The cinematograph allowed images to be integrated as a research tool as the primary data in comparison studies in a way that still photographs had not been able to in the past. Rather than focus on a highly textualized fieldwork style, as Bronislaw Malinowski had encouraged, these scientists integrated the innovations of the moving picture into their fieldwork. As anthropology was modernizing it adopted this visual tool for use in ethnographic study, and so is marked the early beginnings of Visual Anthropology.

Visual Anthropology’s Past
Within the new modernized anthropology direct observation was profoundly emphasized; it became important to see for your self what was happening in a given culture before beginning to develop theories about why it was happening. The cinematograph was the perfect tool for anthropologists of this new modernist movement. How it should be used, however, demonstrates the different schools of thought these early anthropologists worked within. The pioneers of visual anthropology, Haddon and Boas, operated under a Scientific paradigm while others divided into Ethnographic and Cinematic/Documentary paradigms

Scientific Paradigm
The methods of data collection and observation were the primary concerns of anthropologists such as Alfred C. Haddon and Franz Boas. Men of science who had been highly influenced by the late-Victorian methods, they focused on recreating a laboratory style of research in the field by taking along with them the tools inherent to Victorian science. Haddon, for instance, carried not only the camera and cinematograph to the Torres Straits but also
“light tests, spring balance, chronometer, sphygomanometer, time marker, color tests, eye tester, diagrams, brass box, wools and types, Galton’s whistle, obach cells, ohrmesser, whistle and mounting, scents, syren whistler, handgrasp dynamometer, induction coil and wire, marbles, dynamograph, pseudoptics, diaspon, musical instruments, as well as some other bits of equipments and materials necessary for running and repairing them.” (Grimshaw, 2001)
The instruments were not the only bit of Victorian science to influence these men at the turn of the 20th century; they also adhered to the techniques of the period. Objectivity, for instance, was an underlying problem that dominated the scientific period. Concern over the influence on the studied culture but the anthropologist and his accompanying team worried scientists. The use of technology such as the cinematograph served to minimize the contamination they could potentially cause. More than that, it would minimize the occurrence of conflicting reports that had been caused by hearsay in the past.

Haddon is placed as a pioneer of Visual Anthropology because the Torres Strait expedition was the first formulated research project with ethnographic film embedded in both the project itself and the fieldwork performed. His influence was not only in the imitation of others who saw what he had accomplished and wanted to replicate his success, but also through his encouragement of others to take photographic equipment along with them. His influence on Baldwin Spencer led to 10,000 feet of film shot about the Australian Aborigines. Spencer, like Haddon, used the film as a description of ceremonial and daily life. It was a record keeping technique that would aid in constructing the natural history of a society from the perspective of an eyewitness.

Having used still photography since 1894, Franz Boas didn’t use the motion picture camera until his last trip to study the Kwakiutl in 1930. Though he had never spoken or written about the use of film as an anthropological tool, regardless of probable awareness of the success of Haddon and other researchers who had used it as such, Boas decided at age seventy to take up this field method. In his film he captured the images of dances, games, manufacturing, songs, music and more. His approach to it was not to tell a narrative story, but rather to gather data for analysis later. As such, his unedited film showed bits of behavior out of their normal context, as though they were specimens being collected. While he is generally included as a pioneer in Visual Anthropology his contribution remains solely in this one instance of film, for he made no others before his death. Boas never edited his footage for the purpose of an audience; he created it simply as a means of collecting data. The purpose was not to share it but to analyze it, and it is for that reason that he is included in this paradigm.

Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson made great strides in the 1930s in the movement toward visualizing anthropology with the use of film in their research. They integrated film into their research projects as a way of gathering data for comparative study. Mead, a student of Boas, was in particular very vocal about the purposes of visual technologies in her projects, stating that it was not “for the purpose of making documentary films and photographs for which one decides a priori upon the norms and then gets the Balinese to go through these behaviors in suitable lighting.” (El Guindi, 2004) Clearly this is a description of how movies are generally made, and documentaries of the time must have seemed to reflect that style. With the intent of these visual technologies being to collect data for scientific research it is no wonder she would cringe at the idea of a comparison of her films to that which is commonly believed to present a false commercialized image in order to draw audiences. Mead was a firm believer that film had a place in anthropological fieldwork, and like Haddon she urged others to strengthen their research by including visual technologies. She felt that
“Film materials…have made it possible to explore ways to tap the theoretical insights of other disciplines through the use of visual materials and of providing a continuing resource for the exploration of new hypotheses as the behavior, recorded on film, can be viewed repeatedly in the light of other new materials.” (El Guindi, 2004)
Mead was also vocal in her disappointment that the field of anthropology would resist the inclusion of visual technologies on such a large scale. She felt that anthropology had largely become a discipline of words, with descriptive passages being preferred over images. To explain how this could happen she stated that it was inherent in the rapid change of culture and the fieldwork of the time, which relied on the memory of informants instead of contemporary observation. “Thus ethnographic inquiries came to depend upon words, and words and words, during the period that anthropology was maturing as a science.” (Hockings, 2003)

The French Ethnologist Marcel Griaule demonstrated another use of visual technologies in the Scientific paradigm in 1931. Utilizing both photography and film he introduced the methodological procedure of feedback into the field. Using pictures as stimulus he showed photographs to participants to gain cultural knowledge. Not only are visual technologies useful as data collectors in their inherent ability to freeze a moment in time, as primary sources of data, but in their use as secondary sources to garner data from a participant.

Under the Scientific paradigm it is clear that the use of visual technologies, primarily the cinematograph, play the part of scientific research methods. The intent is to collect data, much as one might collect insect specimens, for closer observation and comparison at a later time. They drew upon their scientific training in data collection and observational methods to work with this as a tool and transform it into a useful technique for gathering data impartially. It would be easy to overlook details when keeping written records of ceremonies, not to mention color a people or event in a certain light with your personal bias, but the inclusion of the motion picture allowed the scientists to present the culture as it existed. While the eyes of the viewer could certainly change a particular interpretation of something, the data being presented was always the same. This method of including visual technologies limited contradictions in interpretation and made possible closer analysis of the data as rewinding and looking at the event again was now possible.

Ethnographic Paradigm
Under the Ethnographic paradigm film becomes more than just a tool used to gather data, it reflects an understanding of the social practice, or culture, being studied. It is not just hard science but a combination of long held anthropological method and theory combined with a touch of the art of cinema. A narrative-style to presenting a culture, rather than segments of film which capture various activities within a culture that have no contextual link, produced for comparison research alone. The label of ‘ethnographic film’ is applied with some hesitation, as there is criticism of this method by those closer to the Scientific paradigm. Believing that Visual Anthropology should focus on research film and studies in communication, these critics believe it should be removed from the sub-discipline “unless ethnographic becomes more scientific, describing culture from clearly defined anthropological perspectives.” Anthropologists under the Ethnographic paradigm believe that film is the unifying tool to convey the theories and general perspectives of anthropologists to the public. In a world in which the public has the ability to gain a global perspective thanks to mass media and the popularity of web based communications, ethnographic film could be the only tool able to reflect and produce “knowledge about the range of cultures and about culture itself.”

A typical complication with ethnographic filmmaking is the anthropologist’s resistance or inability to understand the methods and technologies used in film making, and the same for filmmakers. Each has their own style in which they’ve been trained. Filmmakers are looking for artistic shots and interesting story lines, while anthropologists seek to accurately portray the culture, or activity, the film is centered upon. These factors have led to a dependency between the two to produce successful ethnographic films. Typical collaborations involve a filmmaker and an anthropologist; however there have been successful collaborations between two anthropologists wherein one of the team is responsible for all of the filming, as demonstrated by Mead and Bateson. An example of this first type of collaboration is between Tim Asch and Napoleon Chagnon.

Tim Asch, as the filmmaker, emphasized the importance of the anthropological relevance of his images rather than image quality or aesthetic composition. It is perhaps for this reason that his collaboration with Napoleon Chagnon, the anthropologist, was so successful and held as the ideal form of filmmaker-anthropologist collaborative effort in ethnographic film. Asch completed over fifty films on the Yanomamö, many in collaboration with Chagnon. In their 1975 film The Ax Fight, they present a sequence of events three times with additional information being provided each time via subtitles, kinship diagrams, commentary and visual cues (arrows). By demonstrating the different stages through which anthropological interpretations are made they allow the viewer to interpret the data in the film themselves. Using a technique known as sequence film, Asch and Chagnon demonstrate how film can be used as an ethnographic tool to convey anthropological interpretations to an audience while at the same time encouraging interaction on the part of the audience.

Cinematic/Documentary Paradigm
Within the Cinematic/Documentary paradigm there is an element of reconstruction that does not exist in the other paradigms. It combines drama with education to share the ‘experience’ of another culture with an audience. The difference between ethnographic and research based film and cinematic film is the importance placed on artistic quality. The case that exemplifies this paradigm includes the work of Robert Flaherty in his films Nanook of the North and Moana. Flaherty used cameras to film people in their every day lives. Moana was a “visual account of events in the daily life of a Polynesian youth and his family” garnering respect for its documentary style. He sought to understand the subjects he was studying by observing it firsthand. Something that separates Flaherty from his contemporaries is the static way in which he used his cameras, being an immobile observer while action took place before and around him. This paradigm has largely been abandoned as a form of ethnographic study within Visual Anthropology. Although documentaries do arise, primarily through television programs, it is seen less as anthropological study and more as a form of cinema. Anthropologists have largely left this to Hollywood filmmakers as a methodology.

Visual Anthropology’s Present
In contemporary Visual Anthropology the Cinematic/Documentary paradigm is no longer utilized; Ethnographic and Scientific methodological uses still carry on, however. The modern trend of Visual Anthropology is marked by the professionalization of the sub-discipline, which occurred in the 1960s. The analysis of ethnographic films in scholarly journals such as American Anthropologist and the presence of regular film sessions as a feature of AAA annual meetings have marked the rising importance of visual technologies within the field of anthropology. In 1984 the Society for Visual Anthropology was formed as a component section of the AAA, which marked a growing interest in the sub-discipline as an entity beyond the simple usage of technology. The efforts made by Tim Asch to institutionalize the concept of collaboration between filmmakers and anthropologists mark the professionalization of Visual Anthropology as well. Asch organized a master’s degree program that emphasized his collaboration technique in the hopes that a foundation for a school in ethnographic filmmaking would be laid. Although he was unsuccessful his efforts show a lingering importance on Visual Anthropology in the minds of some ethnographers. The failure to implement such a school may have been in the approach taken. Asch wanted to integrate filmmaking into the training of a discipline that is already heavily burdened by the four-field method: physical, cultural, archaeological and linguistic training. Anthropology departments would not begin to understand how to teach filmmaking on top of all of the method and theories under the four fields of anthropology. However, an ethnographic filmmaking school could be successful if it was implemented by anthropologists who themselves are familiar with Visual Anthropology within the context of anthropology. Essentially being taught just as linguistics currently is.

Contemporary traditions that have evolved (as breakaway schools of thought from the Scientific and Ethnographic paradigms) include self-representation and visual ethnography. We will focus on each of these traditions as paradigms within contemporary Visual Anthropology.

Self-Representation Paradigm The Self-Representation paradigm operates under conditions in which a member of a culture captures the culture from an insider’s perspective. This can be accomplished by being the creator of the film directly or by being a participant in the production of the film. This paradigm amplifies the role of the people in studied cultures; something considered a fundamental aspect of basic anthropological method. Within Self-Representation there are three types of projects that generally occur:
“1) the project in which filming by the local population is a methodological means conceptualized by the anthropologist to reconstruct traditional culture and way of life,

2) the experimental project to test premises within a particular anthropological theory, and

3) the campaign by activist anthropologists who seek political self-representation for certain embattled local groups who use filming for the purpose of self-empowerment.” (El Guindi, 2004)
For the third type of project indigenous peoples are generally given cameras as a means of advocacy and as devices for self-representation when their territories are being threatened. Often films that involve ‘insiders’ as participants to the project enlist them to reconstruct an event or activity for the purpose of the film itself. An example of this is the film Desert People created by Ian Dunlap and Robert Tonkinson.

Dunlap and Tonkinson were in Australia to film an Aboriginal family in their ‘native habitat.’ They wanted to capture the daily life of Australia’s indigenous people as they lived deep in the desert. When they encountered problems finding families living in the desert rather than missions that had been established they opted to reconstruct what they wanted. After encountering an Aboriginal family, and convincing them to return to their desert routine for the purpose of the film, they began a collaboration that would last several years. The result is the film Desert People, which was considered a success for its ethnographic value despite having altered reality to do so. Collaboration and reconstruction have both plaid large parts of this project, reflecting a positive and negative aspect of this type of film within the Self-Representation paradigm. Collaboration has long been considered a beneficial technique to use when seeking knowledge about the cultural rules or traditions that construct a society. Anthropologists can often learn important cues they may not realize are being given with the aid of informants within the studied culture. The reconstruction aspect of this paradigm is perhaps both positive and negative. For much the same reasons that Cinematic/Documentary has been considered a failed methodology within Visual Anthropology, the idea of reconstructing an event through acting takes the studied activity or culture out of its original context and creates a ‘truth’ that is no longer the same. The reasons for the activity have changed, the placement may change (being outside rather than inside for better lighting), and the delicate nuances of the activity itself may change. There are too many details that are important when studying a society that could potentially change through reconstruction for it to be considered an entirely valid tool of ethnography.

Anthropologists have used self-representation as not only an empowering tool for members within a culture (i.e. a member setting out to create a film about their culture to educate others about it in general or aspects of it in specific) but also as research tools themselves. An explanation of this latter use can best be demonstrated through the work of Beryl Bellman and Bennette Jules-Rosette. In a controlled comparative study they each examined “the introduction of media to two African communities: a traditional rural village on the Librerian-Guinea border and a shanty town compound on the outskirts of Lusaka, Zaire.” Having put in extensive time in the field each anthropologist had informants use film to capture various forms of social activity. They hoped to examine:
“1) how the ways in which informants learn to use visual media reflect already existing communicative conventions within each group, 2) to examine the structure of the media forms as statements about the settings in which they were recorded, and 3) to explore how the format and manner by which content is segmented reveals structural properties of each group’s cognitive system.” (El Guindi, 2004)
Though their projects were very similar they each had a different objective. For Bellman it was to study cognitive systems using the relationship between videotaping practices and the production of orders of reality; whereas for Jules-Rosette it was a “comparison of narrative and visual styles as ways of making accounts.” By placing visual technologies in the hands of members of the culture being studied they generated new data with which to study as well as a new method of studying a culture. Because of this method of generating new data, Bellman and Jules-Rosette cross into the Scientific paradigm as well.

Visual Ethnography Paradigm
Within this contemporary paradigm is perhaps a collaboration of all three of the original paradigms (Scientific, Ethnographic and Cinematic/Documentary). It is a process of expressing vision for filmmaking that is developed in two parts. The first part contains both the ethnographic research carried out during long-term fieldwork and the analysis of the data collected during that study. The second half of this paradigm involves a construction of a film concept based on the research and the creation of the film itself. In order for work to be successful under this paradigm the filming must be dictated by the successful analysis and understanding of both the data and the culture that has been studied. It is the general theory that by combining the ‘scientific’ with the ‘artistic’ in this manner a film that holds weight within both disciplines can be developed. A failure of the Cinematic/Documentary paradigm was that anthropologists seeking a more scientific construction often dismissed artistic films. This effectively caused those wanting something more accessible to a wider audience to lose credibility when they attempted cinematic formats. By taking on the combination of ‘science’ and ‘art’ in this manner, anthropologists under the Visual Ethnographic paradigm hoped to solve this problem.

Fadwa El Guindi’s 1986 work El Sebou’: Egyptian Birth Rituals reflects the effective production of film within this paradigm (which is important since El Guindi is the originator of the paradigm itself). Her work began with a two year study of the Egyptian rite of passage, El Sebou’; she engaged in intensive ethnographical study with no intentions of developing a film. It was a year after a USC graduate student, Ursula Koch, who was being trained in Visual Anthropology made the suggestion of creating a film that she began considering its use in her project. An important factor in the success of her film as an ethnographic tool was her role in its creation. El Guindi took front seat in all creative and production matters, as the anthropologist involved with the most knowledge about the material being covered it was her duty to ensure that accuracy and quality in representation were maintained while artistic endeavors were pursued. Discussion meetings held with the entire team raised concerns and solved potential pitfalls such as bias and distortion before shooting took place. By maintaining this system of checks and balances the scientific element was not lost in the filmmaking process. El Guindi stresses that it is the framework for film production that vital when working in the Visual Ethnographic paradigm.

The use of other visual tools, including web-based and digita tools, are currently being explored as useful techniques within Visual Anthropology. Because no case studies demonstrating these methods have been located I can not fully explain how they would operate within their own paradigm, as methodologies for ethnographic study. Also being used is something called the Research Film paradigm, however it is so very similar to the Scientific paradigm, essentially being the contemporary form of it, that I did not feel the need to reiterate its theory.

Banks, Marcus and Howard Morphy eds. 1997 Rethinking Visual Anthropology. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

El Guindi, Fadwa. 2004 Visual Anthropology: Essential Method and Theory. California: Alta Mira Press.

Grimshaw, Anna. 2001. The Ethnographer’s Eye: Ways of Seeing in Modern Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hockings, Paul ed. 2003 Principles of Visual Anthropology. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.