December 6, 2008

The visual and the anthropological

In many ways, my understandings of visual anthropology might be what Jay Ruby would call "undertheorized." That basically means that I have a lot to learn. While I am very familiar with the history of photography, I know much less about the specific lineage of anthropology in that history. Sure, I know about Flaherty, Mead, Bateson, Griaule, Rouch, Worth, Ruby, and many of the mainstays...but I still have a lot to learn about the overall history of what is either called "visual anthropology" or "the anthropology of visual communication".

Part of this theoretical blind spot stems from the fact that the history of visual anthropology is, by and large, not a strong component of standard anthropological education (at least not undergraduate). It's just not in the curriculum, so students do not learn about it. I did learn a little about it in a "Culture through film" course back at UC Santa Cruz, but that was an elective class and one that was outside of the main theoretical backbone of the program. Another reason for relative dearth of information about visual anthropology is the fact that the visual side of anthropology has often been relegated to the fringes of the discipline (hence Margaret Mead's oft cited statement about anthropology being a "discipline of words"). But I think things are changing.

I have been studying and practicing photography for about 15 years now--that was my first career choice before I switched to anthropology (which was one of the best decisions I have ever made). In the past year or so I have been reading more and more about the histories and trajectories of visual anthropology, since I have always been interested in the relationship between anthropology, photography, and visual communication. Right now I am reading Fadwa el Guindi's Visual Anthropology, which has been a good read so far--although I think I might situate myself a little more toward the artistic side of the visual anthropological continuum compared to el Guindi--but I am not quite sure yet. And on a little side note, the film Dead Birds by Gardner seems to be to paradigmatic ethnographic film that went TOO FAR in the artistic direction. Seems like Bateson, Mead, and el Guindi agree with that.

The second chapter is about a well-known dialog/argument between Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson about the uses of film and photography in anthropology. I tend to agree more with Bateson than Mead, especially when it comes to the idea that placing a camera on a tripod is automatically more "scientific" than hand-holding a camera and changing positions. I find Mead's line of reasoning there pretty flawed, since each method has its benefits AND drawbacks. The idea that a camera sitting on a tripod is automatically more scientific or objective just does not work for me. It is what it is, and is still a very selective and limited representation of reality.

In the interview of Ralph Gibson that I posted earlier, he mentioned that black and white photography is at least three steps removed from reality--the color is taken out, the scale is reduced, and the form is flattened to two dimensions. I think this is very important to keep in mind--photography and film, for all of their benefits and amazing qualities, are little more than approximations of that ever-shifting, complex, three dimensional, colorful, chaotic, unpredictable idea we call reality.

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