Visual Anthropology and the Digital Revolution

Filmmaker Caricature There has been a renewal of interest in Visual Anthropology. Communicating visually has early roots in prehistory of mankind. Humans have conceptualized their world to maintain a record of their achievements, to construct reality, and to communicate knowledge. With the development of modern technology, the field of visual anthropology has developed tools and methods for the use of visual media to further research and instruction.

Famous anthropologists like Margaret Mead were among the avant-garde utilizing film in their work.

However, until recently, cinematography or videography in anthropological research was prohibitively expensive for wide use in the Social Sciences. The technological breakthrough in the field of electronics, a proliferation of affordable portable digital video cameras, desktop editing systems, and DVD technology, led to a democratization in the visual arts that is as revolutionary as the introduction of the printing press was for written communication and literature.

Researchers may now document their work visually, present edited material for public consumption, prepare visual classroom materials, develop online interactive multimedia rich courses, and include full documentation and research data at a very reasonable cost. Equally low-cost CD and DVD technology further makes it possible to disseminate visual research products widely and speedily.

Visual Anthropology is nothing but Anthropology with a camera. What this means, is that the content of Visual Anthropology is anthropological theory and method. The technology used to produce ethnographic video or photography is strictly auxiliary. The use of a camera brings the subject matter alive but it also is, by its very nature, much more restrictive than written ethnographical works.

The two media of communication are radically different. Tony Hillerman, a writer specializing in mysteries occurring in a Navajo Indian cultural context, was interviewed about filming his book “The Skinwalkers”. He zeroed right in on this dichotomy by stating that he realized that the filmmakers had to kill the book in order to make an effective movie (PBS11-24-02; Interview). The moment you use film, you cut out things. It looks at the things you want people to look at. My friend and mentor, Carroll Williams, the late director of The Anthropology Film Center in Santa Fe, said emphatically during our conversations: “The camera always lies.”

As a matter of fact, there is a heated, unending debate going on in the field of Visual Anthropology about the role of film in scientific ethnographic work. While this debate deals with the advantages and disadvantages of visual media technology, it is not about the technology but about Anthropology.

Jim Worung

2003 Dieter Bartels:Cultuur waardeert doorzettingsvermogen niet

Marinjo. June / July 2003

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Atef Sitanala

2003 Op weg naar de toekomst

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