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Visualizing Anthropology: Experimenting with Image-Based Ethnography

Visualizing Anthropology: Experimenting with Image-Based Ethnography

by Anna Grimshaw, Amanda Ravetz

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Questions of vision and knowledge are central to debates about the world in which we live. Developing new analytical approaches toward ways of seeing is a key challenge facing those working across a wide range of disciplines. How can visuality be understood on its own terms rather than by means of established textual frameworks? Visualizing Anthropology takes up this


Questions of vision and knowledge are central to debates about the world in which we live. Developing new analytical approaches toward ways of seeing is a key challenge facing those working across a wide range of disciplines. How can visuality be understood on its own terms rather than by means of established textual frameworks? Visualizing Anthropology takes up this challenge. Bringing together a range of perspectives anchored in practice, the book maps experiments in the forms and techniques of visual enquiry. The origins of this collection lie in visual anthropology. Although the field has greatly expanded and diversified, many of the key debates continue to be focused around the textual concerns of the mainstream discipline. In seeking to establish a more genuinely visual anthropology, the editors have sought to forge links with other kinds of image-based projects. Ethnography is the shared space of practice. Understood not as a specialized method but as cultural critique, the book explores new collaborative possibilities linked to image-based work.

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Visualizing Anthropology

By Anna Grimshaw, Amanda Ravetz

Intellect Ltd

Copyright © 2005 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84150-909-9


Eyeing the Field: New Horizons for Visual Anthropology

Anna Grimshaw


Nanook of the North, Flaherty's 1922 documentary of Inuit society, is widely cited as a classic example of anthropological film-making. For many commentators it symbolises both the strengths and weaknesses of ethnographic film. The humanism of the work, the acknowledged, collaborative relationship between director and subject, and Flaherty's commitment to long-term immersion in native life as the precondition for its representation, are recognised as unique features which have endured over the years. At the same time, Nanook of the North is seen as a film that is deeply flawed and ethically problematic. Indeed the accusations concerning Flaherty's manipulations (his staging of events and re-enactment of long abandoned practices) and his simplistic vision of native society, haunt the documentary project even today.

Some eighty years after Flaherty launched a distinctive kind of ethnographic documentary with his film Nanook of the North, this essay takes as its focus a contemporary site of anthropological film-making. Although the Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology has produced a substantial body of work during the ten years of its existence, it has done so in a continuing climate of confusion over the status of anthropological documentary. On the whole anthropologists are sceptical as to the anthropological value of working with visual media, while film-makers are dubious about the filmic value of anthropological documentary. If, in the case of the former, visual anthropology conjures up the spectre of popularisation, for the latter it often suggests spurious science or a concern with the exotic. One of the purposes of this essay is to clarify these areas of confusion. What kind of contemporary synthesis is achieved between two areas of practice, film- making and the ethnographic? This question, in turn, raises issues about the nature of a genuinely visual anthropology. Conceived not as a "pictorial" version of a more theoretically rigorous anthropology but a wide-ranging inquiry into the nature of the ethnographic task itself, we must also ask how such a project might be extended by means of its location within a broader field of visual practice.

I begin this essay with an account of the Granada Centre's origins, highlighting its unusual location with respect to broadcast media, the discipline of anthropology and the tradition of ethnographic cinema. Central to the development of its profile has been the work of its students. But, from the outset, teaching has presented a very particular challenge. What is an anthropological way of seeing? How does one foster it? Is it possible to avoid borrowing here and there from handbooks of film-making and instead develop techniques animated by anthropological sensibilities? These are some of the problems that are posed if one is seeking to develop a visual anthropology anchored in practice. For the students who come to the Granada Centre have been schooled in the conventions of a discursive discipline that organises the ethnographic encounter in a certain manner. In taking up this issue in the second part of the essay, I examine what is involved in dislodging textual habits, effecting the shift from what David MacDougall calls a "word-sentence" to an "image-sequence" approach (1997:291). Critical to such a reorientation of perspective are the techniques of observational cinema. These techniques may render different kinds of ethnographic knowledge from the kinds that are articulated through the framework of a discursive anthropology. Working with observational cinema as the basis of teaching practice is not, however, a straightforward matter. As a particular film-making approach, it has long been the source of controversy and a particular focus of debate about the nature and status of ethnographic film (Bruzzi 2000; Loizos 1997; MacDougall 1998).

Over the years, I have become increasingly impatient with the established discourse that surrounds observational cinema; and, using my own film-making and teaching experiences as the basis of critical reflection, I have sought to develop a new perspective toward the genre. The third part of the essay is an attempt to address these concerns in the light of new work in anthropology and film studies that is concerned with questions of mimesis and epistemologies of the senses. Drawing on the writing of Taussig (1993) and Marks (2000), I seek to make a case for observational cinema as a distinctive contemporary form of ethnographic enquiry. Important to my argument is clarifying the distinction between what I call observational cinema proper and its rival versions, reality television for example.

This essay makes a case for the anthropological and filmic significance of work produced at the Granada Centre. But, despite popular misconception, this work is neither about the exotic nor is it about the documentation of disappearing worlds. Contemporary anthropological film-making also makes no claims for science and objectivity. Instead it is distinguished by a very particular sensibility anchored in experiential knowledge. A fuller understanding of how the techniques of observational cinema are expressive of such an ethnographic sensibility is important in imagining a bolder, and more experimental image-based anthropology. For too long, visual anthropology has been marginalised and bracketed off as an area of specialist academic interest. Its vitality as a field of intellectual enquiry greatly depends upon the forging of links across existing disciplinary boundaries – but, crucially, it also depends upon a much more serious and sustained engagement with related areas of visual practice. The Granada Centre's potential as a site for a genuinely visual anthropology has yet to be fully realised; but it is the strength of the work produced over the last decade that has laid the foundations for the pursuit of a more radical and innovative ethnographic enterprise.

1. The Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology

The Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology was founded in 1989. I joined two years later, in 1991; and, during the last ten years, I have seen the Centre develop a distinctive profile within both the fields of anthropology and documentary film. It is only one of a handful of places where students have an opportunity to extend their anthropological interests by means of experimentation with visual techniques and technologies. The primary focus of the Centre's operations is its fifteen-month Masters programme that trains anthropology graduates in documentary film-making techniques. Despite its television connection, the Granada Centre has never been oriented toward the media industry; rather it has fostered the development of independent film-makers. Graduates of the Centre are multi-skilled. They are able to research and develop their own film projects, assuming responsibility for all aspects of the production from camera and sound recording to editing.

The origins of the Granada Centre lie in the British television series, Disappearing World. In 1971, the anthropologist, Brian Moser, moved by the plight of native peoples in South America, persuaded Granada Television to launch a series of documentaries that would bring issues about modernization and cultural change to the attention of a general audience. Disappearing World represented a significant extension of the Reithian tradition of public service broadcasting. It was serious documentary, committed to informing and educating, and addressing conceptions of citizenship by extending its television audience's knowledge of cross-cultural difference.

The early films were animated by a salvage paradigm. Later programme-makers, however, moved away from this initial stance and were increasingly interested in documenting the resilience of societies in conditions of change. Disappearing World was what might be termed "anthropology on television". It involved an awkward synthesis of academic concerns and television conventions. The different programmes originated in the research interests of consulting anthropologists, rather than being "found" in the field. This meant that, on the whole, the film materials were collected and organised around traditional anthropological themes (kinship, economy, politics, ritual) – that is, they were mobilised in support of previously articulated arguments instead of being generated from the circumstances and relationships of particular ethnographic encounters. In this way, Disappearing World was anthropological in its theoretical paradigm rather than in its techniques for documenting social life.

The Granada Centre was a somewhat belated product of the fortuitous television climate in Britain during the 1970s and 1980s. By 1989 Disappearing World had itself largely disappeared, relegated to an occasional slot on late-night television. But while the Centre's foundations owed much to an opportune moment in broadcast television, its emergence was also a reflection of the growing prominence of visual anthropology within the academy. The use of film and photography as integral to fieldwork-based research had already become established in certain pockets of the discipline, especially in the United States. Here Margaret Mead had made herself an important champion; but her advocacy of visual techniques raised its own difficulties given her own problematic status as a populariser within professional anthropology. Moreover, her notion of film and photography in the service of science and salvage anthropology were increasingly out of touch with changes in the discipline's intellectual orientation. It was the publication of Paul Hockings's edited collection, Principles of Visual Anthropology (1975) that marked an important moment in the consolidation of the subdiscipline. The book also served to underline the centrality of documentary film-making (and to a lesser extent, photography) to definitions of visual anthropology as a field. Hockings brought together not just those film-makers working with Mead's legacy (especially Karl Heider, Jay Ruby, Timothy Asch, Robert Gardner); but other leading figures, most notably Jean Rouch and David and Judith MacDougall, who were pursuing a very different kind of visual anthropology from that taking shape within American anthropology.

Based at the Musee de L'Homme in Paris, Jean Rouch had since the 1950s been developing a highly distinctive anthropological cinema built around his notion of the cine-transe. At its centre was an active, embodied camera. It served as a transformative agent such that the film-maker embarked with his subjects and audience on a sort of shamanistic journey. For Rouch, cinema was a magical space. Here he believed that it was possible to encounter new kinds of human connection and knowledge. Rouch's most innovative films, beginning with Les Maitres Fous (1954), came out of the unusual conditions of West Africa as the former colonial territories approached independence. Like his African subjects, Rouch was pushing against existing limitations in order to realise his new idea for cinema. He was pioneering what he idiosyncratically called "science fiction", a series of films that represent a sustained interrogation of established categories of reality and fiction. His classic work of this period (including Jaguar,Moi, Un Noir and Chronique d'un ete) anticipated many of the innovations of the French New Wave. It was marked by an enormous energy emanating from his overthrow not just of many of the conventions of cinema but of anthropology too – in particular, the commitment to science, to the "primitive", to the separation and hierarchy of ethnographer and subjects (Feld 2003; Grimshaw 2001).

A decade after Rouch's most innovative work, David and Judith MacDougall began to define a different course for anthropological film. At first it was known as "observational" cinema, later developing into "participatory cinema" with much greater emphasis placed on the process of film-making as involving the mediation of relationships and social knowledge. Unlike Rouch's audacious camera, the work of the MacDougalls was anchored in the notion of "respect" for their subjects and their place in the world. From their early East African work like To Live With Herds (1971) to their later Turkana Conversations (1976-77), their films were painstakingly built from the amassing of small detail, sifted and organised such that they coalesced into distinctive patterns, textures and rhythms. The MacDougalls shared with Rouch a commitment to embodied technology (the use of minimal handheld equipment) and to the development of close relationships with subjects through a long-term immersion in field work situations. The resulting films, however, could not be more different. If Rouch's work is characterised by a rough, improvised and exuberant quality, that of the MacDougalls is characterised by its quiet, minutely observed detail and structural elegance. The contrast reflects fundamentally different conceptions of anthropological cinema. One grows out of an interest in the imaginative as a transformative agent in social life, while the other is rooted in a phenomenologically oriented exploration of lived experience.

During the 1960s and 1970s much of the work of American anthropological film-makers was driven by scientistic concerns. Asch and Chagnon's, The Ax Fight, perhaps most starkly exemplified the notion of film in the service of documentation and explanation (Winston 1995). Rouch and the MacDougalls, however, claimed Flaherty as their totemic ancestor for his commitment to empathic connection as the central principle of anthropological film. In important ways Disappearing World, the television series in which the Granada Centre's origins are to be found, attempted to fuse these different impulses, explanation and empathy, at the same time as its film-makers struggled to work within the conventions of television programme-making. Despite significant changes within anthropology's theoretical paradigm, in particular the abandonment of its pretense to be a science, the tension between explanation and experience, observation and participation continues to be a source of anxiety within ethnographically grounded work.

2. Observational cinema

From its inception the Granada Centre has shared with other sites of visual anthropology a primary concern with documentary film-making. But despite this established focus to the subdiscipline, the training of anthropologists in film-making techniques has remained a somewhat ad hoc, idiosyncratic process. This presented an interesting challenge to me as a teacher. What is involved in fostering an anthropological way of seeing? How might visual techniques emerge from developed ethnographic perspectives toward social realities, rather than being borrowed and adapted from handbooks of documentary film? In reflecting on these problems, I decided to try and develop a teaching approach that was anchored in anthropology's central tenet – the commitment to situated or experiential knowledge. Hence, in acknowledging the centrality of anthropology to film-making practice, I was not driven by the notion of some kind of cultural expertise informing technique. Instead I wanted to work filmically with a certain way of exploring the world embodied in fieldwork.

The techniques I developed as a teacher at the Granada Centre owed much to my own training at the National Film and Television School in the early 1990s. Here Colin Young and Herb Di Gioia had pioneered a distinctive approach toward documentary film-making. It was known as "observational cinema", a term circulating among a variety of film-makers during the 1970s including the MacDougalls. Although there were significant differences in the context in which its techniques were used, practitioners of observational cinema shared a certain philosophical and ethical outlook. According to Young, the term "observation" indicated a particular stance toward life, one characterised by humility and expressive of a fundamental respect for subjects in the world. It involved the humanisation of the film-making process and, as such, an inversion of many of its conventions. For example, there was an abdication of the established role of director. The "mandate" for the film, as Young put it (1975:68), was expected to come from its subjects – or, at the very least, there was to be a synergy of interest between film-makers and subjects. Film-makers now followed action, rather than initiating or directing it. In particular, interviews were eschewed in favour of a new sensitivity to context and to different, non-verbal ways by which social meaning was communicated. Recording technology was kept to a minimum, operated by film-makers as an extension of their bodies. There was also a commitment to authenticity, conceptualised as faithfulness to the filming experience. Editing was the process of distilling this experience. Hence it was to be carried out by those present during the shooting of the film. The camera and sound recordist were considered to be ethically bound to their subjects through the relationships forged within the space of the film; and the footage generated from within this space was understood to express the dynamics of a particular intersubjective encounter. The film was to be shaped from a position within this encounter, rather than from a place external to it through the use of a conventional editor.


Excerpted from Visualizing Anthropology by Anna Grimshaw, Amanda Ravetz. Copyright © 2005 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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