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November 16, 2017

VAR SUPPLEMENT: Lorenzo Ferrarini on Enactive Filmmaking

November 16, 2017 | By | No Comments

The following activities are designed for undergraduate students and aim at supplementing the article “Enactive Filmmaking” in VAR 33-2 by expanding its themes into a reflection on the role and potential of audiovisual media within sensory ethnography, on the role of the ethnographer’s own experience and on that of technology in mediating its representation.

Classroom Activities and Discussion Questions

Part 1 – Sensory Ethnography analysis

Split into small groups, look at/listen to these sensory ethnography pieces and discuss:

  • The article “Enactive Filmmaking” contains a section on hunting in Burkina Faso and its representation in the film Kalanda (2014). In parallel to reading the text, watch this extract:

    and look at these photographs: https://lorenzoferrarini.com/portfolio/hunting-donso/

    Can you recognize some of the elements the author was writing about? Do those techniques evoke in you a sense of what hunting in that landscape can be like? What do film and photography do differently? Which aspects of editing, color correction, sound design or photography do you find most suggestive?

  • Watch the trailer for the film Leviathan by Paravel and Taylor (2012):

    The trailer, although edited with a faster pace and intercut with titles, is quite representative of the film as a whole. What strategies are the filmmakers putting in place? How do they use the camera, what kind of images do they propose? What effects are they trying to elicit in the viewers?

  • Watch one segment of Living the Weather by Lorenzo Ferrarini (2016):
    https://lorenzoferrarini.com/portfolio/living-the-weather/

    The film is divided into 5 “variations” of equal length, I recommend #2 starting at 7:55, #3 starting at 15:41 or #5 starting at 31:16.What strategies are used here to deal with sensory experience?
  • Starting from the ideas presented in the article, how do these three different takes on sensory ethnography relate to the representation of the ethnographer’s own experience? How is this related to the subjects’ own experience in each case?
    The article makes some points on sensory ethnography and language. How is this played out in the extra media on hunting in Burkina Faso? What are the differences with the other two pieces and which do you find most effective? Why?

Part 2 – Sensory Ethnography production planning

The article accounts for the process of translating skilled practice and perception into part of a documentary film. This activity now asks you to, in an original and specific manner, do the same for a situation of which you have some experience and in which the sensory aspects are particularly relevant: sports training, crafting, concerts/clubbing, performances, public protests, rituals, or others of your choice.

  • How would you represent the situation in ways that might evoke its sensory experience to people who are not familiar with it? Write a short treatment for a documentary piece, breaking down the relevant aspects that you want to represent.
  • How would you approach representing those aspects? Detail shots types, camera angles and lenses, lighting, color correction, anything that you think could help get those sensations through.
  • Did you remember to cover the acoustic aspects? What sounds would you record and include in the soundtrack of a film? How would you layer them?
  • Look at your list and reflect on the aspects you picked and why you think they are useful to the task of evoking sensory experience. Compare them to the process described in the article and highlight similarities and differences.
  • How could the aspects you selected be relevant to an ethnography of that situation?
    How much of what you represented is only relevant to your experience and how much is shared with others present in that situation with you? How would you integrate their contributions into your piece?

Extra readings

Cox, Rupert A., Andrew Irving, and Christopher Wright, eds. 2016. Beyond Text: Critical Practice and Sensory Anthropology. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Ferrarini, Lorenzo. 2016. “Making Living the Weather.” Online: https://lorenzoferrarini.com/making-living-the-weather/

MacDougall, David. 2006. The Corporeal Image: Film, Ethnography, and the Senses. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Pavsek, Christopher. 2015. “Leviathan and the Experience of Sensory Ethnography.” Visual Anthropology Review 31 (1):4-11. DOI: 10.1111/var.12056.

Pink, Sarah. 2009. Doing Sensory Ethnography. London: Sage.

Wacquant, Loïc. 2015. “For a Sociology of Flesh and Blood.” Qualitative Sociology 38 (1): 1–11. DOI:10.1007/s11133-014-9291-y.

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November 13, 2017

VAR SUPPLEMENT: Jinghong Zhang on “Tasting Tea and Filming Tea”

November 13, 2017 | By | No Comments

Jinghong Zhang’s article “Tasting Tea and Filming Tea: The Filmmaker’s Engaged Sensory Experience” (VAR 33-2, Fall 2017) explores the difficulty with describing, memorizing and representing the sense of taste. It argues that film can go beyond the limit of describing taste with words to represent and evoke the sense of taste, specifically through the filmmaker’s embodied experience.

Classroom Activities and Discussion Questions

Activity 1 Select one type of food or drink you are familiar with.

Step (1) Describe the smell and taste of this food/drink relying on your memory, and write down your notes. Describe this food/drink again while you are having it. Question: Does your description this time differ from that of last time? Why?

Step (2) Work with another two friends. Let them do the same activities as above, on the same type of food/drink. How much do you three agree or disagree with each other?

Step (3) When your group discussion finishes, have this food/drink once again. Do you tend to more agree or disagree with your friends now? What has essentially shaped your taste sensations and descriptions along the three steps of activities?

Activity 2 Now select one type of food/drink that you and your friends are less familiar with or have never had before.

Step (1) Work with the same two friends. You use a camera to record how they eat the food or have the drink. You describe your evoked sense of taste based upon filming, if there are any. How much does you description share similarities with or differ from that by the two friends?

Step (2) You continue filming with one hand, and join in eating/drinking a little bit with another hand. Keep on communicating with your friends. Upon finishing, could you reflect on which aspect you have had a better focus, eating/drinking or filming? Why?

Step (3) Change positions. Now ask one friend (friend A) to use the camera. You and the other friend (friend B) have the food/drink and are filmed. Compare the taste and smell sensations in three different situations: when one does filming without any tasting experience of the food/drink (you, in step 1 and 2); when one does filming with some tasting experiences (friend A); when one is being filmed while tasting (the three of you).

Questions: How does the use of camera influence your taste sensation? How much is it possible to work on filming and tasting simultaneously? What is a more efficient way for the filmmaker to record a tasting activity while not losing his or her sense of taste?

Activity 3

Watch the footage you and your friends just shot. Watch it four times. Each time focus on only one aspect: 1) vision; 2) sound; 3) touch; 4) taste and smell. Compare your different sensations in different watching. What particular feelings or impressions do you get from the film each time?

Other suggested films for the same activity:

SOMM (directed by Jason Wise 2012)

One short film by Jinghong Zhang, “Tasting Ancient and Modern,” 6 minutes.

 

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October 27, 2017

VAR SUPPLEMENT: Laurian Bowles on Doing the Snap

October 27, 2017 | By | No Comments

Classroom Activities and Discussion Questions

Before reading the article

Bowles argues that “common tourist or journalistic photos” show “African women with a load on her head and a baby tied to her back” (2017:17). Make a brief list of five characteristics of each of these kinds of photographs.

Next, students should peruse promotional materials (websites, your college/university’s study abroad brochures) of nongovernmental organizations, non-profits and anthropology textbooks that focus on Africa and use photographs of women.

Consider the following questions:

  1. How well do these photographs represent similarly or differently from tourist or journalistic photos?
  2. Who is the primary audience for these photographs? What are the goals of these photographs?
  3. What kinds of assumptions do you have as a viewer of these photographs?
  4. What kinds of questions do these photos raise for you about the people presented in the photograph?

Discussion question to answer after completing the reading:

  1. How does Bowles’s work contribute to your critique of these images that you looked at before reading the article?
  2. How successful is the author in bringing greater context to the images that women produced?
  3. How might stories differ between migrant’s families and their friendship groups in Accra?
  4. Porters spend large amounts of time waiting for customers and are expected to move quickly through the market once they are hired. How do these tensions foster creativity narratives? What are some of the ways that porters cope with their boredom?
  5. How does household composition afford women greater work opportunities?
  6. How do porter habits of “doing the snap” help animate women’s labor?
  7. In what ways do the images serve as memory-making devices for porters?
  8. Market women are widely revered in Ghana for their sharp business acumen and financial success. In what ways does Bowles’s study raise questions about who is considered a market woman?

Further considerations:

This next exercise encourages students to think critically about the images they create as part of storytelling practices. The goal is to broaden student’s understanding about the way images foster the circulation of narratives and serve as meaning-making for groups.

Look at the five most recent photographs you’ve taken and briefly brainstorm on the social life of these stories by answering the following questions. Then, make a list of the tags or commentary you made about the photographs if you shared them on social media.

  1. Did you write any tags or comments to the images before you posted?
  2. Do the images have a social life that is not captured in the post information?
  3. How does the structure of an image and the text associated with it produce a particular kind of narrative?
  4. Are there some social significances in the images that are untold in the written text?
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May 6, 2017

VAR SUPPLEMENT: Harjant Gill on Censorship and Ethnographic film

May 6, 2017 | By | No Comments

Harjant Gill’s article, “Censorship and Ethnographic Film: Confronting State Bureaucracies, Cultural Regulation, and Institutionalized Homophobia in India,” explores how anthropological knowledge, specifically in the form of ethnographic film, is shaped and reshaped by the public domains and venues in which it circulates such as television channels, international film festivals and community screenings, and increasingly on video-sharing websites including YouTube.com and Vimeo.com.

Unlike his writings including journal articles, which are often limited to an insular readership, his ethnographic films are viewed by wider audiences across the globe. Gill explores some of the implications of such mainstream public engagements on the process of anthropological knowledge production.

Classroom Activities and Discussion Questions

Engage with the same ethnographic film in different settings.

In the classroom followed by an open-ended discussion; online at home (on your own) followed by reading and responding to comments in the comments-section below. After each screening, write down a brief reflection about the film.

  1. Comparing the two reflections, does your understanding or perception of a given film change based on the venue in which it is being viewed? How so? Does the audience reactions, whether in pubic setting (like the classroom), or online shape your reception and engagement with the film? What insights does this exercises offer you into your reception and engagement with a piece of media like an ethnographic film? Do you think the filmmaker(s) catered their film to a specific audience? Why or why not? How does this add to your understating of the process of knowledge production in anthropology?

Using a country like India or the United States of America as an example to explore the practices related to state sponsored censorship, conduct independent research (online) on how the institutions tasked with rating or censoring media such as the Central Board of Film Certification of India (CBFC) or the Motion Picture Association of America define censorship.

  1. Identify specific guidelines (or the lack-there-of) that these agencies have used or are currently employing to censor visual media.
  2. Using discourse analysis, the exercise of “reading-against-the-grain,” write a critical reflection of how formal definitions and practices related to censorship are applied.
  3. How might these definitions and practices fluctuate and change over time? How might they react to the political and cultural climate of the moment? What does this tell us about democracy and free speech, and its relationship with the governmental institutions? How might censorship operate to reinforce certain hegemonic narratives about the nation? What are some of the different strategies employed by filmmakers and artists to circumvent state-sponsored censorship and subvert dominant ideology?

With the expansion and growing accessibility of new media technologies such as online blogs, web-based publications, video sharing websites, etc. it has become easier for academics and researchers to make their research findings publicly accessible to a far wider audience. As a result, these academics and researchers have also come under increasing scrutiny and attacks by anonymous individuals or trolls and online vigilante groups who disagree with or dislike their findings.

  1. Identify one such case from past reports or track the trajectory of one such form of popular media (or journal article), which has been challenged or misinterpreted or rendered “controversial” in popular media or online.For example: Anthropologist speaking out against Human Terrain Systems & War in Iraq in 2008

    Nivedita Menon’s Interview on Gender & Sexuality in India

  2. How might new media technologies represent sites that simultaneously provide access to knowledge as well as platform for those seeking to dismiss or debunk that knowledge? How should the academic or researcher respond to online trolling and other informal forms of censorship, or even fake news reports and academic blacklists? Given the challenges highlighted above, do you think it is important for anthropologists to undertake such public engagement efforts irrespective of the risks?

Related Readings & Films

Dick, Kirby, dir. 2006. This Film Is Not Yet Rated. IFC Films. DVD

Engelke, Matthew, ed. 2009. The Object of Evidence: Anthropological Approaches to the Production of Knowledge. West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell and Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain & Ireland.

Mazzarella, William. 2013. Censorium: Cinema and the Open Edge of Mass Publicity. Durham: Duke University Press.

Mazzarella, William and Raminder Kaur, eds. 2009. Censorship in South Asia: Cultural Regulation from Sedition to Seduction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Ethnographic Films by Harjant Gill

Sent Away Boys, 2016

Mardistan/Macholand, 2014

Roots of Love, 2010

Milind Soman Made Me Gay, 2007

Some Reasons For Living, 2003

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May 6, 2017

VAR SUPPLEMENT: Cheikh Lo and Beth Buggenhagen on Senegalese Portrait Photography

May 6, 2017 | By | No Comments

Classroom Activities and Discussion Questions

Beth Buggenhagen’s “If You Were in My Sneakers: Migration Stories in the Studio Photography of Dakar based Omar Victor Diop” analyzes Omar Victor Diop’s body of work, “Project Diaspora: Self Portraits 2014.” This teaching supplement aims to provide discussion questions and activities for students and instructors to engage with portrait photography in an African postcolonial and global context. Students will test their assumptions about the ability of photographic images to re-inscribe historical representations and construct narratives that subvert and critique a wide range of contemporary issues, including racism, and migration. How do we capture images of contemporary and historical accounts of migration while at the same time respecting the dignity of migrants?

Brainstorming:

  1. Over these past few years, you have probably been struck by iconic photographic images that went viral in the social media outlets about migration and refugee issues. What are the dominant images of migration and migrants and refugees? How do you react to such images? Do they alter your understanding of migrant and refugee issues?
  2. How does Diop want to portray human migration? Does he succeed?
  3. In “Project Diaspora: Self Portraits 2014,” Diop appears in each of these images. Are these selfies? What distinguishes a selfie from a self portrait, if anything?

Reading & Watching Comprehension:

  1. How does the author interpret the abolitionist bust in Girodet’s painting of Belley in relation to the soccer ball prop featured in Diop’s photographic re-enactment of the same painting?
  2. Based on the article and the YouTube videos below, write one paragraph about how Diop’s background has shaped his artistic choices.

Compare and contrast:

  1. Choose 2 portraits of different authors in the article. Look at them and organize your thoughts about their similarities and differences in a balanced paragraph of six sentences.
  2. Considering the article, orally report what you think the photographers intended to narrate through those images, and share your opinion if you agree or disagree.

Observe and read:

  1. How do European colonial photographic props differ from Omar Victor Diop’s contemporary props?

Reflection: Words and Images:

  1. Creating a Portrait
    1. Form a pair group to create a portrait of a stigmatized or controversial sport, Hollywood star, or political figure.
    2. What props would you associate her or his image with, if you were to condemn or change that stigmatization in a photographic enactment?
  2. Selfies
    1. What props did you often use in your own self-portrait photography? Why? What meaning do these props hold for you?
  3. Takeaway
    1. Do you think photography is an effective tool for re-writing biased historical accounts to positively impact current migration, racial or gender problems in the world? Argue to support your point of view.

Media links:

Omar Diop’s background

Additional Resources:

  1. African Arts, Special Issue on African Photography: http://www.mitpressjournals.org/toc/afar/48/3
  2. Omar Victor Diop: https://www.omarviktor.com/
  3. Feature documentary that follows five internationally acclaimed photographers commissioned by the Annenberg foundation including Omar Victor Diop as they capture the lives of displaced people on five continents: https://www.annenbergphotospace.org/refugee-film
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March 6, 2017

VAR SUPPLEMENT: Arjun Shankar on Critical Visuality and Image-Making

March 6, 2017 | By | No Comments

Classroom Activities and Discussion Questions

Anthropologists working with photography and youth have a common dilemma: how do we produce images that do not reinforce stereotypic imaginings of those who we work with which we are constantly consuming online and/or on television? How do we combat image regimes that portray those who we work with in uni-dimensional and deficiency-laden ways? This is the central dilemma brought up in the article, Auteurship and Imagemaking, which provides one example for how we might “see” communities differently through their own creative praxis.

The following two-part exercise is meant to provoke students to think critically about the types of images they consume as part of development and humanitarian aid interventions. They should, by the end of this lesson, be able to understand how images facilitate particular ways of seeing communities and the multiple agendas that these images are used for. Moreover, in doing this critical excavation, they should be able to begin thinking about how they can produce alternative images in collaboration with those depicted.

 Part-One

  • Have students pick a development or humanitarian aid organization that works with children whose image practice they want to assess. Have them delineate:
    1. What the organizations primary goals are
    2. Types of intervention strategies
    3. The primary populations that they work with
    4. Funding sources
  • Have students outline some of the assumptions that the organization has. These might include assumptions regarding:
    1. Who needs help and why
    2. Who should be facilitating change and why
    3. The appropriate means by which change can occur
  • Have students choose 3-4 images from the organization’s website. Once they have done this, have them answer the following questions:
    1. Who has taken the photograph? What social groups (racial, gender, national) are they a part of?
    2. Who is the primary audience for the photographs?
    3. What kind of photographic choices has the photographer made? How are the people in the photograph depicted?
    4. What do we learn about the community based on the images produced?
    5. How is the image distributed?
    6. What else is on there on the webpage on which the photograph is placed?
    7. What are the intended goals of these images?
    8. How might images like this influence how the organization intervenes and/or interacts with the community?
  • Given these forms of image circulation, have them identify the most serious representational issues that arise with regards to the community in question? Have them also postulate how those within the community depicted might react to such images.

Part-Two

  • Show students the image from the article Auteurship and Imagemaking. The driving question should be: what do you see?
    1. Ask them to identify where they think it was taken and why?
    2. Who they believe took the photograph and why
    3. For what purpose was the image taken?
    4. Where might the photograph have been exhibited and why?
    5. What do they learn from the images, about the photographer and/or those who are on screen?
  • Reveal to the students that these images were taken by students from a rural community in India. Then ask:
    1. How do these images challenge or complicate the depictions that were excavated in part one?
    2. How might images like these facilitate a different set of interactions between organizations and those who they are working with?

Extension Exercise

  • Have students design their own photo-voice project for youth:
  1. Who should be involved in the image-making process?
  2. What are the goals that the project should consider?
  3. What aesthetic choices might be made that differ from those that they have encountered in dominant visual regimes?
  4. What new questions should they ask? What criteria should they use to select photographs?
  5. How might there image-making practice change how organizations like those who they researched intervene?
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February 27, 2017

VAR SUPPLEMENTS: Spring 2016 (VAR 32:1) Special Issue on ‘the Greek Crisis’

February 27, 2017 | By | No Comments

Uncertain Visions: Crisis, Ambiguity, and Visual Culture in Greece

A woman photographing, with her mobile phone, the material landscape that followed a political demonstration against austerity measures in June 2011, near Syntagma Square. Images of debris, graffiti and destruction are often featured in various outlets as convenient metonyms of ‘the crisis’ and they fuel divergent cultural investments ranging from disdain for political instability to awe for protesting aesthetics. Though this picture is undercut by various levels of unknowability (e.g. what will her images do for viewers? What are these pictures for her?) it condenses a certain desire to ‘see’ and visualize ‘the crisis’ and hints at the ambiguity and unpredictable productivity of such photographs. The visualizing desire is central to commercial mechanisms and to many people’s aspirations and despite, its realist claims is often infused with uncertainty about what the crisis looks like. The density, ambiguity, impossibility and productivity of seeing, representing and visualizing the ‘Greek crisis’ are extensively considered by authors of this special issue. Photo by K. Kalantzis

“Introduction—Uncertain Visions: Crisis, Ambiguity, and Visual Culture in Greece,” by Konstantinos Kalantzis

  1. What are the possible roles of the visual in an inquiry into ‘the Greek crisis’? Give some examples of such an inquiry and describe how it may involve a sensory ethnography.
  2. What do we mean by sanguine approaches to the crisis? What kind of critical questions can we ask about anthropologists’ identification with suffering subjects?
  3. Note some problems and limitations that stem from using the term ‘crisis’ to describe contemporary Greek social practice.

4 3

On seeing as practice and metaphor – These pictures were taken during the early stages of what later became known as the ‘Indignant’ protests (compare to other demonstrations taking place during 2011 in Spain and elsewhere). They depict crowds of different social backgrounds, before the consolidation of political geographies that created a distinction between the more patriotic-nationalist and the more leftist assemblages (a distinction complicated anew with Greece’s post-2015 coalition government, comprised of a leftist and a rightist party united by anti-colonial; anti-austerity rhetoric). What interests me particularly about these pictures is that during the demonstrations the crowd kept looking around, following loud noises, to trace possible developments in the protest. In people’s anxious effort to see what was happening, one can grasp both the sensory landscape of Greek demonstrations, but also conjure a metaphor of a practice that most Greeks have been involved in; i.e. trying to sense and describe what it is that is happening with and to the country since 2010; their economies, relationships and spheres of daily life. This effort also concerns ethnographers, as the present phase has generated a significant corpus of work that this special issue engages. Photos by K. Kalantzis

“Chemtrails, Crisis, and Loss in an Interconnected World,” by Alexandra Bakalaki

  1. On the basis of the paper, what seem to be the challenges involved in internet research as opposed to participant observation?
  2. Why does the author explicitly refrain from categorizing the chemtrail narrative as a conspiracy theory?
  3. What are the ways in which middle class educated subjects who reject the chemtrail narrative stereotype those adhering to it? To what extent does this stereotyping draw on longstanding views on the merits of modernization?
  4. How does the chemtrail narrative relate to accounts that attribute the Greek economic crisis to the purposeful action of foreign agents?

 “Proxy Brigands and Tourists: Visualizing the Greek-German Front in the Debt Crisis,” by Konstantinos Kalantzis

  1. What does the author mean by nativism? What does nativism do for people in Greece, today and how is Crete enrolled? Give some examples of Crete’s signification that indicate how it is cast as a nativist force.
  2. What role does the visual play in the constitution of nativism in Greece?
  3. How does the locals’ approach to tourists relate to wider national trends as regards the perception of Germany? Does photography reveal things that differ or confirm wider political dynamics?
  4. How does the study of material culture help us grasp the ambiguous complexity in locals’ relationships with Germans in Sfakia, Crete? Give some examples of discontinuity between verbal and material manifestations.

5

This image depicts the faded graffiti of a now-abandoned restaurant in highland Sfakia. It depicts a man in Cretan attire (the emblematic figure of ‘The Cretan’ as found in dozens of Greek registers) and features two signs addressed to German visitors, assuring them that the owner speaks their language. The maker of the graffiti, a shepherd proud of his ability to painting, acquired the relevant language skills by living in Germany as a guest worker. His trajectory is indicative of the asymmetries and power dynamics in early Greek tourism; i.e. an ex-worker sets up a business to serve people from the (powerful) industrial host country. Such dynamics are grasped by locals’ expressions of suspicion of tourism and its demands; dynamics that are simultaneously subverted if one looks at particular material spheres, where the presence of Germans is marked by affect and admittance into local sociality.

Figure 6

Dynamics of affect and exchange are captured in figure 6 showing B&W images of local men framed at a shop mostly addressed to tourists in the city of Chania. These images were originally taken by a German woman in the 1980s. As part of her ongoing engagement with locals she circulated and gifted these images to the families of the sitters. The nephew of one of these subjects decorated the walls of his shop with these pictures. They then come to serve both as familial objects, but also as emblems of Sfakian descent in an environment that markets Cretan-ness for consumption. The practice further underscores the Sfakian use of pictures sent by visitors as a means of representing and remembering family members. The practice is replete with asymmetries, given that it highlights how rural Greeks historically relied on (powerful) outsiders to photographically visualize themselves. At the same time, the transactions and the actual sites of display encapsulate moments of affect and warm exchange; as in the dozens of stories heard in Sfakia, where Germans and other Europeans visit local families after decades from their original visit and engage (often in tears) around those early pictures. Photos by K.Kalantzis

 “The Metaphysics of the Greek Crisis”: Visual Art and Anthropology at the Crossroads,” by  Eleana Yalouri

  1. Is ‘ambiguity’ a negative or risky tool to apply in anthropological research? Are there cases where it can be fruitfully applied, for example when dealing with unpredictability and uncertainty?
  2. Think of possible reasons why an anthropologist should, or should not, choose to collaborate with visual artists when studying ‘the Greek crisis’. In what sense could (or could not) art tools and methods enhance the ways of doing and writing anthropology?
  3. If for artists activism and intervention in their field of study and creation is often part and parcel of their method, to what extent do you think that anthropologists should adopt such active involvement in their own field.

 “‘Crisis’ as Art: Young Artists Envisage Mutating Greece,” by Elpida Rikou and Io Chaviara

  1. Can you imagine an artwork as a partner in your research? If not, why? If yes, can you give an example? In both cases, what theoretical references would you choose?
  2. “Is contemporary Greek art capable of conveying the know-how of dealing with a crisis?” (p.49) At this particular historic conjuncture, would you like to “Learn from Athens” as the art project Documenta 14 proposes? What could be the arguments for and against such a project?
  3. “The images of the Greeks in crisis (…) how they become consumable commodities both inside and outside of the country” (p.55) What could be those images? Do they become “consumable commodities” and in what sense? Do you think that the artwork “T.E.O” achieved the artist’s goal?

 “The ‘Greek Crisis’ through the Cinematic and Photographic Lens: From ‘Weirdness’ and Decay to Social Protest and Civic Responsibility,” by Erato Basea

 

Tino Sehgal’s exhibition in and around the space of the Roman Agora in 2014 was one example of how art can activate public spaces and contribute to a dialogue about public life and political participation in the present. This is the photograph I took on my way out that day. The photograph captures the African-American immigrant, who was enjoying the early October sunshine. If you are as careful as I was that day, you will notice that on the pavement, an anarchist tag reads, in Greek, “skou[pa] pantou” (‘sweeps everywhere’), alluding to (and criticizing) police round-up operations and mass arrests of illegal immigrants. A public art project, immigrants, police repression, and resistant graffiti are all visible in the textured city and in this photograph. Photo by E. Basea

  1. To coincide with the November issue of Artforum on art and politics, artforum.com released a video in which artists, including Carrie Mae Weems, Matthew Weinstein and Vitaly Komar, share their views on political art. Watch the video and discuss what renders art political, according to the artists interviewed.

Link: www.artforum.com/video/mode=large&id=64336&page_id=0&ref=newsletter

  1. “The essence of politics is not plurality of opinions. It is the prescription of a possibility in rupture with what exists” (Alain Badiou, Metapolitics, 2006: 24). Can art create spheres of multiple political action and participation?
  2. This is a photo taken by the author in 2014, in downtown Athens. Describe the picture and its references to antiquity. Would you think that the graffiti resists official discourses about Greece’s ancient past? To reply to this question, you might want to consider ‘Greece | Gods, Myths, Heroes’ (2014), Andonis Theocharis Kioukas’s 12-minute tourism video funded by the Ministry of Tourism. Would you argue that the video portrays an image of the country to tourists that differs considerably from the urban cityscape that residents face daily? Photo by E. Basea.

You can find the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5L0jzJTm9ug

 “Crisis and Visual Critique,” by Christopher Pinney

  1. How does Azoulay’s work contribute to to an exploration of politics and the ‘crisis’?
  2. In what way did the actual practice of photography complicate Bourdieu’s theoretical and sociological model?
  3. Consider some elements of Benjamin’s approach to photography and explain how these might be useful in thinking about political subjectivity and the ‘crisis.’
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November 1, 2016

VAR SUPPLEMENTS: Chihab El Khachab on Visualizing the Final Products of Commercial Films

November 1, 2016 | By | No Comments

Classroom Activities and Discussion Questions   

Egyptian filmmakers involved in commercial film production face a common problem: how can we visualize, right now, what our movie will look like, eventually?

This exercise is meant to illustrate the difficulties generated by this problem, and how filmmakers try to manage it. The exercise is incremental, so you can stop at any one step and reflect back on what was done, but try to follow the sequence if possible. Each step can be done on a different day.

  1. A group of 5 filmmakers are given the following scene to shoot by an experienced screenwriter and a small producer who cannot afford to shoot in an actual plane:

Scene XX – PLANE – NIGHT/INTERNAL

The lights are dimmed. Everyone is sleeping.

MURAD sits in the exact middle of the plane. An OLD WOMAN (60 y-o, tanned, with black and white hair, wearing dark sunglasses) is sleeping deeply to his right. To his left, an OLD MAN (60 y-o, tanned, white hair but looking healthy) seeks to chat with Murad by all means.

Murad lies down with his eyes closed.

OLD MAN

What are you going to do in Cairo, son?

Murad doesn’t pay attention to him.

The old man pokes Murad and wakes him up a little.

OLD MAN

Is it for a visit or for work?

Murad looks angrily at the old man, turns around, and goes back to sleep.

OLD

(frustrated)

It ain’t illegal to talk…

Murad quickly glances towards the old man and goes back to sleep.

CUT

Using any tools you need (pens, papers, smartphones, cameras, etc.), craft a short description of the way in which you would like to shoot this scene individually. Include details about camera angles, camera movements, actor direction, set design, costumes, and sounds.

  1. Gather back with your fellow filmmakers and, in turn, describe to them what you have envisioned to shoot the scene.

Question #1: Are there discrepancies in each person’s description? What are they and why do you think they arise?

  1. Once everyone has given his/her description, try to reach a consensus on how to shoot the scene.

Question #2: Are there difficulties in reaching the consensus? If not, why not? If so, what are they?

Question #3: How does each filmmaker argue his position? What kinds of arguments are brought forth? Who gets the last word?

  1. Once a consensus is reached, divide the tasks between a director (who casts the actors and oversees the action on set), a cinematographer (who holds the camera and manages lighting), an art director (who manages the set and props), a stylist (who manages costumes), and a production manager (who scouts potential shooting locations and facilitates the logistics of shooting). On another day, shoot the scene.

Question #4: Are there any discrepancies between what was agreed at step #4 and what happens on set? If not, why not? If so, how do they compare to the discrepancies observed at step #2?

Question #5: What kinds of social interactions evolve on set? How are they different from the interactions you’ve had until point #4?

Variation (1): Instead of #1, try the following: A group of 5 filmmakers is asked to collectively write a scene where Murad, a major male movie star, meets his long-lost sister Leila.

Question: What are the difficulties involved in writing the scene? How does the fact that it was collectively written affect steps 2 to 4 afterwards?

Variation (2): Instead of dividing tasks at step #3, try designating a director, a cinematographer, an art director, a costume designer, and a production manager before beginning step #1. Think about how this division of labor affects the process, and how it compares to an absence of division of labor at steps #1-2.

Additional Videos

Short videos about the making of Décor:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wqyGmcQScvI&list=PLuVdxg0hw7w2Le1SSFccDUCBDcESzd_ZP

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4WT6mLu5bkU

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7fRXf-zLiL8

Readings on Egyptian Film

Arasoughly, Alia (ed.) (1996). Screens of Life. Critical Film Writing from the Arab World. St. Hyacinthe, Québec: World Heritage Press

Armbrust, Walter. (2004). ‘Egyptian Cinema On Stage and Off’ in Andrew Shyrock (ed.). Off Stage/On Display: Intimacy and Ethnography in the Age of Public Culture. Stanford: Stanford University Press

Flibbert, Andrew. (2007). Commerce in Culture: States and Markets in the World Film Trade. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan

Shafik, Viola. (2007). Popular Egyptian Cinema: Gender, Class and Nation. Cairo and New York: American University in Cairo Press

Shafik, Viola. (2007). Arab Cinema: History and Cultural Identity. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press

Additional Resources

http://www.elcinema.com/en/

This website is the most complete online Arabic movie database, akin to IMDB.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sV18A9kbuck&list=PL0l541FH_W0TCkn1FMjAobK8j59pgyHPd

This channel includes some Egyptian movies with English subtitles. These movies are in no sense representative of contemporary Egyptian cinema as a whole, but they give some sense about its visual worlds.

Anandi Salinas

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November 1, 2016

VAR SUPPLEMENTS: Stephanie Sadre-Orafai on “Models, Measurement, and the Problem of Mediation”

November 1, 2016 | By | No Comments

Stephanie Sadre-Orafai on “Models, Measurement, and the Problem of Mediation”

CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES & DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. One of the key ideas in this article is that while we think of numbers as “objective,” we must understand the theories of mediation in which they are enmeshed. As media, number regimes do not move seamlessly across different domains (i.e., from global health to fashion modeling). Choose a profession you know well or a domain of your everyday life (e.g., dating) and catalog the different uses and meanings of numbers in these contexts. What theories of numbers are built into these practices? What are numbers opposed to in these contexts? What do numbers do in these contexts that other representations cannot? Are numbers vulnerable to other kinds of evidence in these contexts? How are numbers used to construct certain kinds of bodies? What kinds of bodes are these? Working in groups, compare your results. How would the rules and logics of numbers in one domain or profession work in another?
  1. Watch the news coverage of model BMI-threshold bans in Spain (2006), Israel (2012), and France (2015). How did coverage evolve as the ban was taken up in these different national contexts? What changed? Why? How were models portrayed in these news clips and videos? Who were regulators seeking to protect? How did other issues, like immigration, get tied into these discussions?

a. Spain Bans Overly Skinny Models from Fashion Shows (2006)

SOURCE: NPR
LINK: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6103615

b. Israel bans too-skinny models (2012)

SOURCE: CNN
LINK: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qvHDsLNhpmo

c. France divides the fashion world by banning skinny models (2015)

SOURCE: Telegraph.com
LINK: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/11514613/France-divides-the-fashion-world-by-banning-skinny-models.html

  1. Watch “Out of Fashion: The Absence of Color” (2007) and/or read the comments in Jezebel.com’s collected statistics on racial representation at New York Fashion Week (2014). What kinds of arguments are being made here by the panelists/authors/commenters and how are numbers being used to support or refute them?

a. Out of Fashion: The Absence of Color (2007)

SOURCE: LIVE from the NYPL, panel discussion on the dwindling numbers of black models in high fashion with Bethann Hardison, Lori Goldstein, David Ralph, Tracy Reese, and James Scully
LINK: https://www.nypl.org/audiovideo/out-fashion-absence-color

b. New York Fashion Week: Diversity Talks But White Faces Walk (2014)

SOURCE: Jezebel.com, collected statistics on racial representation of models at New York Fashion Week
LINK: http://jezebel.com/new-york-fashion-week-diversity-talks-but-white-faces-1522416724

 

Anandi Salinas

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November 1, 2016

VAR SUPPLEMENTS: Patrick Sutherland on learning documentary photography and constructing photo essays from groups of photographs

November 1, 2016 | By | No Comments

Extending the Frame:  some notes on learning documentary photography and constructing photo essays from groups of photographs

Patrick Sutherland

The editors of Visual Anthropology Review invited me to write this essay because they are keen to encourage the submission of photo essays for potential publication within the journal. It is designed as a companion piece to my essay in VAR (issue 32:2, 2016) and offers some advisory notes to support the submission of photo essays to the journal.

Photographs in photo essays are constructed from the continually changing world around us. They are made by photographers rather than just captured by cameras. Consequently they often reveal the concerns and personal perspectives of the photographer as well as recording what is framed by the technology. Through reflection on my own personal experiences of learning documentary photography and subsequently teaching the subject, I suggest how an understanding of different approaches to making photographic images can be linked directly to the editorial processes involved in presenting these images.

The Newport School of documentary photography

I studied documentary photography at Newport College of Art in Wales in the late 1970s. At that time, the core taught program consisted of a sequence of linked assignments entitled “Man at Work”, “Relationships” and “Establishing Shots”, delineating three kinds of image that could be combined to make a simple three picture story. These forms of photographic imagery had been identified by the course founder David Hurn as building blocks for a conventional magazine photo essay.  Other important ingredients included portraits and close up details.

Fundamental to the Newport philosophy was the understanding that documentary photography was best learned by actually making pictures: by producing work, shot in real situations, and presenting it for feedback within a supportive, critical environment. For every shoot, students were expected to present edited and marked up contact sheets from a couple of rolls of film. These were presented at “crit sessions”, one to one tutorials with a member of the staff team. The assignments were undertaken one after the other: you would spend three weeks or more photographing “Man at Work”, returning for crits on a daily basis before moving on to the next assignment.

In these sessions, a tutor would examine the contact sheets, looking at the whole sheet and then the images, frame by frame, and respond to your individual edit, choice of the best frames and overall approach to photographing. They would discuss what they felt worked and what did not work, about the framing and your shooting methods. Tutors would remark on the position of the camera and how by moving the camera backwards or forwards, up or down, or from one side to the other photographers control the position and arrange the distribution of the different elements within the frame. They would consider the timing of the exposures, whether there were better potential moments to be captured. They would also comment on whether they felt you were moving around too much rather than staying with a situation and letting it develop in front of you or not moving enough and failing to explore and vary the pictures. Finally they would note whether they felt you were overshooting, taking too many pictures without thinking and needed to “tighten up” or undershooting, being over cautious, rigid and needed to “loosen up”. You would than be sent out to take more pictures, often returning to photograph the same person or situation again.

As students, you were encouraged to respond to and select situations that felt rich in visual potential and then allow things to emerge and develop in front of the camera: sometimes shooting several frames without significantly changing position, but always attempting to make each frame work. This was an important lesson because this approach acknowledges and embraces the element of chance and allows for the unexpected. This is a key ingredient of documentary and reportage photography.

The editing process was based on meticulous frame by frame comparison. Minor details of gesture or expression, the tilt of a head, the position of a hand, the direction in which the eyes were pointing, or the unexpected appearance of a figure in the background make one image more or less effective than the other: effective in terms of overall graphic structure or clarity of visual expression, in terms of conveying a particular mood or feeling or in making a specific point of importance to the ideas being communicated. These subtle visual details are the heart of reportage photography, of the kind we see in the work of Cartier-Bresson, Sebastião Salgado, Susan Meiselas, Eugene Richards and many other photographers working closely with people and operating within a humanistic tradition. Importantly, this process of detailed examination of contact sheets feeds directly back into a developing understanding of what to pay attention to whilst shooting. It also highlights the expressive potential of the medium.

Students worked with a handheld 35mm analogue camera with a single fixed focal length lens (either 35mm or 50mm). Flash, high-speed film or zoom lenses were not allowed. These restrictive, almost puritanical rules had a very specific effect and were paradoxically liberating.  Working with a fixed lens rather than a zoom lens means that you have to physically move the camera in order to fill the frame with the subject matter you are photographing. As your experience grows, this process of understanding when a photograph is working becomes almost instinctive. You move around because the image you are attempting to produce demands it. Understanding where to place the camera and where to stand becomes a kind of embodied knowledge. Moving the camera or, rather, moving with the camera is fundamental to reportage photography.

Working with a standard or slightly wide-angle lens when photographing people means that you need to be close to them to fill the frame. Consequently you have to communicate directly and develop working relationships. These social skills become an essential part of the role. Photographers have to develop the ability to enter social situations and to remain in these situations whilst they are working. This obviously parallels the anthropological methodology of participant observation. Photographers have to be able to move around the situation they are documenting and yet remain distanced enough from it to be observing it and producing images rather than being drawn in.

For the assignment “Man at Work,” you were required to photograph an individual person working. The aim of the assignment was to produce a single effective photograph of someone doing something: a man digging a hole in the road or a woman neurosurgeon in an operating theatre for example. You were trying to create a frame that would show a recognizable person and also articulate the essence of the work being undertaken. Body posture and the position of the hands were key elements to pay attention to. The choice of worker, activity and location was left to the individual student.  From the start you were encouraged to pursue your own interests, connections and ideas and through this to develop your own approach to the medium, but also to vary the kind of situations you were working in and gain a breadth of experience.

The subject of work is an excellent starting point for new photographers: people are often comfortable in the formal occupational roles they inhabit. If the work is busy or engrossing they soon lose awareness of the camera. Photographs of people doing things are important in photo essays. They introduce individual people and highlight the socio-economic roles they play, the positions they occupy or the activities they are associated with. However my memory of my first assignment at Newport is primarily of embarrassment. My inexperience felt contagious. I had chosen to photograph a cobbler working in a very cramped space. I was uncomfortable with the equipment I was using and concentrated so much on his hands that I managed to leave his head out of the frame for most of the photographs. It is profoundly peculiar behaviour to point a camera at another human being for an extended period of time and it takes time for this to become normalised.

What became clear later was that we were all learning a whole raft of important skills within which the technical, visual and photographic aspects were only a part. Learning social and interpersonal skills, gaining confidence in approaching people and getting access to social situations, gatherings and institutions. Learning how to negotiate our way into other people’s lives and most importantly how to stay there long enough to be able to photograph over an extended period of time. Photographing people now feels like an extraordinary privilege, having the opportunity to observe human activities at close quarters. For a photographer like myself and many of those whom I have taught and know, photography is like a passport into other worlds. This is one of the principal motivations for practitioners, the potential of being able to step outside your own day to day existence and experience other people’s worlds and perspectives.

The next assignment was entitled “Relationships”, essentially an assignment to photograph the visual manifestations of human relationships.  Starting off with relationships between two people and looking out for those clues of gesture, posture and facial expression that articulate the nature of the relationship taking place. This was immediately more complex than photographing people working. Moments when the relationship between people is expressed visually are often fleeting and transitory. One of the important lessons here was the possibility of searching for something very specific and perhaps ephemeral, rather than just mechanically recording what was continuously visible to everyone. Relationship photographs are important in determining the overall mood and tone within a photo essay. They can reveal complex human experiences of intimacy or alienation for example.  They can manifest the expression of human feelings and the emotional dimension of interactions as well as revealing relationships of hierarchy and power.

The final single picture assignment was to produce establishing shots. This kind of image is concerned with place and space.  It also introduces the idea of pacing within groupings of photographs: of having photographs that are taken from different distances and show a different sense of scale. The choice of establishing shot depends substantially on the story that is being told, the fundamental ideas being communicated. It locates the other photographs in a particular place or environment. So this assignment introduced the idea of constructing a narrative through several photographs, of trying to communicate a story through visual means.

After this assignment the students were tasked with producing short picture stories: groupings of images on a specific theme, created from the three visual elements described above. Other kinds of images like portraits and close up details could be added to extend the story and vary the visual structure of the narrative. In this way, the experience of constructing smaller picture stories gradually develops into undertaking longer photo essays and documentary projects.

The Newport system was quite widely criticized. It was seen by some as being old fashioned, perhaps even reactionary, harking back to the dying traditions of magazine photojournalism within the publications Picture Post and Life magazine rather than aligning itself with contemporary trends and emerging practices within documentary photography.   It was seen by many as being reductive, simplistic and tending towards the formulaic rather than encouraging individual creativity.

Of course the world cannot be broken down into such neat typologies. But the Newport system provides a template that can be applied to many situations as well as a set of rules that can be reacted against. Thinking of different ways of making pictures encourages a process of reflection and analysis and advances the development of workable visual strategies. In complex and rapidly changing social situations it is often difficult to decide what to photograph, what not to photograph and where to position the frame.

The system is also flexible enough to be employed for approaches other than photojournalism. In particular it offers clear potential for anthropologists interested in recording aspects of the social world for later analysis or equally for undertaking a photographic documentation in order to present research in a visual format. Such photo essays offer visual anthropologists a set of tools and an overall framework within which to operate and experiment. Working closely with people over an extended period of time, observing and recording the minutiae of human behavior brings the photo essay very close to the ethnographic methodologies of social scientists.

The photo essay is not the only approach to producing documentary photography in social situations. Indeed it is not that commonly employed by contemporary photographers.  Other approaches include working serially, producing an extended series of photographs that are structurally and formally similar: a group of interiors, portraits or still life details for example.

Contemporary digital cameras are extraordinarily sophisticated technologies. They remove much of the craft, skill and knowledge once needed to produce high quality images. But as yet they cannot make essential decisions about framing or understand what is significant and worth photographing.  And for some photographers, there is another issue. Digital technologies produce images with a similar overall tonal quality and feel. Many fine art documentary photographers are using larger format film cameras or other analogue technologies as a reaction to this tendency.  In an increasingly competitive field, documentary photographers increasingly want to assert individual authorship over their images: a recognizable authorial style is important in the current marketplace.  This clearly clashes with the idea of documentary as a relatively neutral and value-free process of recording. It also runs contrary to anthropological ideas of incorporating the perspectives of others into visual representations of the world.

The Craft of Editing

Editing single pictures from a shoot, whether by selecting individual frames from contact sheets or choosing between digital files displayed on a computer screen is a process of reduction, of weeding out the weaker images and choosing the more effective images. But when producing a short picture story, a longer photo essay or a documentary project, editing becomes a process of construction, of bringing together different kinds of images and different design elements to build a varied visual narrative. The specifics of this process depends partly on the nature and the scale of the intended output: whether it is for a magazine essay, a book, an exhibition for a gallery wall, a projection at a festival, or a portfolio on a website.

For many of these outputs, editing consists primarily of arranging a linear sequence of images: choosing an image to start and finish the sequence and then ordering the other images that fall in between.  There are no formal rules or guidelines to adhere to. It is usually a process of experimentation, of trial and error.  Personally I find it easier to work with actual printed images rather than working on a computer screen. I find it easier to be able to shuffle small prints around on a table or floor, experimenting with different sequences and allowing for the unexpected.

Although the sequence from start to finish is a fundamental element of most published photo essays, the format, whether in a magazine or a book, allows for the possibility of more complex connections between images:  images facing each other across opposing pages, images above or below other images.  It also allows for substantial variations in scale. Horizontal images on a single page, images running across the gutter but with a white border, and images bled off all four sides of a double page spread. Photo essays commonly employ visual variety as an editorial and design strategy and avoid repetition unless repetition is a key concept of the essay. Most importantly, a photo essay is substantially more than a portfolio of the photographer’s best images.

From my experience, the final form of an essay often emerges from a process neither entirely rational nor completely controlled.  It is of course really important to understand the individual images you are selecting, to know why they are effective and what they contribute to a larger grouping.  However, subtle and unpredicted visual and narrative connections appear between images randomly placed next to each other when editing. Shifts of meaning occur when the structure and sequence of a narrative is changed: a different ordering of the same group of images changes the overall visual statement. By altering the placement of an image in a sequence, you alter the interrelationship between the images. By changing the size of individual images in the wider grouping you are changing the emphasis placed upon these images within the overall narrative construction. Such interplay involves not just the rational grouping of images by subject matter and theme but the emotive connections made between images in terms of their mood and tone. It is always informative to pair images together and see what happens when they are viewed in context with each another. Unexpected formal connections emerge: visual elements echoing each other or the dynamics of gesture and graphic shape that lead from one image to another within a layout.

Once again, there are no formal rules to follow, but you can get a great sense of the possibilities of this kind of editing by looking at a wide variety of documentary photography books. As an exercise in the possibilities of presentational form, it is worth trying to analyse how and why the photographer has sequenced the images from beginning to end, where the images sit on the page and how the images vary in scale, if at all, within the overall narrative structure. Some books use only one size and shape of image throughout, for example Martin Parr’s Commonsense (1999) or Gilles Peress’ The Silence (1995) both of which use images bled to the edge of the page but to very different effect. Joel Sternfeld’s On this Site: Landscape in Memoriam (1996) or Mark Power’s The Shipping Forecast (1996) use one size of image on the same position on the page, each framed with a white margin. In contrast, some books employ substantial variation in the size of images, for example Sebastião Salgado’s Workers: Archaeology of the Industrial Age (1993) or Sahel: L’Homme en Détresse (1986) both of which function like extended magazine photo essays but reproduced in book format. Some books use very substantial captioning, for example Philip Jones Griffiths’ Vietnam Inc (1971) or Taryn Simon’s An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar (2007). Others have no captions at all, for example Josef Koudelka’s Gypsies (1975).

But producing the final edit for a photo essay is not merely a question of sequencing and presentation on the page. During the editing process, you have to come back repeatedly to the basic question of what the essay is about, what you as a photographer are trying to communicate and whether the final structure succeeds in this ambition.

Photojournalism, Documentary Photography and Visual Anthropology

I have been running a workshop on the MA in Visual Anthropology at Manchester University’s Granada Centre for nine years, and am currently a member of the Photography Committee at the Royal Anthropological Institute in London. I am interested in the potential overlap between visual anthropology and the practices of documentary photography and photojournalism.

Each of these fields is fluid and increasingly difficult to define.  I think of documentary photography as being a broad territory encompassing many approaches to still photography, but at its core is the process of recording and description.  There is no inherent subject matter for documentary photography, nor are there obvious limits to its attempts to describe the world through visual images.  Perhaps it can be understood as embracing the genre of photojournalism, which is a kind of applied documentary photography, informed historically by a journalistic and news agenda but now commonly operating independently of its traditional outlets.  And perhaps the key aspect defining visual anthropology as a form of documentary practice utilizing still photography is the conceptual framework within which the practice is situated rather than what the specific individual images taken by a visual anthropologist actually look like.  I suspect that the anthropological nature of still photographic practice is to be found less within the individual imagery and more within the interrelationships between groups of images and with their relationship to accompanying text.

In this context it is revealing to examine Danny Lyon’s recently reissued book Conversations with the Dead (1971) a project about Texas penal institutions in the late 1960s. On one level this is classic photo essay that could easily have been published in a magazine and in that context would have been viewed as a work of photojournalism.  But Lyon presented the work in an extended book format, a clear decision to retain editorial control over the sequencing and presentation, and the use of captions and texts.

The book is constructed not as magazine layouts but as a simple linear sequence with images positioned on the right-hand page, one single picture after another, and minimal captions on the left. The photographs start with a filmic sequence of prisoners arriving and entering the penitentiary.  This sequence functions not only to describe the journey from outside to inside, from freedom to imprisonment, but it also takes the viewer, through the experience of the photographer, deep inside the culture of the prison.

It is revealing to examine where Lyon positions himself.  Much of the time he is on the ground in amongst the prisoners and photographing from within looking out or looking up. This deep immersion within the community he is documenting adds significantly to the sense of an inmate’s perspective, especially noticeable when he photographs the prison staff.

There is substantial repetition in the overall sequence.  A magazine photo essay might tend to avoid the replication of similar kinds of pictures but in the context of a longer book such recurring usage amplifies the sense of regulation and institutionalized procedure. There are several images of shakedowns, of the strip searches of labourers re-entering prison from the fields. They detail the relentless day to day indignities suffered by felons. The repetition adds to the sense of the unremitting loss of individual dignity and invasion of personal space.

Conversations with the Dead includes the letters and paintings and even the execution order of an inmate called Billy McCune (McCune was eventually released). They open up another avenue of communication, giving the reader a bleak sense of the hopeless and remorseless brutality of the penal system of America at that time.  They also add significantly to communicating the worldview of the prisoners being documented. This commitment to expressing the views and perspective of the inmates takes Lyons’ work further away from photojournalism or conventional documentary practice and much closer to a work of visual anthropology.  The anthropological quality of the work is therefore located not within the specific single images but in their cumulative effect, in the photographer’s insider and immersed standpoint and perhaps equally in the author’s collaboration with McCune.

Bibliography

Jones Griffiths, Philip. 1971. Vietnam Inc. New York: Collier.

Koudelka, Josef. 1975. Gypsies. New York: Aperture.

Lyon, Danny. 1971. Conversations with the Dead. New York: Henry Holt and Co.

Mitidieri, Dario. 1994. Children of Bombay. Stockport: Dewi Lewis.

Parr, Martin. 1999. Commonsense. Stockport: Dewi Lewis.

Peress, Gilles. 1995. The Silence. New York: Scalo.

Power, Mark. 1996. The Shipping Forecast. London: Zelda Cheatle Press.

Salgado, Sebastião. 1993. Workers: Archaeology of the Industrial Age. London: Phaidon.

Salgado, Sebastião. 1986. Sahel: L’Homme en Détresse. France: Prisma Presse.

Salgado, Sebastião. 1986. Other Americas. New York: Pantheon.

Simon, Taryn. 2007. An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar. Göttingen: Steidl.

Sternfeld, Joel. 1996. On this Site: Landscape in Memoriam. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

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