Visualizing Anthropology by Anna Grimshaw and Amanda Ravetz, eds.


Bristol, UK : Intellect Books , 2005 .

The key contention of this compact collection of essays is that there continues to be an unfruitful chasm between “anthropologies of the visual” and “visual practice itself” (1). The provenance of visual anthropology goes back to the origins of “salvage anthropology,” with the ubiquitous use of the camera to visually document the material cultures and practices of unfamiliar and exotic peoples in the colonies. However, the editors claim that the fieldworker's body mimicked the photographic process itself during the professionalization of anthropology as an academic discipline. The subsequent denigration of the visual is thus correlated with the strategy of asserting ethnographic authority through written text.

This legacy has spilled over into contemporary visual anthropology, which until recently has continued to be theoretically framed by the discursive concerns of academia in contrast to the epistemological possibilities of visual techniques and forms. This has resulted in “films about anthropology” rather than “anthropological films.” Echoing David MacDougall, a key proponent of visual anthropology, Anna Grimshaw and Amanda Ravetz characterize the latter as a process of inquiry in which “knowledge is not prior but emerges through the very grain of film-making” (3). As is well known, this is a methodological stance typified in “observational cinema,” which assumes the possibility that the “film-maker and subject exist in a shared physical and imaginative space, one that encompasses but is not necessarily synonymous with the events that are filmed” (7).

Despite the many merits of “observational cinema,” the editors suggest the timeliness of forging new pathways given the recent theoretical turn toward what may be called simply “an anthropology of the senses,” as well as less angst over interdisciplinary borrowings. More specifically, they encourage more experimentation, collaborative effort, and a greater traffic of ideas with practitioners like artists, writers, photographers, and filmmakers in order to explore the aesthetic possibilities of image-based forms and the “intelligence of sight.” In the final analysis, the editors hope that these kinds of ventures may help to constitute visual anthropology as a “radical form of ethnographic enquiry” (15).

This hybrid posture is consciously reflected in the spectrum of authors contributing to the book. However, those hoping for treatises, formulaic recipes, or even a catalog of teaching practices in Visualizing Anthropology would have to look elsewhere. What is offered instead is a collection of succinct philosophical and reflexive pieces on each contributor's mode of visual engagement with the world. A number of salient themes run throughout the chapters, including the quest to be true to the social realities of one's research subjects, to be mindful of the politics of representation, and to creatively stretch the ideals of one's own respective craft. Each essay plots the dilemmas and competing imageries that impinge upon and inflect the authors' past projects.

Five of the 12 authors have been associated with the Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology based at Manchester University, either as teaching staff or graduate students. A number of the latter, such as Julie Moggan and Rachel Robertson, have gone on to work in the media industry and pen critical reflections on the uneasy relations between the utopian-like principles of “observational cinema” and the pragmatic demands of the industry. Similarly, other contributors, primarily from the fields of fine arts, film, and social anthropology, provide illuminating accounts of their experiences in the complex, messy, oftentimes intuitive, and experiential practices of visual making—whether in the contexts of a documentary video installation (Inga Burrows), a consultant on a movie set (Arnd Schneider), or revisiting a fieldwork site with new interdisciplinary sensibilities (Amanda Ravetz). In the case of Judith Okely's chapter, her own memories become the site for an “ethnography in action” as she and her co-traveler are filmed subversively remembering reenacting repressive bodily disciplines at their elitist former alma mater. If some of the chapters lend themselves to an overly serious tone, Margaret Loescher's piece reminds us of the liberating element of playful creation as evidenced by the city kids she researched and filmed. The traffic in visual perspectives is not all one-way. Essays by Roanna Heller and Amanda Ravetz point to ethnographic fieldwork—the enduring strength of anthropology—in enriching artistic expressions through an attention to long-term involvement and encounters.

Reading Visualizing Anthropology has proved illuminating in interrogating my own recent work. With no formal training, I consider myself a neophyte to the field of visual anthropology, though I have recently engaged with it via a project I conducted in the mountain resort of Baguio City, in the Cordilleran region of the Philippines. In this fieldwork stint, I produced my first two ethnographic videos of contrasting durations and styles. The longer documentary, Sidewalk Capitalism: Being a Street Vendor in Baguio City (Y. Seng-Guan. 70 min. Malaysia, 2006) focuses on the daily routines, anxieties, and challenges faced by selected sidewalk vendors in Baguio City. Their narratives were supplemented by the commentaries of local community leaders, social activists, and a key city official involved in punitive actions against these vendors. A much shorter piece, The Gladiator Cock (Y. Seng-Guan. 10 min. Malaysia, 2006), was the outcome of an afternoon spent in a cockfighting arena toward the end of my fieldwork.

My interest in the making of these ethnographic documentaries was sparked by a growing desire to experiment with a technology and medium which seem to offer greater accessibility in showing the subject matter of the production of capitalist space, urban poverty, and rights to the city. Before the project, I quickly learned the techniques of camerawork and nonlinear digital editing through activist friends working in a communication-based NGO oriented toward promoting community media and human rights standards in Malaysia and the Southeast Asian region. Their pedagogical concerns of giving voice to the marginalized and facilitating empowerment through popular media inflected the making of Sidewalk Capitalism. This is partly reflected in a blog that I maintained for the duration of my fieldwork ( While Sidewalk Capitalism deployed the strategy of talking heads to orientate the viewer toward the life-worlds of my informants, The Gladiator Cock had minimal commentary. After reading Visualizing Anthropology, I see avenues for reframing both projects, as editors Grimshaw and Ravetz programmatically put it, into “more visual” terms. That visual translation would be no less challenging as far as the demands and dilemmas of anthropological fieldwork, but would now involve more innovative modes of visual interpretation and presentation.

Visualizing Anthropology is a welcome addition to the steadily growing stock of publications on the field. To paraphrase one of the contributors (Pavel Buchler), this book offers persuasive accounts of why visual anthropologists must be set free to give more creative visual forms to their research projects, even if their work “makes nothing happen” in the first instance.