Reflecting Visual Ethnography: Using the Camera in Anthropological Research by Metje Postma and Peter I. Crawford, eds.


Leiden : CNWS Publications , 2006 .

Reflecting Visual Ethnography is based on the Evaluating Visual Ethnography conference held at Leiden University (September 21–24, 1999) in honor of anthropologist and ethnographic filmmaker Dirk Nijland. The book elaborates upon two themes central to Nijland's work and the conference alike: the use of the camera in anthropological research, and the relationship between anthropological knowledge and visual ethnography. Attempting to tack between written and filmic anthropology, the 17 chapters in this volume, as well as the included DVD of film-fragments, are arranged into five sections based on themes that arose in the conference: (1) Acting and Seeing; (2) Analysis and Elicitation; (3) Sociality; (4) Ritual Space and Time; and (5) Narrative.

The first and shortest section, “Acting and Seeing,” explicates the interrelationships between “visual perception and bodily engagement in the process of cultural learning and emotional embodiment” (6). This task is addressed by Nijland's exploration in chapter 1 of the neurological and psychological linkages between visual perception, action, and emotion.

The second section, “Analysis and Elicitation,” deals with the use of visual materials in eliciting and analyzing rituals. Chapter 2, by Nijland, and chapter 3, by Jos Platenkamp, both deal with their film Tobelo Marriage (D. J. Nijland, in cooperation with J. D. M. Platenkamp. Rijksuniversiteit, 1985). Nijland's chapter highlights the utility of ethnographic film for eliciting the Tobelo people's own understandings of their filmic images, while Platenkamp focuses on the significance of visibility to the Tobelo, for whom it is “an index to human sociality in contradiction to the invisibility of the dead” (79). Delineating the process of making a film about the Teyyam ritual in chapter 4, Erik de Maaker discusses the rich data provided via feedback sessions while arguing that ethnographic films must interpret and not merely recount cultural materials. Chapter 5, by Yasuhiro Omori, and chapter 6, by Jan van Bremen, both deal with Omori's film The Seven Young Gods of Fortune: Fertility Rite of Dosojin (Y. Omori, The National Museum of Ethnology, 1983). Omori's chapter suggests that ethnographic films should include both research footage and anthropological analysis because the qualities of film—when well contextualized and executed—allow for intuitive understandings. Van Bremen's chapter locates Omori and his work within the landscape of Japanese anthropology, noting the prominence of visual anthropology thereto, and noting its corpus of ethnographic films largely unrecognized in Western anthropology.

The third section, “Sociality,” explores the relationships between those behind and in front of the camera during filming, as well as cultural understandings of personhood and status underlying social processes. Chapter 7, by Jean Lydall and Ivo Strecker, is one of the strongest in the volume. Emphasizing the role of the relationship and rapport between filmmakers and those being filmed, and succinctly addressing key topics revealed by the authors' use of film in ethnography, this chapter takes an important step toward demystifying the multiplexed roles and agendas of all participants in ethnographic filming. Chapter 8, by Carla Risseeuw, stresses the importance of indigenous understandings of sociality, here linking these understandings to performance as a way of unpacking the efficacy of healing practices in West Kenya. Concluding this section is chapter 9, by Rosella Ragazzi, wherein cultural notions of visibility and feedback on previously shot footage are revisited, here in the context of migrant children's experiences in a Parisian primary school.

The fourth section, “Ritual Space and Time,” examines both the anthropological and methodological dilemmas of representing the content of rituals, as well as the relationships between content and form. Chapter 10, by van den Hoek, Nijland, and Shresta, and chapter 11, by Heider, both deal with the 1997 film Sacrifice of Serpents: The Festival of Indrāyan?, Kathmandu 1992/1994 (Nijland, Shresta, and van den Hoek. 108 min. Betacam SP, 1997). Chapter 10 richly describes the process of making this film, but also reads as somewhat defensive to the appeals for greater contextualization voiced by both Heider (chapter 11) and Steven Parish (see “Film Review ‘Sacrifice of Serpents: The Festival of Indrāyan?, Kathmandu 1992/1994’,”American Anthropologist, 101(1):170–172, 1999). Chapter 12, by Wanono, and chapter 13, by Luning, both address Wanono and Lourdou's 1997 film, In the Shadow of the Sun (N. Wanono and P. Lourdou. 83 min. Documentary Educational Resources, 1997). Wanono's chapter investigates the intriguing dilemma of trying to film ritually significant space, and productively differentiates between space as object and background. Luning's chapter challenges the assumption that ethnographic content should always determine visual representations, suggesting that visual media can also be used to help evoke cultural understandings and processes inimical to filming.

“Narrative,” the final and strongest section, is dedicated to exploring “narrative in reality and narrative structure in film and how these should or could coincide” (6). Chapter 14, by Peter Crawford, explores the relationships between film as language and as record, and richly demonstrates the potential of ethnographic film for exploring, showing, and telling. Among the highlights of this collection, chapter 15, by Metje Postma, meticulously details the differences between ethnographic description and presentation she dealt with in editing her 1998 film, Of Men and Mares—Workhorses in Zeeland (M. Postma. 90 min. 1988). In chapter 16, Colette Piault argues that the ethnographic filmmaker's task is to identify stories deemed pertinent by the community, and that much of the filmmaker's preparatory work transpires in the imagination. Paul Henley's concluding chapter, among the most persuasive of this collection, argues for greater attention by visual anthropologists to narrative possibilities and styles in structuring ethnographic films, and emphasizes that “the making of an ethnographic film does not consist of holding a mirror up to the world, but rather entails the production of a representation of it” (394).

The 17 chapters in this collection can be taken together as examples of highly successful visual ethnographic research and filmmaking. Each chapter provides interesting materials for continued consideration, with those by Lydall and Strecker, Postma, and Henley being particularly rich. This volume does lack theoretical and methodological consistency between its authors, but nonetheless provides an important body of reference material for those interested or involved in visual ethnographic research.

Where this book most falls short is in living up to the promise of its subtitle: Using the Camera in Anthropological Research. At the very least this is misleading, as only Postma's chapter devotes any attention to the use of still photography. While there are abundant photos throughout the 17 chapters, the included photographs are never directly referenced in the text (with the one exception of Postma), and there is no discussion as to their inclusion, representativeness, or significance. There is, however, extensive reference to the included film-fragments. Thus, as a whole, the volume portrays an unfortunately uneven understanding of visual anthropology and ethnography, one limited to video. As such, “using the video camera in anthropological research” may have provided a more accurate description of the collection, even if an equally limited conceptualization of visual anthropology. Notwithstanding this strong caveat, and minor editorial miscues such as the introduction jumping from chapters 9 to 12 before addressing chapters 10 and 11, and the film Sacrifice of Serpents being misidentified as a 1988 film (15), there is still much to recommend this book.

The authors do successfully live up to the promise of the book's main title: Reflecting Visual Ethnography. The dual themes of camera use in anthropological research and the relationship between visual ethnography and anthropological knowledge are well met in two ways. Firstly, many of the sections involve paired chapters wherein ethnographic filmmakers' comments offer contrasting perspectives on the same topic and even on the same film. Secondly, and further bolstering the utility of this approach, is the included DVD of the film-fragments discussed throughout the text. Taken together, these contrasting perspectives on specific examples and the included film-fragments offer diverse reflections of visual ethnography. Heider's words (in his case directed to the authors of chapter 10) would seem to apply to the overall significance of the chapters collected in this volume: “they have brought no closure but opened new thinking … and also they have stimulated our thinking about ethnographic film in general” (250).