The Future of Visual Anthropology Directed by Martin Gruber


2006 , 15 minutes, color. Distributed by Intervention Press , Castenschioldsvej 7, DK-8270, Højbjerg, Denmark ,

Martin Gruber's useful short film on the future of visual anthropology is constructed around a series of interviews with Jean Rouch, Ian Dunlop, Paul Henley, Karl Heider, Howard Morphy, Peter Crawford, Harald Prins, and Jay Ruby conducted during the 2001 Gottingen IWF conference. Taking the opposite tack to the conference itself—the title of which was “Origins of Visual Anthropology: Putting the Past Together”—Gruber's approach is to ask this lineup of major figures in contemporary visual anthropology what they each envisage for the future of the subfield. The interviews were carried out by Jochen Becker, Viola Scheuerer, and Gruber himself, and are themed into three main sections: Technology, Theory and Practice, and Discipline(s) and Institutions.

In terms of content the film covers a range of issues central to visual anthropology. The arguments around technology are long-standing, and serve as a point of widely varying perspectives for the group of interviewees. Alongside comments about the desirability of digital video cameras becoming increasingly “less intrusive,” it is refreshing to hear Rouch's assertion that “these are not cameras” in any real sense and that digital video is something that instead of embracing with open arms, we should “fight against.” Although his point makes little economic sense for departments or students, it is a useful corrective to the technological fetishization of digital video and the idea that it will necessarily initiate a more “intimate” kind of filmmaking. As someone who regularly screens films made by anthropologists to students, it is clear that new technology has not necessarily resulted in better films being made. The short statements the interviewees make are useful as an introduction to perennial arguments about the ways in which visual training in anthropology is pursued, and the often fraught relationship between anthropology and aesthetics of filmmaking. Henley makes a good point when he argues that he is more interested in the “now” of visual anthropology rather than any disputed past or any future promised by a developing technology.

In a positive light, several of those interviewed, Prins in particular, suggest that new digital technology does allow for a more participatory form of visual anthropology, and this is where a sense of common ground between the interviewees gradually emerges. Although the actual forms of this participation would undoubtedly be contentious, the discussion clearly points to a way in which digital technology has potentially enabled changes in both the kinds of relationships that are involved with practicing visual anthropology today and their relative status in terms of power and authority. As several of the interviewees point out, digital technology makes filmmaking more accessible in several ways: it enables cash-poor students and academics to produce work (although given this accessibility it is perhaps the lack of a high volume of output that needs explaining), but it also enables those normally on the other side of the lens to participate in new ways and—perhaps more importantly—produce their own visual work. The film and all those interviewed see this as a very positive move in visual anthropology's future. But surely this has been a possibility for some time—20 years at least. Certainly Rouch had been advocating a kind of participatory process for a lot longer. This is, however, where the film reveals its usefulness—a teaching tool for initiating productive collaborations.

The section of the film on the disciplining of the subfield also reveals some long-standing disputes. Ruby reiterates his well-known stance on the necessity of retaining a clear disciplinary boundary between anthropology and other areas of visual endeavor that deal with similar issues and face similar problems. The argument—somewhat superceded by current practices across a range of disciplines—that anthropologists are not, and should not aspire to be, “good” filmmakers is either symptomatic of anthropology's general iconophobia (Lucien Taylor, “Iconophobia,”Transition, 1996:64–88) or a useful policing of disciplinary boundaries, depending on which side of Ruby you stand. In this respect the film had a slightly tongue-in-cheek quality to it; by focusing on a range of leading figures in the subfield it inevitably made it feel a bit as if they were the future of visual anthropology. In one sense the film's title should be followed by a question mark, and this is certainly the kind of question the film prompts. Is this the future of visual anthropology?

The film answers this in a generally positive light and, as someone involved in teaching visual anthropology to undergraduate, postgraduate, and Ph.D. students, it is useful in several respects. First, in gathering together many of the leading figures of the subfield it brings together a range of sometimes-conflicting views and presents these in short, easily accessible “bites.” Although visually the film consists of a series of “talking heads,” it manages to maintain a strong sense of narrative through the thematic grouping of responses to questions, a style that is well suited to its short film format. Secondly, toward the end of the film, Crawford makes an important point about the visibility and coherence of visual anthropology as a subdiscipline when he suggests that it is difficult to create a strong sense of the field when people go to conferences for a few days but then return home and “draw the curtains again.” The film suggests that the future of visual anthropology is both full of productive potentials and is something that needs to be thought about beyond the special context of ethnographic film festivals.

This film is both engaging and pedagogically useful. It refers to a range of key debates in visual anthropology and although it does not explore them in depth, serves as a useful introduction. Importantly, it opens up questions of the subfield's future and its life beyond some of its founding figures. Since Gruber et al. are obviously very capable filmmakers, I think they should consider making a longer film, or series of films, that explore some of these difficult issues introduced in this film in greater depth. One way to perhaps accomplish this would be through a series of “master-classes” in which particular visual anthropologists review their own film footage.