I carry my camera (Leica) for 2 reasons. One is to capture pictures that remind me of what I’ve experienced or just something for inspiration and two is to share with others what I am doing. A picture can often tell a story better than a thousand words. Photography can capture the pure spirit and beauty of life, to tell a story to tangiblize humanity or to create a real (or fake) personality and to communicate an idea. I called it the practice of visual anthropology. Does it mean I am now an anthropologist?
Photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Dorothea Lange or Steve McCurry have made their names by using photography to help us see the lives of so many that we may never be exposed to. They are more than artistic expressions, they are creating social meanings and codifying our cultures through the use of photos. As Cartier-Bresson said, “Pictures, regardless of how they are created and recreated, are intended to be looked at. This brings to the forefront not the technology of imaging, which of course is important, but rather what we might call the eyenology (seeing).”
There are many known social scientists and anthropologists who focus on the social meaning of photography including Elizabeth Edwards, Pierre Bourdieu and Jay Ruby to name a few. This is still an emerging field but will continue to add a creative layer of analysis to many existing methodologies. Visual anthropology and ethnographic photography do not currently have a well-articulated theory or method but is an explicit theory even needed? In the beginning, the primary function of photography in anthropology was as an aide-de-memoire, like written field notes, photography served to help reconstitute events or aid in writing. Now we’re all using Instagram.
This includes all aspects of our culture that are visible, from nonverbal communication, objects, light, texture, ritual, ceremonial performance, expressions and movement. The study of photography has been dominated and also limited by art historians.
The notion that visual anthropology is a means of scientific research may not be commonly accepted, the camera becomes the main visual anthropological tool. It helps many viewers to see things they would not normally be exposed to; it captures the scene around dialogue; and it depicts the mood and state of people in their natural context. The photos become “ethno displays” capturing moments of observation. There has always been a natural relationship between anthropology and photography – called it “anthrophotography” and I just invented a new term.
As Henri Cartier-Bresson said, “In photography, the smallest thing can become a big subject, an insignificant human detail can become a leitmotif. We see and we make seen as a witness to the world around us; the event, in its natural activity, generates an organic rhythm of forms.”
Visual anthropology can also be used in persona development, adding a tangible element to the identity of a customer. As the camera emulates the anthropological principles of participant observation it makes all things real. Events unfolding in front of the camera, reveal insights by showing – not telling – a specific truth about specific people. An important discipline to master as a photographer is not interfering with the subject; being there by trying not to be there.
When faced with a camera, a photographer will often get one of two very distinct reactions. One is interaction. The camera becomes the point of conversation and people respond by reacting – they come up to you and sometimes even pose for you. The other reaction, is people suddenly become aware of the camera, change their behavior or even retreat away from the interaction.
A point of debate is whether the anthropologist can separate their point of view from that of the camera. Can you capture and analyze? Can both perspectives exist during fieldwork? Each perspective brings different things to the forefront, and it is the combination of these perspectives that give shape to visual anthropology. With a camera, both the expected as well as the unexpected are captured. And it is with the unexpected that analysis becomes interesting. The rapid proliferation of visual media coupled with our already rich visual cultures expands the opportunity for visual anthropology immensely. As culture evolves in tandem with the technology of capturing culture, the field becomes an even richer place of study. Just look around at those who are taking photos of themselves using their iPhone.