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Anthropological Photography

visual cultural scientific research

Columbus College of Art and Design

At its inception in 1839, photography was celebrated for its realistic visual representation of things. The precision, clarity, sharpness, impartiality, truth to nature, and compelling believability of the photographic image were a revelation to society.

Consequently, photography quickly assumed a documentary role in anthropology, based on the underlying premise that photographs are visual transcriptions of reality, which appear to contain fact, evidence, and truth in an objectivity that is the cornerstone of factual documentary reporting. Objectivity also requires the image maker to be as unobtrusive and candid as possible in taking photographs, and to reveal visual information impartially in a manner that can both describe visual contexts and alter events as little as possible from reality. However, the photographer also has to frame the scene and choose the moment, so perfect objectivity is not possible. It is not always possible to be unobtrusive; for example, if a dark scene has to be lit with electronic flash.

Within these limitations, anthropological photographers adopt a strictly documentary approach and combine it with scientific method to interrelate, synthesize, and finally interpret visual and written information. When used in this way, photography is a valuable adjunct to anthropological and ethnographic research.

As a research tool, photography’s apparent verisimilitude creates a special category of document, which can be used as a visual counterpart to written observation, merging direct observation with realistic representation. Within its limitations, photography thus provides a consistent, tangible record for analysis and recordkeeping in an objective and commonly understood visual language. It is also a reliable means of storing, ordering, and interpreting visual information.

Most of the photographic evidence that finds practical use in anthropological research is concerned with counting, measuring, comparing, qualifying, and tracking. More specifically, the primary applications of anthropological photography demonstrate patterns in cultural diversity and its integration, societal control, religious behavior, marriage customs, festivals, etc., as well as to document the effects of these patterns on both the culture and the environment of interest. Photography is especially useful in this regard, because it allows the wholeness of each behavioral pattern to be essentially preserved while maintaining the spatial and contextual separation necessary for analytical cross-referencing and scientific study.

This seemingly objective scientific methodology also presents a fundamental quandary for visual anthropologists. The complication centers around photography’s uniform way of depicting time and space with its rectilinear framing and formatting, and the loss of information inherent in representing a three-dimensional world on a flat surface. Digital photography brings additional challenges as a result of digital photography’s capacity for after-the-fact image manipulation, which is both undetectable and transparent unless special care is taken.

Thus, contemporary critics point out that, in addition to supplying basic visual data, the visual language of photographs may also contain unintended biases, cultural and other types. Over time, these biases can form an unnoticed interpretive matrix in which the original context of a place or event mirrors the held values, syntax, semantics, and symbolism of an intended scientific audience. Such rational and scientific valuation systems risk obscuring rich cultural contexts by imposing problem-solving strategies, which may then be folded into academic social theories.

As a consequence, theorists have viewed anthropological photography as tacitly ideological, often serving scientific classification systems, and designed to produce measurements, grids, and hierarchical academic models, which tend to locate subjects outside of their own cultural community.

However, as a practical research tool, photography is exceptionally useful in several aspects of anthropological research: physical anthropology, a natural science involved with the biological aspects of human beings such as ethnic differences, human origins, and evolution; cultural anthropology, which studies human behavior; archeology, which describes and dates the remains of ancient buildings, artifacts, ecofacts, and manuports that may describe a culture; and applied anthropology, which uses the research of cultural and physical anthropologists to formulate social, educational, and economic policies.

Historically, many documentary and social documentary projects to some degree have served an anthropological function. For example, the work by John Tomson, Lewis Hine, photographers of the Farm Security Administration, Paul Strand in the Mexican Portfolio, and others have used photography to report on the human condition. An example of a scientifically criticized but nevertheless anthropologically useful project is Edward S. Curtis’ monumental documentation of the native tribes of North America, The North American Indian, 1907–1930 . In 20 photographically illustrated volumes and 20 portfolios, Curtis documented the rapidly disappearing American Indian culture through its architecture, customs, and appearance in 2228 photographs.

More, purely anthropological studies also exist. Perhaps the seminal model for current visual anthropologists is the 1942 study done by Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, The Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis . This study used over 25,000 35mm exposures as well as 22,000 feet of movie film. By placing relevant photographs side by side, the study pointed to intangible relationships found in different types of standardized cultural behavior patterns. It viewed the Balinese culture as a system of understandings and behaviors that also functioned as an expression of personal identity and experience. This study broke ground for much of the current methodology used in the quantification and correlation of photographic data in accordance with standard anthropological practice.


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