Class Information for the Fall of 2017:
September 8 – December 1
Meeting days and times:
Fridays, 10:15am—1:00pm
Campus: SGW, Room H–561

Download the Syllabus

“The science of anthropology owes not a little to the art of photography”.
~ Edward B. Tylor (1876)

Overview (from the Undergraduate Calendar)

In looking at the history of ethnographers’ visual documentation of non-Western peoples as well as indigenous self-representations, this course primarily concerns itself with power and the development of professional anthropology, focusing on photography and film. It explores paradigms and case studies in the history of visual anthropology by highlighting the stylistic, social scientific, commercial, and political agendas that influence the production of visual documents. Starting with colonial exhibitions of “exotic natives,” the course progresses to classic and contemporary ethnographic film with a focus on Curtis, Flaherty, Mead, Gardner, Rouch, and MacDougall.

Introduction

“Visual anthropology” offers important tools for those who wish to undertake ethnographic research, engage in media analysis, for those interested in material culture, or it can be relevant to those with an interest in the arts and other forms of cultural display (such as museums). Since the subfield is a broad one, and could cover any manner of visual expression, this course is only an introduction that focuses on photography and film, the two leading media of visual anthropologists to date. In focusing on photography and film, we consider broad themes dealing with the relationships between “scientism” and “humanism”. The dominant centres in the production of visual ethnography have been Britain, the United States, and Australia, producing a subfield that was once one of the fastest growing areas of interest in Anglo-American anthropology.

In looking at the history of ethnographers’ visual documentation of non-Western peoples as well as indigenous self-representations, this course primarily concerns itself with power and the development of professional anthropology, focusing on photography and film. This course explores paradigms and case studies in the history of visual anthropology by highlighting the stylistic, social scientific, commercial and political agendas that influence the production of visual documents.

Starting with colonial exhibitions of “exotic natives,” the course progresses through photography to classic and contemporary ethnographic film with a focus on Curtis, Flaherty, Mead, Gardner, Rouch and MacDougall. This course does not offer any practical training in photography or videography. However, it is inevitable that many points about methods and techniques will be raised throughout the course, even if methods are not the central concern. This course is specific to anthropology, which means that we do not cover the history of photography and film in a general sense. In addition, this course does not attempt a complete and comprehensive history of all trends in either ethnographic photography or ethnographic film, which would easily exceed the bounds of this course (although we will still see 9 films in 13 weeks). This course focuses on the landmark creations, those that serve as core points of reference among most visual anthropologists, that should hopefully guide and invite students to explore more work on their own. More contemporary and experimental films, post-1990, are left out of this course, but are largely accessible to you online (see more on that below).

Finally, as with any course, there is only so much that the instructor can do during lecture time. In our case, classroom interaction is further limited by the need to feature several films. To help you get the most out of this course, it might be useful to think of this course as running along three separate tracks, i.e.: (1) lectures and class discussions, (2) readings (assigned and independent), and, (3) film case studies in class. It is up to you to combine as much as possible from each of these tracks.

Overview—Course Questions

This course explores several related topics surrounding the use of still photography and film: (a) what photographs and film show (and do not show); and, (b) how Western culture uses images of non-Western peoples, and debates about how non-Western peoples use images of themselves.

Some of the specific questions we will explore include:

  1. What is the status of “the visual” in contemporary Western society and in the social sciences?
  2. How have photographs and films of non-Western peoples been used in anthropology?
  3. What kinds of bias and stereotypes, stylistic conventions, scientific, commercial and political agendas influence the choice of recorded images?
  4. In which ways do images taken by indigenous image-makers differ from those taken by “outsiders”?
  5. How can a visual component be a valuable part of ethnographic field projects?
  6. What makes a photograph or a film ethnographic?

By the end of this course you should be able to come away with a critical understanding of the following:

  • That which images do and do not “show”;
  • The many potential messages embedded in any one image;
  • The history of visual documentation of non-Western peoples by anthropologists and others;
  • The implications of visual recording;
  • The limitations and the benefits of using photography and film in anthropological research; and,
  • The expectations to be faced when constructing a photographic/filmic project or product as an ethnographic one.
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