In What Ways Are The Histories of Photography And Anthropology Parallel?

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In the past few years anthropology has established an intimate engagement with photography which is regarded for the collection of evidence.

Media studies scholars have made immense and effective use of ethnographic methods and ideas about rituals and myths given by anthropologists. Media anthropology is an active as well as exciting research area in which there is much scope of research.

Till the last few decades, use of media technology in anthropology was not trusted in non-western countries which are generally called native societies. For them, the presence of mass media was a threat to the native cultures as they believed that the invasion of mass media into native life would lead to the desertion of these cultures. The people of these societies never liked media’s interference in the ethnographic accounts and films that they produced. Undoubtedly, such practices not only showed but also produced social and racial differences. It also showed the wide gap in thought process of people living in the same genre who could be distinguished as modern and primitive men.

These kinds of practices have indefinitely led to the formation of Western ideas about non- Western societies. The huge difference in the discretion of the two societies became more highlighted in colonial and post-colonial times. The fact can’t be denied that if such practices have given the name of ‘primitive men’ to non- Western societies, the declination of such absurd thought by Western societies has given them the tag of ‘modern’ men.

Keeping these differences in view, anthropology has done a reinvestigation on its assumptions about the non-Western societies. For this self-examination, some anthropologists have even documented the uses of media in non-Western communities as the old assumptions and claims about the impact of media on anthropology had been questioned and also rejected to a large extent.

In his famous book Photography and Anthropology, Christopher Pinney presents striking parallelism between anthropology and photography. Not only this, he has also given an overview of the use of the use of photography by anthropologists from the 1840s to the present. In his book, Pinney has presented photography as a tool used by anthropologists to capture the “primitive” lives of their subject matter. He also makes an in-depth analysis of the inter-related histories of photography and anthropology and their development in relation to the world history.

Commenting on the relation between anthropology and photography, Walter Benjamin says that photography, “make[s]the difference between technology and magic visible as a thoroughly historical variable.”

Pinney’s remarkable book focuses on the changing phases in the field of anthropology and clarifies the fact that photography was first viewed as an objective recording of ethnographic evidence by researchers in the 19th century.

In the present globalized world, an image always enjoys a privileged state. The principal aim of visual anthropology is not only concerned with what people see, but  also how they see and most importantly what they want others to see in a specific manner. Visual anthropology is a fast developing branch of anthropology which mainly concerned with understanding ethnographic research, media analysis, material culture and critical study of the arts and other forms of cultural display and representation.

In his article, Anthropology and the Cinematic Imagination, David MacDougall  relates the beginnings of the cinematic imagination to the use of stereograph.  Thereafter, he points towards enthusiastic approach of the 19th century anthropologists for the new media of photography and motion pictures. However, the ‘dark age’ of visual anthropology in the first half of the 20th century pinpointed by the MacDougall shows the declining relations between the two fields.

During the dark age of visual anthropology, anthropologists hesitated in publishing photographs in their monographs.  In this age, ethnographic filmmaking was looked down and viewed as that part of anthropology which was meant to be used by amateurs, adventurers, missionaries, journalists and travel lecturers rather than anthropologists.  Commenting on this phase of the relation shared between photography and anthropology, MacDougall says that photographic media “were considered vulgar and exuded aura of the musical hall.”

Explaining about the logocentric practices of anthropologists and their methodologies, he describes about the changes occurring in anthropological knowledge itself. He says that it was, “shifting away from the visible worlds of human beings and their material possessions towards the invisible world of abstract relations such as kinship, political organization and social values”. He further added, “if observation was so important, you would think that filming people in their daily interactions would have become increasingly useful.

Yet, it was just at this time, when filming people became possible, that anthropologists began to drift away from it. The human body, which had excited so much interest in the 19th century, when it was constantly being measured and photographed, had ceased to be a site of meaning.”

The strongest ray of hope emerged after the second world war in the 1930s with the Balinese project undertaken by Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead and and later on in collaboration with Jean Rouch. All these researchers made use of light-weight as a kind of personal writing instrument.

The most remarkable achievement of these researchers was the reinvention of the ethnographic film which helped in enlivening the interest in the potential of visual anthropology. 

MacDougall says, “Beginning in the 1950s they began to demonstrate that cinema had more to offer anthropology than a technology of note-taking or a means of popularization. Their films tried to enter into the thoughts and feelings of their subjects and the physical spaces in which they lived.”

MacDougall’s argument focuses on the changes brought in photographic media by popular entertainment due to which anthropologists avoided the use of photographic media at the beginning of the century.

So, in order to make wide application of visual media or photography in anthropological investigations, the need is to focus on how to transmit the ethnographic knowledge pictorially and improve the modes of representation and not only on  reproducing the archetype of the documentary film.

Though the application and significance of the visual anthropology has improved a lot from the level it had at the beginning of the 20th century, but still there is a wide scope of this field which can help in gaining from the visual field of experience and revived visual modes of representation. Undoubtedly, this will also strengthen the relations between the two disciplines, anthropology and photography.


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