Using film in ethnographic research

Films have been used in ethnographic research since the inception of anthropology as a discipline in the late 19th and early 20th Century. This marriage, however, has not always been an easy one. Once considered an indispensable tool by Alfred Cort Haddon, the organiser of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to the Torres Straits, which marked the symbolic beginning of modern anthropology, film fell out of favour with anthropologists for a number of decades.

In addition to the many technological problems (such as cameras that were too heavy and expensive, or film as being too volatile a medium) there was a shift on theoretical focus. Haddon’s generation was interested in the observable and manifest expression of culture and they looked at the camera as a neutral tool for the collection of “objective” data. Anthropologists later concentrated on the more abstract aspects of life such as social structures, psychological traits, cultural ethos, and the threads that held a society together to form a coherent whole. How could they capture with an instrument that captures only visual reality?

After many decades of technological improvements in film cameras and recording equipment, anthropologists continue to use the medium as a tool for documentation, and to illustrate their arguments even though they realise that there is no clear cut relationship between reality and the images captured by the camera. This, however is only one use of film in ethnographic research, and quite a restricted one at that, if one considers how anthropologists can use the medium to gain a greater understanding of different case studies.

Visual anthropologists have recently begun using the camera not so much as an objective recording devise, but as an instrument of discovery and exploration within ethnographic research. Cameras can be employed to elicit discussions, provoke meaningful performances and to reveal what Margaret Mead referred to as the intangibles of social life. Such intangibles may be better represented through the observation of body gestures, facial expressions, nuanced glances, tone of voice, pauses in speech, which usually escape the written ethnography.

Film is a powerful tool for both the process of understanding and exploration in fieldwork and for the representation of sensorial aspects of anthropological knowledge. It can capture much more than simply visual reality.

Manchester experts and projects

We are privileged here in Manchester for having the world-leading masters course in visual anthropology at the Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology (GCVA). The GCVA also congregates a number of researchers from within the Discipline Area of Social Anthropology and outside of it who are actively engaging in visual and aural research projects. 

Key publications

  • Henley, Paul (2010) The Adventure of the Real: Jean Rouch and the Craft of Ethnographic Cinema. University of Chicago Press
  • MacDougall, David (1998) Transcultural Cinema. Princeton University Press
  • MacDougall, David (2006) The Corporeal Image: film, ethnography and the senses. Princeton University Press
  • Pink, Sarah (2006) The Future of Visual Anthropology: engaging the senses. Routledge
  • Ruby, Jay (2000) Picturing Culture: explorations in film and anthropology University of Chicago Press
  • Taylor, Lucien, ed.(1994) Visualizing Theory: Selected Essays from V.A.R. 1990-1994 . Routledge.

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