journal banner journal mainsubscribecontact medium articles about institutes
service learning summer institute

learn more l premium early bird + team rates l register online


Discovering Community Through Visual Anthropology: A Student Project


Luci Fernandes, Ph.D. is a cultural anthropologist whose research focus is on documenting daily life through audio/visual mediums. She documents life ways in both contemporary Cuban and in Eastern North Carolina, where she lives and teaches anthropology courses for East Carolina University. Her aim in to highlight everyday people, their joys and struggles to connect people in their human experience. Luci is a regular contributor to Community Works Journal. She will be contributing her K-16 applicable work and ideas on a regular basis with Community Works Journal readers..

An Introduction
As a cultural anthropologist who has lived and done field work in collectivist societies of Latin America, I was eager to have my students develop an understanding of the importance of community and an appreciation of the diversity of communities that coexist and interact in any given location. As a visual anthropologist and an ethno- photographer, I also wanted them to learn how to use the camera, both still and motion, to document the various aspects of these communities and to provide means for members of these communities to articulate their cultures and present them to others.

As part of my ethnographic methodology in recording daily life, photography and film have become just as important as any other method available.  Visual media helps to convey important information of the human condition by provoking emotion that connects people to one another. Photos as documentation, opens a window into daily life or a cultural event and brings these activities as a witness. Unlike written text, the person who is reading the information second hand (readers of my published work on daily life) photos enhance the experience of interested people who have no to limited exposure of the studied population.

The visual anthropology course challenged students to create an ethnographic account using text, photos, and film. They needed to decide on what they would illuminate in their populations, from what perspective they would portray them, what they wanted people to know about this group, and what they themselves wanted to know. Unlike writing a midterm and final paper for a course, students had to go out on a limb by presenting their cultural group to the community, the students, faculty, and in some cases the cultural group they had chosen to represent. This type of learning is indispensable and should be part of the university experience, although often times it is not.

With the assistance of a grant from the BB&T Leadership Center at East Carolina University in Greenville, NC, I was able to develop and teach a visual anthropology course during the fall 2012 semester that focused on developing the community leadership skills of students through projects that took them out of their comfort zones. I had three general goals for the students as future community leaders. First, I wanted to help them recognize the different cultural lenses through which they and the groups in their communities perceive reality. I also wanted them see more clearly the culturally significant aspects of these communities. Finally, I wanted them to be able to envision innovative/creative enhancements.

I had nine students, seven undergraduates and two graduate students, from a variety of disciplines including art, anthropology, sustainable tourism, psychology, and communications. I designed the course as an experiential, active and engaged learning experience and included several challenging projects. The students were to communicate their findings not only to the university community, but to the larger Greenville community as well. Each project built on the previous ones to create a composite view of the communities chosen by the students.

Communities are rich with a variety of peoples who have the potential to contribute productively to society in a myriad of ways. Finely-tuned community leaders, however, are required if this potential is to be actualized. Such leaders need to develop the ability to observe thoughtfully and understand what they see in the community in which they work. No matter which career field they choose, leaders must connect with the people they direct. In order to do that, they must recognize and understand the cultural variations and backgrounds of the community’s groups. Variation in communication style, mannerisms, dress, language, and perception of how the world works: all influence opinion. To avoid quick judgments of others, community leaders need to be equipped with the skills necessary for cultural understanding. Strong community leaders can also assess individual skills and strengths through observation and evaluation. They are able to match skills to tasks as well as bring out talent by providing an environment for growth.

Through participation in the course, my students discovered that Greenville has a rich variety of peoples. My goal was to take students out of the classroom and get them to interact with community members through interviews, observations, photo documentation, and filming. My students saw first-hand that community members contribute productively to society in many ways and that to be successful leaders, they would have to develop the ability to observe thoughtfully and to understand the community in which they work. By interacting with people from different, and unfamiliar, segments of the Greenville area, they earned how to detail, evaluate, analyze, and finally represent their findings to the community through photos and film.


The sub-discipline of visual anthropology is premised on the belief that other cultures can be understood and represented through the visual symbols that they use, based on an analysis derived from long term participant/observation of a select group of people. Photographs and film of other cultures have a seemingly objective explanatory power that masks the subjectivity implicit in their making. Through the use of digital photography and film, my students learned to recognize the different cultural lenses through which they and the groups in their communities perceive reality; they saw more clearly the culturally significant aspects of these communities, and envisioned innovative/creative enhancements. They worked with community members to portray this particular segment of the community in its truest light through listening, observing, and collaborating.

Observing a Community
At the beginning of the semester, I began by explaining the orientation of the course, the importance of developing leadership skills in life, and how anthropology can assist by increasing awareness of diversity. So that my students could share their progress, including their successes and mistakes, I required them to create an individual blog page using Tumblr on which they had to post all of their assignments. Their blog pages ultimately included an audio podcast, student photos, a narrated slide show, and a video clip. When time allowed, they presented their findings to the class and their classmates gave them feedback, which supplemented my own comments and formal grades.

The first step was for the students to learn how to observe. They needed to be able really to see what was around them in the community. They had to become aware of the diverse cultural groups, including those that are less well understood or even unrecognized. They needed to identify them, select which ones they wanted to investigate, gain access, and then document what they learned. They all agreed that it would be strange and uncomfortable for them if they were asked to do the same by having a person record aspects of their daily lives. These class discussions helped to create empathy for the individual with whom they were observing and interviewing. The importance of empathy is something that is understated in anthropological research, yet it was important for me to do my best to teach students this aspect of observation.

One of the things that we did in class was to brainstorm a definition of community. Afterwards, each student selected a community group to observe and document throughout the semester. The students remained with the same community group for the fifteen weeks of the course to gain a deep understanding of each cultural group. Relying on their social networks they established themselves within their chosen communities. They had to be flexible enough to work both with others and alone, as well as to appreciate the advantages and disadvantages of both. In the classroom and under my direction, students had the experience of working collaboratively in teams and individually to complete their tasks. Each community with which they worked had to be relatively stable membership (same people getting together), bounded physical or geographical space (same location), and some form of micro-culture (shared interests, communal knowledge).

As a cultural anthropologist, I had originally expected that my students would chose ethnic groups within the Greenville community. Some of the students did choose ethnic groups: the Mexican community, the Asian community, and the eclectic ethnic group of international students. Other students chose other groups much in the news such as the alternative lifestyle community (LGBT) or the Islamic community. Their other choices were more surprising, but reflected their own personal interests: the political community, the religious community (Jehovah Witness), the farming community and the tattoo community. Upon reflection I realized that this expansion of the definition of community beyond ethnic groups was a in fact a milestone and a sign of success; the students had gone beyond the limits of conventional notions of community. It also demonstrated the value of having a disciplinary diversity within the classroom, which brought many different interests, strengths, and to be honest weaknesses to the learning process.

I asked students to observe and investigate certain cultural aspects of these community groups such as love, courtship and marriage; traditions; gender roles; rites of passage, ceremonies, spirituality, religious beliefs or practices; work life and economy, e.g., business ownership in a relatively small town; community organization, e.g., politics in a small Southern town; communication style; expressive culture, such as music, art, dance, crafts, adornment and cultural definitions of beauty. I had my students keep a journal in which they every week they entered their interview field notes, reflections, and analysis of the information that they gathered from their communities.

Interacting with a Community
Because they were going to be working with people, my students had to complete the IRB modules that the university requires of students conducting research with human subjects. They had to create a consent form and obtain the full-informed consent of all community participants.

Then, they had to learn how to interact with diverse populations, recognizing and representing the distinctiveness of each population. They learned how to make contacts with community groups and network within them and among them. They practiced interpersonal communication through interviewing and discussing culturally significant aspects of the community. They developed innovations collectively and explained project goals to community members.

The students had also to learn how to develop rapport and establish trust with these diverse community groups. They learned about the interview process through informal and semi-structured interviews. They conducted interviews and participant observation. All members of the community have their own stories to tell and their own distinctive sets of circumstances that have shaped and continue to shape these narratives. Learning how to listen actively was particularly important if the students were going to capture accurately and record the stories they heard. They analyzed these stories, and in the process became aware of the cultural lenses that shape perceptions. They had to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each population and determine areas that needed improvement or aspects that the communities could develop positively in the future.

Adam Johnson, for example, chose the LGBT community of Greenville, NC. He explained his decision in this way: “I chose them because I thought it would be fun to work with the community for one, but primarily because they have to adjust to living in a southern town. Being part of the LGBT community in the south comes along with a lot of challenges. My research question was: ‘How does the LGBT community integrate with the greater Greenville community?’”

Catherine Murphy chose to focus on the political community in three eastern North Carolina counties. She selected “citizens of the democrat, republican and third party community.” “I wanted to discover why there is such a divide in our community on the political front. Everyone who is involved with the community wants what is best for the state and nation but each party has a different approach to how to achieve this goal. Differing ideologies and viewpoints are the contributing factor to this.”

Amanda Mutio chose the international student community because for her it was an image of the “melting pot.” “America is like a huge crucible, a container that can withstand extremely high temperatures can therefore be used to melt, mix, and ultimately fuse together meal or other substances. This image was the dominant way to represent the ideal blending of cultural groups today. I will also show how the participant’s individual stories and life experiences make up many cultural patterns.”

Documenting Our Community Interactions
My students collected field notes based on their community observations for each day in the field. These notes are mostly fairly raw and descriptive with some analytical comments at the end. For the first three weeks of community observations, they did not film or take photographs. They first experienced the community visually, tactilely, and verbally without the intermediary interference of a camera. Their preliminary interactions were dedicated to getting to know their community subjects and earning their trust. In some cases, this was relatively easy because the students already had links to the communities they had chosen. Other students found that gaining the necessary trust was more difficult. For example, Kylie Downie, who had chosen to study the Jehovah Witness community, found that it was rather closed to outsiders. Alexandra Seidman had to overcome the reticence of tattoo community members who were used to being described in terms of negative stereotypes, such as that they are all freaks and poor. In their first assignment, students conducted a semi-structured interview.

To begin, they needed to develop a research question, create an interview guide, schedule an appointment, and conduct the interview. The interview process forced them to interact with people whom they did not know, requiring them to find a way to bridge the gap between cultural differences and get people to open up and explain their distinctive point of view. They learned the importance of building trust with community members. One of their challenges was to witness, and to an extent experience, a different way of life and through the assignment, documented that way of life. Community members were asked to talk about something significant in their lives. Then the students had to share what they had collected with others in a way that connects people so that they can come to greater understanding. The preferred way were to audio-record the interviews and create podcasts, combining questions and responses with narration in the style of This American Life. Students edited each interaction into a 3-5 minute segment and upload it to the course blog as a podcast.

The second set of assignments that involved the use of photography in documenting and understanding culture. Students documented their communities using various methods in ethno-photography such as photo documentation, photo elicitation, and Photo Voice. They documented the exceptional to the mundane. These included cultural events such as drag shows, farming techniques, religious services and grocery shopping. Using these methods, students were able to gain a great number of insights into their communities by collecting photographs of community members in action. Along with describing in text what participants did, students showed their participants active in their given communities. Students took photos and asked participants to explain the activity or cultural artifact and how it was tied to their identity. As part of the Photo Voice assignment, students gave their participants disposable cameras so that they themselves could document something culturally significant to them.

Students followed-up with interviews about the photos that had taken and that the participants were willing to share. Most of the communities, such as the communities of Latinos, international students and farmers, were willing, even enthusiastic to allow themselves to be documented. A few, however, were not. Kylie Downie was not allowed to photograph any of the Jehovah Witness services or worshipers, except from the back of the room. Her range of photographs was consequently rather limited; for example, she photographed the sect’s publications. Alexandra Seidman found that members the tattoo community were reluctant to be photographed because of all the negative stereotypes that are associated with tattoos, and of course for privacy reasons. She was, however, allowed to photograph the tattoo equipment and design displays.

By taking photographs of what they had witnessed in the community, particularly related to the various groups, students learned to focus their attention on the reality of daily life. This cultural knowledge will better equip them as community leaders because they will have a deeper understanding of the communities where they live. This knowledge will also enhance their understanding of communication, behavior, motivation and collaboration in a work setting. The camera (still photography and film) provided additional lenses through which to see the community. Explaining the photos and providing narration for the film gave the students opportunities to integrate the information they have acquired through observation and interviews, to bring their increased cultural awareness to bear on perceived concerns, to propose enhancements for community discussion.

From all their photographs, students created, organized, advertised, and installed a photo exhibition. In addition, each student was responsible for advertising through news sources, fliers, and other publicity announcements for the event. Photos were displayed at both a coffeehouse in downtown Greenville and the university library The opening reception at the coffeehouse was attended by more than 100 people including faculty, students, and community members. Both exhibits later traveled to other locations in Greenville. Student also displayed their photos on their individual blogs in the form of narrated PowerPoint slide shows. “Defined by Skin,” for example, was a PowerPoint presentation by Alexandra Seidman about the tattoo culture of Greenville. “Women of Change” by Sierra Plato was about the Hispanic culture of the area. The final project of the photography assignments involved students entering their photos, one monthly, in the My Shot photo competition to National Geographic. If selected, the photo would be published in the monthly magazine.

The students and I made an hour-long presentation on campus during which we explained the goals of the class, the completed projects, and how they had been presented to the public. The enthusiasm and excitement were evident in the presentations as each student explained the importance of his or her community. Students were almost transformed into personal advocates to represent and given voice to their community, to represent and explain their point of view to others who may not have had exposure to this particular population. Knowing a group of people in depth is a very important aspect of quality leadership. During that session, they proved that they had met this goal of the course.

The third section of the course was dedicated to learning field methods in ethnographic film documentation. Students created a short ethnographic film (3 minutes long), that introduced a community, a group of people, or an individual at their community site. They posted these short films to their blogs as video clips. Students portrayed aspects of culture by “telling a story” to the viewer. This story demonstrated the rationale for understanding the life and the world around them. This viewpoint could be contrary to the viewer’s beliefs and values, yet it was the responsibility of the ethnographic film makers to present varying viewpoints that conveyed

information and engaged the viewer in addition to making their point come across. Beyond telling the story, students learned a whole host of technical skills through the editing process. Students combined the variety of media that they had collected throughout the semester using software editing programs such as FinalCut Pro and Windows Movie Maker. Students learned to edit by first completing their short (five to eight minute) film assignment. This required that they combine film with audio, narration and still photographs. They also included background music captions, and transitions for the finishing touches of each of their films. This short film prepared them for their final project of completing and presenting a short documentary film through their participation in a film festival.

Building on the work from their short films, students created a documentary approximately 20 minutes in length. To prepare for this, students wrote a film proposal outlining what they would cover in their film. Leah Joyner, who documented the farming community, described her project in this way:

"My film will be centered on the farming community in Eastern North Carolina, specifically those who have adopted food production practices to replace traditions of tobacco. The goal of the film is to explore viable streams of income that can offer a successful transition from growing cash crops to food crops. The film will also seek to explore the relationships that are fostered between producer and consumer, and how these relationships are a positive alternative to dependency on industrialized agriculture schemes that remove the farmer from the community of consumers."

The main actor will be Mary Betty Kearny, the owner of Nooherooka Natural beef farm. I will also feature Warren Brothers, an organic produce farmer in La Grange, NC. Interviews with the farmers will feature on aspects of community, human health, and environmental stewardship that are associated with organic/natural/small scale farming. The film will begin with footage of the farming landscape in NC, and then will be followed by narration from the actors. Each participant’s story will include a combination of still images and video paired with a voice over of the farmer. I will also include clips from the Spring Run Market (probably time lapse images), and likely a few interviews from customers that participate in CSA’s with local farms. These interviews will present a consumer side to the argument for continued support of local farmers. The competing viewpoint to the ‘go local’ food movement would be held by stakeholders in agribusiness companies, that aim to continue providing over-processed food with the support of government subsidies. I will probably represent these issues through the usage of statistics and facts in text throughout the film.

Students also made story boards describing and drawing what each scene would entail, and how exactly they would convey distinctive cultural aspects to the viewer. Each student completed his or her final project by working closely with the instructor through the editing process. One in class screening and two individual screenings prepared the students for their final project: a film festival on campus. Each film represented a vastly different segment of the population, yet viewers could recognize their commonalities. Students called their project Threads of Diversity as a way to recognize that despite our differences people, whoever they are and wherever they live, have the same kinds of hopes, wishes, and desires that ultimately connect us all as connect us all as humans.

Catherine Murphy, who documented the political community, ended her video “by showing that no matter what the differences politically there is a common unity by all the participants being American and wanting what is best for the country, showing that through compromise key issues may be dealt with in an appropriate and peaceful method.” She had all the participants state their party affiliation and end their interviews by saying “I am an American.” Sierra Plato chose to focus her presentation of the Latino community on one person, Norma, whome she interviewed at her kitchen table about her transition from Mexico, to the U.S., and specifically to eastern North Carolina). Sierra looked at family photos with Norma, she followed her on trips to the supermarket, meat market, and agricultural fields. But it was the preparation of traditions foods such as tamales take became the center of attention, and then the serving of that food to the community. Kylie Downie’s video on the Jehovah Witness community had a surprising emotional impact because it revealed that the interviewee was a young woman who had been raised as a Jehovah Witness but had left the community because of disagreements about beliefs and lifestyle.

The films were presented to faculty, staff, students, and family and community members. A total of 40 people attended the event, a good turn-out considering the event was held on the last day of finals week and in the evening.

Students in this class did not simply write a paper for their professor at the end of the semester. They presented themselves and their work to a large audience for feedback, comments, and criticism. This took courage and effort beyond the parameters of the classroom. During the film festival, each student introduced his or her film project, showed his or her film, and then answered questions from the audience. Students met the challenges of creating, presenting, and explaining each of their film projects to viewers. The participation of the final project film festival clearly helped them to build confidence on several levels by defending their work. The ability to defend one’s work is an important skill of a good leader. The film festival was an excellent ending to the fifteen weeks that the class members and instructor shared exploring their community together as a group of visual anthropologists. Students gained skills that they can apply to real world situations because they now possess a new way of knowing, observing, analyzing, and interacting with others. This will most certainly allow them to become successful leaders in the future.

The visual anthropology course challenged students to create an ethnographic account using text, photos, and film. They needed to decide what aspects of their chosen community groups they would illuminate, from what perspective the groups would be portrayed, what they wanted people to know about these groups, and what they themselves wanted to know. Unlike the more “private” course components of writing a midterm or a final paper, the projects of the visual anthropology course forced students had to go out on a limb in public ways by presenting their cultural groups to the community, the students, faculty, and in some cases the cultural groups they had chosen to represent. This type of learning is indispensable in my opinion; I think it belongs as part of the university experience, although often it is not.

Although I was the teacher, guide and chief ethnographer, I gave much of the responsibility for the course over to the students. I was very pleased to find that they rose to the challenge. Rather than telling them what to do, I asked them how they would solve the problems that they encountered. They proposed solutions and I added my suggestions. For example, unexpectedly we lost some of the space we had been promised in the library for our photo exhibit; the students proposed as a solution that we augment our exhibit at the coffee shop. And we had to find a way to hang framed photos without using nails. I must admit that although overall the students did a great job with the exhibits, some of their framing and mounting results were not as well done as I had hoped, or were not quite what we had discussed.

As part of the ethnographic methodology in recording daily life that I use in my own research and teach to my students, photography and film have become just as important as any other method available. Visual media help to convey important information about the human condition by provoking emotions that connect people to one another. Photos as documentation open a window onto daily life or a cultural event and bear witness to these activities in ways that the written text cannot. Viewers of the student photos and videos who had no or limited exposure of the studied populations were brought into closed contact, as it were, with these populations than they would have been by simply reading reports or essays.

By all accounts, this was an extremely successful class. The combination of theoretical concepts and experiential opportunities enhanced the learning process that challenged students to rise to the demands of the class. They managed to “dig deeper” into the film making through the ethnographic process than in conventional filmmaking classes, at least this was the observation of a colleague in Film Studies who attended the video presentations. Students had to learn new skills, methods, and theories; nonetheless, they completed their projects with success and enthusiasm. They worked how to “shine” among their peers and to create distinctive projects. Since the class size was small, students received individualized attention that facilitated their success. This was an amazing experience for both students and instructor. The students found a balance between competition and cooperation. They borrowed each other’s equipment, for example, for framing the photos and installing the exhibit. (They even borrowed mine, which proved to be a problem since they damaged my matt cutter by not following instructions; apparently they thought they didn’t need to listen to the presentation on how to cut matts!) The students were very proud of their accomplishments of the semester. The course was a real confidence builder. I was pleased to have witnessed their extraordinary transformation throughout the semester.


© copyright 1995-2019, Community Works Institute (CWI)
All rights reserved. CWI is a non-profit educational organization dedicated
to engaging students and teachers with their local communities through integrated learning projects.

CONTENT USE POLICY No material contained within this web site may be reproduced in print, by electronic or other means, without permission. All materials contained in this web site remain the sole and exclusive property of CWI, or the author if designated by arrangement. contact us

cwj bottombanner
contact subscribe institutes medium articles about journal main
donate now subscribe contact subscribe institutes medium articles about journal main