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Visual Anthropology as a Road Into ExperienceBy LUCI FERNANDES

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..

Introduction: The History and Ethics of Visual Anthropology

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 the community.

Ethnographic photography or ethno-photography uses photography to study the traditions, customs, daily life, ceremonies, and people of particular cultures. It has been in practice since the 1890s. Franz Boas, and later Margaret Mead, and Gregory Bateson all pushed for greater use of photography, which was often brushed aside by critiques as “fluff” of the research’s toolkit. Most anthropological fieldworkers have produced images of the people they studied but are often not incorporated in their research. Photographs taken in the field, like written field notes, help reconstitute events in the mind of the ethnographer. In the 1990s, experiments with multimedia-hypertext technology opened up the promise of a future with computer-generated pictorial ethnographies-a new kind of text producing a different type of learning experience. Photography has been increasingly used to improve conventional ethnographic narratives. As a result, photographs are not mere illustrations of written text anymore. Images can help create a context for written narratives. They can, however, also be collected into photo-essays that depict events, behaviors, people, cultures or social forms. The ethnographic use of photos involves description, analysis, and interpretation. Each stage can increase our understanding of human social phenomena.
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Photographs and films of other cultures seem to be objective; however, we need to remember that taking or making them is really highly subjective. Images captured and narrated by members of the community being observed are actually ideological constructions that shape (and are shaped by) cultural and social environments. And we shouldn’t forget that the photographer or filmmaker, even if he or he is an anthropologist, is taken the photos or making the film through his or her own cultural lenses that shape perceptions of reality. Images can embody personal and societal narratives. Incorporated within cultural processes, they can have a significant influence on socio-­cultural systems.

Illustrations from My Research in Ecuador and Cuba

When as an anthropologist/ethnographer I use photos as documentation, I feel that I am opening a window onto daily life or a cultural event I am observing. I began using visual anthropology techniques when I was doing dissertation research among the Kichwa Indians of Ecuador. There I documented the community development project Kallari (, which offers alternative economic options to people living in the Amazon Basin. The Kichwa create distinctive handcrafts such as necklaces and baskets, grow coffee, and make chocolate. Each of these activities is time consuming and involves hard work. I wanted a way to show these processes in all their complexity and difficulty. The Kichwa use materials from their natural environment, not only the coffee beans and cacao, but even the string, beads and canes. To make the string they must harvest the plants, scrap them to expose the fibers underneath, wash them in the river, lay them in the sun to dry, beat them on rocks, weave the fibers into strands, then start to string the beads. The beads themselves are seeds that have to be processed. I photographed every step. Not knowing at the time, those pictures became invaluable to the Kichwa as part of their recorded history and for internationally marketing their wares. I would have liked to have used video as well; however, in the early years of the 21st century video recording equipment was still very expensive, and quite cumbersome. So I was limited to the still camera.


It is really my work in Cuba that has led me to use visual anthropology techniques extensively. Over the past twelve years, I have lived in Cuba for periods of time and have conducted ethnographic field research, documenting various aspects of Cuban culture. Cuba is a visually stimulating place that many people know only from negative coverage by the US media and that very few people have visited. I would like people to experience it as I have experienced it. I decided that it would be easier to convey daily life in photos and videos than to describe these aspects in words. You can see things in Cuba that you can’t be seen anywhere else, not only the 50’s cars that everybody knows about, but, for example, strange inventions for making do with little, street professions that are both ways of earning a living and sources of amusement, extreme poverty and exuberant joyousness. My current research focuses on resource distribution and social networks. I analyze how people make ends meet despite scarcity of goods and restrictions on trade and business. I also investigate the social relations that guarantee the allocation of goods and services. I also collaborate with a colleague from Denison University, Anita Waters, where we analyze the government representation of the 1959 Cuban Revolution, the commemoration of the attack on Moncada Barracks in 1953, and recording and display of history through museum exhibits and monuments. For this research, we took over 1,000 photos along with film and audio recorded interviews of docents and other museum employees.

service learningWhen I moved to North Carolina, I started exhibiting some of the photos that I had taken in Cuba. But I didn’t want only to exhibit my own photos, I wanted my students to learn to use photography and video as means of understanding cultural groups better.

Visual Anthropology Strategies to Transfer to the Classroom or Program
• Introduce students to unfamiliar communities through photos and videos
I think that visual anthropology offers significant ways for getting to understand community better. People viewing the products of visual anthropology, whether photos or videos, can be exposed to communities with which they are unfamiliar and maybe will never come into contact with in their lives. Consider how unsatisfying dance ethnography texts are without photos or videos; they can be just dance steps on the page. Many dimensions of community are highly visual. Photos give a better sense of color and shapes. Videos add motion and sound, bringing viewers closer to being actually with people in the community. Sounds, facial expressions, tones of voice, body language: the only thing missing is smell. Perhaps greater empathy is created by viewing images; better understanding is gained on a visceral level. Interpreting cultures through texts may be more subjective because of the role of the reader’s imagination in visualizing the people or the scene. The interpretation of photos may be more guided by the choices of the photographer, in terms of framing or selection of images. When the photographer is part of the culture being photographed, the photo may even be a projection of himself/herself, of a portion of his/her own cultural identity.

• Encourage students to use photos in interviews to elicit reactions or information from community members
Both in Ecuador and in Cuba, I have used photos I have taken to elicit reactions or information from participants; the photos help open a dialogue between myself and those I am interviewing. I even incorporated myself into the photos and thus became a part of my own observations and entered into the reflexive process. The images in fact guide the discussion. The person pictured (or the person/people from the pictured world) interprets the images, giving me an opportunity to listen. People respond differently in interviews using images and text than they do in interviews using words alone. Images evoke deeper elements of human consciousness than do words, so photo-elicitation interviews draw out a different kind of information, perhaps deeper, certainly more interesting, than do ordinary interviews. It unlocks a flow of vivid memories in the mind and I have found illicit more detailed explanations of a ritual activity or event. For example, it’s one thing to ask an old timer to recount the events of the 1953 attack on Moncada that served as the impetus for the overthrow of the Batista government in 1959, but it’s something quite different to show them the actual houses and artifacts in photos that were part of the planning and execution of the attack. Not only did they tell of the historical events, but they recalled where they were at the time the news spread and their participation in these historical events.

• Allow students to turn the camera over to community members so that they can “speak in their own voices” through photos

Another visual ethnographic process that I like to use is to allow participants to speak in their own voices through photos that they take themselves. I literally give them the camera and ask them to take the pictures. Then they describe what to photograph and why they should take particular photos. This photo-voice technique gives the participants the means of identifying what is significant to them. It is particularly important when the participants belong to groups that have been marginalized, silenced, overlooked, or rejected. This technique can also be used to identify a societal problem or a topic that needs to be discussed within the community, but is considered taboo. It can lead to community discussion, mobilization, and even action. In his work with marginalized and oppressed groups, for example, Brazilian educator Paulo Freire argues for the importance of creating opportunities for people to visualize their social problems and to use this visualization as a basis to stimulate collective introspection, discussion, and action.

In 1973, while conducting a literacy project in a barrio of Lima, Peru, Freire and his team asked people questions in Spanish, but requested the answers in photographs. When the question ‘What is exploitation?’ was asked, some people took photos of a landlord, a grocer, or a policeman (Boal 1979, 123). One child, however, took a photo of a nail on a wall. It made no sense to adults, but other children were strongly agreed. The ensuing discussions showed that many young boys of that neighborhood worked in the shoe-­shine business. Their clients were mainly in the city, not in the barrio where they lived. As their shoe-­shine boxes were too heavy for them to carry, these boys rented a nail on a wall (usually in a shop), where they could hang their boxes for the night. To them, that nail on the wall represented ‘exploitation’. The ‘nail on the wall’ photograph spurred widespread discussions in the Peruvian barrio about other forms of institutionalized exploitation, including ways to overcome those (Singhal and Rattine-­Flaherty 2006). I have used the photo voice method in Cuba to give people the chance to express themselves through the images that they photograph by telling their own story directly. This empowers the interviewee to highlight things that they find significant they may be left out by the researcher by the way that a question is worded or by the researcher’s bias by believing that this detail is insignificant.

• Teach students to incorporate multi-media possibilities in their investigations of communities
As an anthropologist, I want to make my discipline more accessible to students from a range of disciplines, in the humanities, the social sciences, the natural sciences and the fine arts. As a teacher, I think that students need direct ethnographic experiences, not just reading about what anthropologists have done. Today’s students are typically more visually oriented anyway because of the Internet; I have found that they are no big readers, except of text messages. As a socially conscious person, I want to get students out into the community, to have them break out of the isolation of their university bubble. There are ways to have them do some ethnography themselves. Now that digital cameras and video recording equipment is relatively inexpensive, more visual anthropology technology is financially accessible to instructors and students. In my visual anthropology course, I have students choose a community, gain community access and confidence, built rapport and trust with the members they will interview, and then actually do the research, which involves photography, video, podcasts, blogs, and PowerPoint presentations: all within the timeframe of one semester. As for me, I hope that my discipline comes to value imagery more in the research process and more anthropologists include them in their research.

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