Anthropology and Photography

Lecture, Open—Fall

Walker Evans once referred to photography as offering “searing little spots of realism.” This course attends to the cultural and experiential glint of photographic imagery by way of an anthropological exploration of the social, political, and aesthetic dimensions of photography in a range of distinct cultural settings. We will engage in two main efforts: an anthropologically informed inquiry into the phenomenon of photography and photographic endeavors that might be called “photoethnography.” In terms of an anthropology of photography, we will develop an understanding of how peoples throughout the world use, relate to, circulate, and perceive photographs and how such uses and perceptions tie into ideas and practices of vision, time, memory, family, sociality, history, politics, and personal and cultural imaginings. As for photoethnography, we will consider the ways in which photography and film can portray well (or not) the lives and concerns of particular peoples. Through these engagements, we will reflect on the complicated ethics and politics of documentary photography; the sense of differing cultural aesthetics informing the creation and evaluation of photographs; pacings of time and memory; the intricate play between text and image and between interpretation and invocation; and the circulation of digital images in a transnational era. Readings to be considered include Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead’s Balinese Character, James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let us Now Praise Famous Men, Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, Robert Frank’s The Americans, and Christopher Pinney’s Camera Indica. We will also view a number of ethnographic films that mine questions of photographic representation, including Dennis O’Rourke’s Cannibal Tours, Judith and David MacDougall’s Photo Wallas, and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s Sweetgrass