In denial – authorship and ethnographic documentary
(University of Manchester)
Paper short abstract:
Despite the suspicion with which authorship in ethnographic film-making is viewed, the most valuable works in this genre have been those in which authorship has been asserted through the combination of an ethnographic sensibility and the skilful use of documentary cinema conventions. 20' presentation & 20' discussion; discussant is Mark Horton
Paper long abstract:
Throughout the history of ethnographic film-making, authorship has been regarded with suspicion. Until the 1970s, the positivist paradigm was dominant: the camera was considered analogous to a scientific instrument, with any evidence of authorial intervention being regarded as a corruption of the objective ‘data’ that the camera could deliver. As this paradigm was displaced by ‘dialogical’ anthropology in the 1980s, authorship became suspect for a different reason: now it was the voice of the subject that should predominate. More recently still, with the arrival of new technologies, authorship has been displaced once again, this time to the spectators who are supposed to navigate their own way through warehouses of multimedia data. This, in the view of some, represents the ‘future of visual anthropology’.
In contrast to these various attempts to deny authorship, I shall argue that the works of most lasting value in the history of ethnographic film-making have been those in which authorship has been asserted through the combination of an ethnographic sensibility and the skilled use of the conventions of documentary cinema. This genre of film-making, I would refer to as ‘ethnographic documentary’.
However, if ethnographic documentary is to be consonant with the ethical posture and the aesthetic conventions of contemporary anthropology, this assertion of authorship should be low-key and self-denying, not in the interests of claiming some illusory objectivity but rather out of respect for the interests and form of life of the subjects.
20' presentation & 20' discussion, discussant is Mark Horton