EASA2016: Anthropological legacies and human futures

The impact of images: knowledge, circulation and contested ways of seeing [VANEASA]
Location U6-1B
Date and Start Time 22 July, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 2


  • Helena Wulff (Stockholm University) email
  • Thomas Fillitz (University of Vienna) email

Mail All Convenors

Discussant Marcus Banks

Short Abstract

Building on the legacy of visual research in anthropology, this panel explores the explosion of images in social life from photographs to selfies, posters, the arts and hypermedia in relation to knowledge production, circulation and contestation including methods, the market, aesthetics and ethics.

Long Abstract

Visual research has been a part of anthropology for as long as the discipline has existed. Film and photography were included in the Torres Strait expedition at the end of the 19th century and in the 1930s Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson famously brought back visual data from their fieldwork in Bali. Similarly, leading anthropologists early recognized the social significance of the arts: Boas' Primitive Art is a milestone beyond anthropology and works by Firth and Lévi-Strauss, among others, strongly influenced further research. Contemporary visual anthropology builds to a large extent on the legacy of these scholars.

Now there is a quickly growing anthropological interest in the recent explosion of images in social life: from traditional family albums to selfies, posters, the arts, and the media such as the Internet with hypermediacy. This panel investigates the social life of images in terms of aesthetic discourse, the use by political and economic institutions, the market, transnational flows, the production of alternative visual systems, visual methods, ethics and copyright.

The panel welcomes papers discussing the following questions:

- What kind of images and for whom? How do specific institutions and

networks require the production of particular images?

- Images as "partial truths":

a.)Image versus text.

b.)How does the circulation of images between different contexts change the production of knowledge? This accentuates issues of property rights.

c.)The role of images in political and cultural contestation.

d.)The impact of digital technologies on the perception of images.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Dakar's biennial: between the state and the local art world

Author: Thomas Fillitz (University of Vienna)  email

Short Abstract

State interests and Dakar’s local art world constitute two divergent fields around the biennial of Dakar. At several times, the State threatened the biennial of its end. The biennial, however, is central for the cultural image of the State, so it is for artists or the development of the art market.

Long Abstract

After a strong impetus under Léopold Sédar Senghor's presidency, the arts first suffered under President Abdou Diouf. By the mid-1980s, however, Diouf launched several initiatives for visual arts, the most important one being the foundation of the biennial of Dakar which he announced in late 1989.

With Dak'Art, the Senegalese government intended to position the city of Dakar as the 'African crossroad of cultures', Dakar as the showcase par excellence of African contemporary art, and as centre of Pan Africanism for the arts. Nevertheless, the biennial was threatened of its end at several occasions, in particular in 1992, 2000, 2008 and 2010.

In my contribution, I shall discuss firstly the reasons for these threads, but also several positive effects the biennial has on the local art world. To mention but a few aspects: it is, on the one hand, an elitist venue which mainly attracts an international art audience. On the other, Dak'Art enabled the development of a popular space for contemporary art since 2000, which encompasses the whole city-space and today stretches out to its neighbourhoods up to St. Louis in the far North of Senegal. The biennial further influenced local artistic practices as well as the rise of a local market for contemporary art and art education in schools. Finally, in contrast to the aforementioned threads, the Senegalese State officials today insist on the outstanding role of the biennial for its cultural politics, and for Senegal's cultural image in Africa and the world at large.

Trespassing borders: encounters and collaborations in performance art

Author: Alicja Khatchikian (University of Vienna)  email

Short Abstract

By challenging canonical understandings of visual arts, performance presents contested ways of seeing and generates an equally debated documentation. In an attempt to trespass fixed positions and binary pathways of thought, I explore the space of simultaneously being ethnographer and performer.

Long Abstract

Constantly resisting time and space, performance is an art that historically spotlights the artist within a spatial and temporal frame (the here-and-now) in relation to an audience and a political and socio-cultural context. By allowing the artist to be its first spectator and searching for a simultaneous exchange between performer and spectator, performance proposes conditions of socialisation that challenge normative structures of power and spectatorship.

Performance audio-visual documentation undergoes similar tensions: beyond being a collection of images, records of performance retain the processes that those bodies and spaces underwent through time and movement. Within these processes, ethnographers are confronted with the necessity to investigate, interpret and translate the complex dynamics underlying those images.

Recognising transformation as an inherent facet of performance requires an understanding of the artists as researchers working perceptually, reflexively and qualitatively: the visual thus becomes a spatial and experiential dimension wherein ethnographic research and artistic inquiry intersect.

This paper highlights two pivotal moments of my fieldwork: while reflecting on the core of my ethnography — the subjective experience of selected performances I attended at two international festivals dedicated to performance art —, it unveils an increasing need to engage in performance. I therefore explore the condition of simultaneously being ethnographer and performer and some of its critical points through the presentation of different kinds of material: by questioning my role as ethnographer and performer, conceptual thinking and experiential inquiry merged in an attempt to explore the potentials of alternative ways of seeing, sensing, and knowing.

Mnemosyne: still photography of a National Film Archive

Author: Barbara Knorpp (UCL)  email

Short Abstract

Aby Warburg's 'Mnemosyne Atlas' was an inspiration to conduct ethnographic fieldwork at the British Film Archive through photographic images. How does an organisation arrange its visual heritage and what are the politics of memory?

Long Abstract

The 'Mnemosyne Atlas' by Aby Warburg is an unfinished attempt to map the pathways that give art history and cosmography their pathos-laden meanings. Warburg thought this visual, metaphoric encyclopedia, with its constellations of symbolic images, would animate the viewer's memory, imagination, and understanding of what he called 'the afterlife of antiquity'. Using a similar technique, this paper investigates the meandering pathways of the British National Film Archive (bfi) in regard to the conservation, circulation, and hiding of images. With a new future project to 'unlock cultural heritage' (2013-2017), the bfi aims at digitising parts of their archive while keeping celluloid images as 'originals', however some films may never be seen by the general public nor by researchers. Here the invisibility of visual memory becomes a contradiction in itself. Also, how does a film archive deal with the legacies of an industry that by its nature has always been transnational? Arjun Appadurai's metaphor of media flows might be a useful way to describe the flow of images, film, and voices in an archive. The presentation is illustrated with still photographs taken since 2011.

The changing lives of photos in Cameroon

Author: David Zeitlyn (University of Oxford)  email

Short Abstract

Using material from Cameroonian Studio photographers I will discuss ways in which the meaning and use of photographic images changes through the duration of each image’s biography.

Long Abstract

Using material from Cameroonian Studio photographers I will discuss ways in which the meaning and use of photographic images changes through the duration of each image's biography.

Some Cameroonian examples of use, reuse and changed meanings will be contrasted with the effects and changes of my own role in the lives of some Cameroonian photos (and their creators), especially through the creation of digital archives. These effects raise delicate questions for images ethics, rights and copyrights which existing codes and varying legal provisions address in ways which are worrying for a range of different reasons.

Displaying the once internal: visualizing medical practice and a surgical signature in Late Ottoman Istanbul

Author: Zeynep Gursel (Macalester College)  email

Short Abstract

This paper looks at an album of medical photographs showing Ottoman female patients after surgery to investigate how we might think of agency and the politics of circulation in photography. What kinds of relationships are materialized in this album?

Long Abstract

The photo albums of Ottoman sultan and Islamic leader Abdulhamid II (1876-1909) who dispatched photographers to four corners of his empire contain some 35,000 images. This visual archive documents state projects such as military and government buildings, hospitals, factories, massive engineering projects, schools, mosques and cityscapes, and includes a large collection of police photographs.

This paper addresses a specific album among the sultan's collection which shows female patients of the Haseki Women's Hospital after they have regained their health. These formal portraits show the patient modestly dressed in hospital issued uniforms yet bearing their abdomen to show their surgical scars. In a bell jar on the ornate table each leans on is displayed the tumor removed by the gynecological surgeon. How might we make sense of the surgeon's signature on each plate (and differently on each abdomen in the form of a scar) despite the images having been made by a prominent studio photographer? How does this album requires us to rethink agency in photography? How do we make sense of these images displaying that which was once internal to these women to themselves, the surgeon and the sultan? Does the appearance of these images in an album at the palace collapse traditional differences between medical and political imaging technologies? How is care being visualized and to what political end? What kinds of relationships are materialized in this album?

Butchering women: historicity and 'truth' in images

Author: László Kürti (University of Miskolc)  email

Short Abstract

Images, like texts, have their own contradictions for they capture not only events or individuals they successfully hide information as well. Gender-specific images are discussed in order to raise questions about truth, representation and historicity.

Long Abstract

Images, both present and historical, offer challenges for scholars developing tools for critical analyses of intertextuality and narrativity. Anthropologists have long been accustomed to use visual data to offer unique insights into their ethnographic narratives with the awareness that taken for granted images make taken for granted interpretations. In this presentation, I argue that photographs raise questions not only about authenticity and truthfulness but importantly about historicity, i.e. relationship of images vis-à-vis earlier images. Moreover, I propose that viewing images not only cross-culturally but historically as well provides more than simple answers as to what they were made for - we learn what went on before and what came after. Ultimately, an understanding of iconography comes neither from strictly the native's nor from the anthropologist's point of view - more often than not it is historical. Thus, visual narratives are anchored not only to cultural contexts within which they were (re)produced, but to certain historic prequels as well as sequels - roughly the 'before' and 'after' images having similar composition. By utilizing current and historic iconography of women in a specific setting (butchering), I interrogate notions of image-based gender politics and knowledge production concerning alternative or visual 'truths'.

The book jacket and the ethnographic text

Author: Moshe Shokeid (Tel Aviv University)  email

Short Abstract

Anthropologists have often affixed an art-cover to their ethnographic books associated with the life of their subjects or an abstract symbolic image related to the main issue under observation. Does that outer message represent the text or the author's response to personal experiences?

Long Abstract

Anthropologists have often affixed an art-cover to their ethnographic books associated with the life of their subjects, an abstract symbolic image related to the main issue under observation, or another reflection. Our query: Does that outer message represent the text or the author's response to personal existential experiences?

Most remembered are the book jackets exhibiting photos presenting Malinowski in the company of his Trobriands informants or in view of his camp's landscape. However, the art-cover of my recent ethnography "Gay Voluntary Associations in New York: Public Sharing and Private Lives" represents a somewhat unusual choice: a 17th Century Italian church picture by Bernardo Strozzi "The Sermon of St. John the Baptist" retouched with New York's skyline as a transformed background. Apparently paradoxical if not controversial; what a venerated Catholic saint is doing in the company of gay people? The paper relates the story of discovering the painting, revealing the hidden connection between the text's contents with the drawing's design and the painter's biography. And last, the ethnographer's attraction to the characters staged in a scene so remote in time yet so engaging a contemporary accidental viewer.

With a writer´s eye: exploring literary texts on painting

Author: Helena Wulff (Stockholm University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores literary texts on paintings, firstly, in novels such as The Blue Guitar by John Banville, secondly, poems and stories written in response to paintings at the exhibition “Lines of Vision: Irish Writers on Art” in Dublin understood through their internal and external narratives.

Long Abstract

The relationship between image and text is an area many have commented on in passing, but rarely in greater detail. In anthropology, there has been a debate over image versus text. Visual anthropologists argue that images have a capacity to present circumstances that cannot be captured in words, while others have expressed the conventional view that text is the superior of the two forms as it can operate on a theoretical level. But with the extraordinary expansion of images in social life that has produced new analytical awareness, this latter view is increasingly contested: images are both composed and contextualized in line with theoretical perspectives, and they can generate new ones. Sometimes an image needs a text in order to be understood. It is also the case, as John Berger argues in his poetic pamphlet that there are different Ways of Seeing. The photographer, the painter, the spectator - they all watch the same picture in different ways. So do writers. With ethnography from the world of contemporary writers and their work in Ireland, this paper explores literary texts on paintings, firstly, in novels such as The Blue Guitar by John Banville which features a painter and, secondly, poems and stories written in response to paintings at the exhibition "Lines of Vision: Irish Writers on Art" in Dublin´s National Gallery of Ireland in 2015. Marcus Banks´ concepts "internal narrative" and "external narrative" will be used to explain the relationships between these images and texts.

Absence, presence and images in Catholic visionary activity

Author: Jon Mitchell (Sussex University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper looks at images in contemporary Catholicism. Centring on the case of a Maltese Catholic who since 2006 has claimed to see visions and receive messages from the Virgin Mary, it looks at the place of images and film circulated by his followers on YouTube, and broadcast on TV.

Long Abstract

This paper looks at the place of images in contemporary Catholicism. Centring on the case of Angelik Caruana, a Maltese Catholic who since 2006 has claimed to see visions and receive messages from the Virgin Mary, it looks at the place of images and film of Angelik circulated by his followers on YouTube, and broadcast on TV. It suggests that the images serve as evidential traces of the presence of Our Lady, that in some circumstances themselves take on that presence. As images of the miraculous, they carry the miraculous with them.

The images, however, have also become tied up in debates about the authenticity of Angelik's visions - in televised documentary programmes about Angelik, and in the Diocesan commission set up to investigate the visions. Here, the images become an obverse trace - evidence of absence, not presence. The paper considers this play of presence and absence in the broader history of Catholic ideas about imagery.

The past inscribed in the future?: reflections on the politics of images in a digital habitat

Author: Paolo S. H. Favero (University of Antwerp)  email

Short Abstract

The present paper offers a re-thinking of the meaning of images in a digital habitat. It addresses questions of inscription, magic and materiality.

Long Abstract

Incorporated into ruling discourses on "virtualization" and "sublimation", digital images have for long been looked upon as signs of the progressive detachment of those human being living in the digitized environments of the world from the materiality and sociability of everyday life. With the help of a selective overview of some contemporary digital imaging technologies and practices this paper will aim at confuting this notion. In a dialogue between anthropology, visual culture and arts history the present paper will suggest that contemporary digital images seem to remand us back to the politics of pre-photographic image-making practices. They are objects imbibed with those magical qualities that can be probably better found in the past or in non-western societies. Discussing also questions of immersivity, materiality and efficacy the paper will address the tension between technological determinism and human-centred approaches to image-making.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.