Still shot from Flaherty's film "Nanook of the North".

Natives of Badu Mulgrave

Badu Islanders with members of the Torres Straight Expedition in 1898.


Picture of Balinese children taken by Gregory Bateson in 1937.

Stated Aims Edit

Founded in 1984, the Society for Visual Anthropology aims to promote both the use and study of visual representation and media. According to their website, this subsection hopes to advocate the use of images for “the description, analysis, communication and interpretation of human (and sometimes nonhuman) behavior”. Aspects of visual anthropology include many depictions of culture, such as art, architecture, dance, and body motion communication. All forms of media are encouraged, but primarily dealt with are still photography and film. The SVA helps brings together anthropologists and media makers to support them in their professional pursuits (SVA 2008).

Wider Role in the AAA Edit

The SVA are tasked with appraising the significance of visual media as academic contributions to the discipline, to teaching, scholarly research, and applied anthropology. Members of the SVA “examine how aspects of culture can be visually interpreted and expressed, and how images can be understood as artifacts of culture”. This does not only include the making of new film and photography, but also the studying of historical photographs, which as a source of ethnographic data provide horizons “beyond the reach of memory culture” (SVA 2008). These pieces are judged based on their addition to the historical and/or ethnographic record, their use to further current analysis, contributions they make to theoretical debates and development, innovation, publication possibilities, and benefit they create for a particular community, government, or business (Buckley 2008).

History Edit

Visual Anthropology first began with the development of still photography. Anthropologists have been taking pictures in the field since the 1880's. Eventually, motion picture recording devices were developed, and sound recording soon followed. As the technology became more portable and less expensive, it's use in anthropology increased dramatically. The first use of motion picture film by an anthropologist was by Alfred C. Haddon, during his Torres Straits expedition in 1898 (SVA 2008). According to Karl Heider, board member for the SVA, the next example of an ethnographic like film was made in 1901, when Baldwin Spencer shot footage of Australian Aborigines performing a Kangaroo Dance and Rain Ceremony. Another big step in this sub-field occurred in 1922, with Robert Flaherty's Eskimo film, "Nanook of the North". This film was the first example of ethnography to explain visual acts without using words. While not an anthropologist or ethnographer by trade,Falherty did much work in the field studying interaction and preparing. He also got reactions from and collaborated with his subjects while making the film. Flaherty continued to travel and make films, as well as teach his techniques to young ethnographers (Heider 1976). Then, in 1936, Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson started their research in Bali, where they took about 25,000 photographs and shot 22,000 feet of motion picture film. From their research they coauthored the photographic ethnography 'Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis', which was published published in 1942 (Society for Visual Anthropology 2008). Both continued to experiment with the visual aspect of anthropology, and also analyzed popular culture motion pictures from different parts of the world. Mead eventually compiled a number of visual anthropology studies, and in 1953, published them in the co-edited work "The Study of Culture at a Distance" (Hockings 1975). With the invention of the portable synchronous-sound camera in 1960, which recorded in color and had live sound, ethnographic film-making really took off. Mead continued to advocate for visual anthropology, complaining that anthropology had "come to depend on words, and words and words..."(Society for Visual Anthropology 2008). In 1965 ethnographic film reviews became a regular feature in the journal 'American Anthropologist'. In 1966 the AAA began to include ethnographic film sessions in its annual meetings program, and the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research provided the funds necessary to create the first professional organization devoted to ethnographic visual media. Harald Prins states that in 1970, Mead helped organize an interdisciplinary gathering of scholars and practitioners interested visual ethnography at the Smithsonian Institution, which eventually become known as the National Human Studies Film Center. This groups' main goal was to use visual data to preserve vanishing tribal cultures. Then, in 1972 the Society for the Anthropology of Visual Communication (SAVICOM) was founded. They became a section member of the AAA and began publishing the journal 'Studies in the Anthropology of Visual Communication'. A Commission on Visual Anthropology was formed in 1973 as part of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences. This Commission now sponsors the international journal 'Visual Anthropology'. Finally, in 984, the Society for Visual Anthropology was created and replaced SAVICOM. The SVA was admitted as a constituent section of the AAA that year, and it launched the journal 'Visual Anthropology Review' (Prins 2008).

Prominent Members Edit

(All information presented here was gathered from the Society for Visual Anthropology website).

  • Mary Strong: 2009 president of the SVA, professor at the City University of New York and review editor for the journal 'Visual Anthropology'. Specializes on craftspeople of Latin America and the U.S.
  • Karl G. Heider: 2009 President Elect, serves on the Nominations and VAR Editorial committees. Also a professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of South Carolina. His specific focus is on emotions and sexuality.
  • Alice Apley: Head of the Film Festival Committee, and Senior Research Associate at RMC Research Corporation.
  • Jonathan Marion: Serves on the Nominations and Special Projects committees.
  • Nancy Marie Mithlo: SVA Programs Co-editor and professor in the departments of Art History and American Indian Studies at the University of Wisconsin - Madison.
  • Howard Morphy: Serves on the Special Projects committee and teaches at the Research School of Humanities and Australian National University in Canberra.
  • Liam Buckley: A VAR Co-editor, and professor of Sociology and Anthropology at James Madison University.
  • Joanna Cohan Scherer: Serves on the Visual Research Conference Committee and works in the Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution.
  • Kate Hennessy: Serves on the Web Committee and works as an assistant professor specializing in media at Simon Fraser University's School of Interactive Arts and Technology
  • Peter Biella: A Film Festival Committee member and professor in the Department of Anthropology at San Francisco State University.
  • Pamela Blakely: SVA Secretary and member of the Social Sciences Division at the Reading Area Community College in Reading, PA
  • Joyce Hammond: Film Festival Submissions Manager, and professor of Anthropology at Western Washington University.
  • Laura Lewis: VAR Co-editor, and member of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at James Madison University.
  • Stephanie Takaragawa: SVA Treasurer and member of the Department of Sociology at Chapman University.
  • Anne Zeller: Member of the Visual Research Conference committee and professor of Anthropology at the University of Waterloo.

Structure Edit

Membership in the SVA is open to any AAA member who supports the the stated purpose of the SVA (SVA 2008). All members have an oppurtunity to hold elected or appointed offices as well as vote in the electing of officers of the SVA.

The SVA is run by a General Board and an Executive Committee. The General Board is made up of 14 voting members, which includes elected Board members, a President, and a President-elect or a Past-President. These elected officials serve a three year term, with the exception of the President and President-elect. The General Board may appoint additional ex officio members if they are needed. These General Board Members are required to attend the Annual Meeting of the General Board, as well as any other meetings approved by a majority vote of the Executive Committee. They can be removed if they miss the meetings (SVA 2008).

The General Board has the power to govern the SVA, make all elective appointments in the event that something unfortunate should happen to a board member, appoint committees, and define their powers, though they have to do so within the provision of their written by laws (SVA 2008).

The Executive Committee is comprised of the four officers of the Board and any additional members they might appoint from the General Board. The Executive Committee is responsible for SVA affairs during the period between Annual Meetings, but is also subject to the instructions of the General Board and the provisions of the By-Laws (SVA 2008).

The SVA has four officers: a President, a President-elect or a Past-President, a Secretary, and a Treasurer. The President and President elect are selected through popular vote which is open to all members of the SVA. The term of the President lasts two years, and the term of the President elect lasts one, but they switch back and forth in a way that extends their serving period to four years, simply with different technical positions. The Secretary and Treasurer are appointed by the SVA General Board in consultation with the President, and the positions have a term of two years, though they can be reappointed if they maintain membership on the General Board. If they are not member of the general board however, they can still become ex-officio appointees. Any officer, elected or appointed, can be removed by a two-thirds majority vote by SVA members (SVA 2008).

Visual Anthropology Review Edit

The official publication of the Society for Visual Anthropology is the 'Visual Anthropology Review'. The Review is run mainly by the co-editors Liam Buckley and Laura Lewis, the film reviewer Anita Kumar, and the book review editor Laura Mentore. The 'Visual Anthropology Review' states that it "promotes the discussion of visual studies, broadly conceived...[which includes] within its breadth...both the study of visual aspects of human behavior and the use of visual media in anthropological research, representation and teaching" (Buckley 2008). The journal features articles, reviews and commentary on the use of multimedia, still photography, film, video and non-camera generated images, "as well as on visual ideologies, indigenous media, applied visual anthropology, art, dance, gesture, sign language, human movement, museology, architecture and material culture" (Buckley 2008).

Controversies Edit

McDougal tells in his book "The Corporal Image" of a heated debate between Mead and Bateson on the methodology behind filming. According to McDougal, they were known to argue about whether the camera trained on one point would be more or less useful than carrying the camera with while all activities are performed. Mead was of the mind that using a tripod and fixing the camera on one location not only allows for better quality of picture due to lack of blurring and other mess ups from excessive motion, but also because it could present small details in greater focus that would otherwise have been missed. Bateson on the other hand supported a first hand perspective from the camera, having it carried with at all times, as he believed this revealed more and was a greater experience for the audience. These two methods are still both used and both debated over today (McDougal 2006).

There is also the controversial aspect of using visual methods to skew the truth. A picture can reveal many truths, but taken without further information or context, it can be used to reveal only what some one wants to be shown (Heider 1976). Vision is subjective, and one must keep that in mind when viewing visual ethnographical works.

Outreach Activities Edit

Each year, the SVA hosts the Film, Video and Interactive Media Festival. This festival involves members of the SVA screening work by students, professional anthropologists, and professional filmmakers at the American Anthropological Association’s annual conference. The Festival has a jury, made up of anthropologists and film scholars. This jury, prior to the festival, screens submissions and selects work to be included in the Festival on the basis of anthropological relevance and production qualities. Length and budget are not a factor in the judging process, simply merit. Awards are given to outstanding ethnographical films each year, including the Joan S. Williams Award of Excellence. Other awards include Awards of Commendation, Best Student Work, Best Short Work, and possibly awards for a few special categories (SVA 2008).

This year, the SVA is hosting The Consortium on Human Rights and Expressive Culture. The purpose of this consortium is to evaluate and assess the impact visual anthropology might have in activating social change and resolving human rights issues and international conflicts. This consortium will also address the struggle with ethical concerns many anthropologists deal with today.

Theory Edit

There is the theory in visual anthropology that pictures and films as well as other visual media capture a moment in time, and better preserve certain aspects of culture.

Visual note taking is a form of raw data. It helps to give credit to what an anthropologist might write about, it is a form of proof. It can be useful on it's own, or as a complementary part of a written work (Heider 1976). Visual works are a useful research technique as well as a field of study, a teaching tool, and a different approach to obtaining anthropological knowledge (McDougal 1998). The process of transfering knowledge though a visual media is also much quicker. They can also be used to give and reflect a more "native" point of view. Not only that, but photography and film can be used to illuminate hidden issues. They can be used to give people without a voice a chance to speak out, to demonstrate or reveal something of importance (Fischer 2003). Visual anthropology provides both meaning and experience.

Visual anthropology also adds to the anthropologists attempt at a holistic research method. When researching another culture, utilizing as many of the senses as possible will help in an analysis. Not only that, but the use of visual media evokes thoughts of other senses. A picture of a blanket might make one think of the feeling of it's warmth, the smell of it's worn cloth, and so on. Photographing an object that we otherwise might see as discrete and unimportant can help widen the objects social and cultural contexts, "thereby deepening our comprehension of their significance" (Browne 1991). Visual media gives greater comprehension as well through simply showing something different exists. It makes things never seen by a particular person real and tangible (Griffiths 2002).

There are also certain notions within culture that cannot easily be expressed with words. Facial expressions, gestures, dancing, and other visual coding can only be fully grasped in a visual aspect, not described though words (Fischer 2003). There is also the thought that a camera can continue to film long after an anthropolgist has left the area, or gone to sleep. Recording information soley through writing can be more tedious and tiring (Collier 1986).

Despite the possible subjectivity of visual anthropology, there is also an undeniable objective view that it can bring. Writing down something you think you have seen, and taking a photograph of the same event can result in two very different observations. Photography and film thus add to research and synthesis in that they reveal a different side of things, or make an anthropologist think more about notes they have taken in supplement to their visual recordings (Griffiths 2002).

Citations Edit

Browne, Pat and Ray Browne.

1991 Digging Into Popular Culture. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Press.

Buckley, Liam and Laura Lewis

2008 Visual Anthropology Review. Electronic Document, Accessed April 30.

Collier, John

1986 Visual Anthropology. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Devereaux, Leslie and Roger Hillman.

1995 Fields of Vision. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Fischer, Michael M.J.

2003 Emergent Forms of Life and the Anthropological Voice. London: Durham University Press.

Griffiths, Allison

2002 Wondrous Difference: Cinema, Anthropology, and Turn of the Century Visual Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.

Heider, Karl G.

1976 Ethnographic Film. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Hockings, Paul.

1975 Principles of Visual Anthropology. Paris: Mouton Publishers.

MacDougall, David

1998 Transcultural Cinema. Princeton, University of Princeton Press.

MacDougall, David

2006 The Corporeal Image. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Prins, Harold.


Wilks, Richard.

1999 The Society for Visual Anthropology. Electronic Document,, Accessed April 29.

Worth, Sol and John Adair

1997 Through Navajo Eyes. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.