Two Uses of Photography in Anthropology

May 28, 2011 § 1 Comment

In preparation for our discussion of photography and anthropology, we read “On the Use of the Camera in Anthropology,” a discussion between Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, “The Ambiguity of the Photograph” by John Berger, and “Seeing Through Pictures: The Anthropology of Photography” by Jay Ruby. The dialogue between the pieces distinguished between the use of a camera in an anthropological study as Mead and Bateson discussed and an anthropological study of photography as Ruby describes. While Mead and Bateson debated the analysis of photos and film taken by the anthropologist as ethnographic data, Ruby outlined an ethnographic study of the use of photography by his subjects.

It struck me that many of the attributes of photography that Mead, Bateson and Berger discuss that arguably make it an unlikely candidate for scientific analysis, are exactly what make it such an interesting source of study in the context Ruby describes—how people use photography. Though Berger claims the photograph is “weak in intentionality” compared to other methods of communication, the photographer’s choice of subject, angle, zoom, focus, and ultimately the moment at which they take the picture all introduce variation.

This variation, Mead argues, reflects the photographer’s understanding of what’s relevant, and as a result of the photographer’s influence on the product, photos are weak evidence for scientific study. On the other hand, I would argue that this subjectivity and variation make photography an excellent source for anthropologists interested in the interaction of people with the technology of film or digital photography.




§ One Response to Two Uses of Photography in Anthropology

  • ethnolust says:

    Great post! I think that the relationship between the image and social science changes as the people find more nuanced ways to understand the image and what it means for us (as societies, individuals, and scholars).

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