Sunday, March 1, 2015

Image - Text

An example of a portrait from Photo Wallahs (1991) documentary
“The text does not "gloss" the images, which do not "illustrate" the text. For me, each has been no more than the onset of a kind of visual uncertainty, analogous perhaps to that loss of meaning Zen calls a satori. Text and image, interlacing, seek to ensure the circulation and exchange of these signifiers: body, face, writing; and in them to read the retreat of signs”. – In the opening of his book Empire of Signs (1982) Roland Barthes expressed his admiration with a special kind of relationships that can emerge between an image and text. We can find the similar attitude in his Camera Lucida (1981), where the key photograph which received the most of explanations remained unshown to the reader, while all other pictures (shown and recognizable) were accompanied with highly subjective commentaries (Barthes’s attempts to verbalize his punctums) that turned out to be absolutely useless for the reader (somebody’s punctum can hardly be meaningful to me).

This delicate relationship between image and text seems to be something more than an anchorage and a relay, Barthes’s early structuralist concepts. An anchorage is a caption that helps to stop the 'floating chain' of signifieds: “Shown a plateful of something (in an Amieux advertisement), I may hesitate in identifying the forms and masses; the caption ('rice and tuna fish with mushrooms') helps me to choose the correct level of perception, permits me to focus not simply my gaze but also my understanding” (Barthes, 1977, 39). A relay means that text and image stand in a complementary relationship as equal parts of the general syntagm.

In his analysis of photographic essays (including Bathes’s one) Mitchell continues the same kind of exploration – how an image and language can be connected. The idea is to go beyond a banal illustration, doubling, literal, direct connection. How to build narration by the visual narration as such? Mitchell talks about an essay as something by definition personal and incomplete (Mitchell 1994, 289), and thus a photographic essay shouldn’t bear the burden of a “comprehensive” representation. But how a picture can narrate? What are building blocks of visual narration? I am thinking now about the role of metaphor and the signs that bear explicit cultural connotations as the elements of narration. The portraits in Photo Wallahs films can be read not just appearances but as stories that people and photographers wanted to tell.

Barthes, Roland. 1977. Image, Music, Text: Essays. London: Fontana.
Barthes, Roland. 1981. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Barthes, Roland. 1982. Empire of Signs. New York: Hill and Wang.
Mitchell, W. J. T. 1994. Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Riefenstahl’s ethnography

Susan Sontag accuses Riefenstahl of transferring fascist aesthetics to her photographic representation of the Nuba. Leni Riefenstahl’s book The Last of the Nuba (1973) is referred by Sontag as “the fascist version of the old idea of the Noble Savage” (Sontag 1975). Sontag draws clear parallels between the book and famous propagandistic film Triumph of the Will (1935) and emphasizes in particular Riefenstahl’s promotion of physical perfection, physical ordeals of wrestling matches, the victory of the strongest as the unifying symbol of the community, the contrast “between the clean and the impure, the incorruptible and the defiled, the physical and the mental, the joyful and the critical” (Sontag 1975).

Riefenstahl denied any association with fascism and justified the aesthetics of her films by her fascination with the beautiful (“a beauty-freak”, this is how Sontag called Riefenstahl). It is interesting enough that in the introduction to The Last of the Nuba the references to the beauty as the guiding force emerged again. "Her task would be find the Nuba and to make a pictorial record of these people that would be the work of art their beauty and magnificence demanded" or "The athlete's naked body looked as if it were a stature modeled by a sculptor" (Riefenstahl 1995, 10).

But we all know that the idea of beauty is embedded in history and ideology, and that is why when Riefenstahl talks about “the beauty of the human form”, it is the right time to ask what kind of beauty she is having in mind and why this particular kind? It is difficult to image that Riefenstahl could totally get rid of the aesthetics she developed in Triumph of the Will. In this sense the influence of her previous successful film projects is inevitable, and I agree here with Sontag’s criticism.

We can compare The Last of the Nuba with Mead and Bateson’s photographic study of Bali (Bateson 1942) to see an extreme aestheticization in Riefenstahl’s representation. The photographic analysis of Bali is systematic, scrupulous and boring. Having a topic in mind (like children’s feeling of balance), they collected pictures to explore the phenomenon. The aesthetic quality of the pictures had less importance than the record itself. For Mead and Bateson it was important to have the visual records of their observations and insights, they "never asked to take pictures, but just took them as a matter of routine, wearing or carrying the two cameras day in and day out” (Jacknis 1988, 165). The written account of the ethnographic observation is in strong correlation with the visual record. Even though Jacknis insists that Mead and Bateson used photography not as illustration but as a primary recording (as far as I understand Jacknis means simultaneity of observation, field notes writing and visual recording), the book itself brings the sense of illustration – the text illustrates the images, the images illustrate the text.

It is not so easy to find such kind of correlation between comments and pictures in Riefenstahl’s book. The captions strive to describe the culture of the Nuba, while the pictures describe and aestheticize at the same time. For example, the description “The only door is a Mesakin house-compound which reaches all the way to the ground is the main entrance. The wide top allows women with bulky loads to pass through easily” is attached to the following picture:

The truth about The Last of the Nuba is that the project is a complex and multilayered photographic representation that can’t be reduced to the actualization of fascist aesthetics. There is at least one additional meaning in the compound of Nuba pictures – it is a classic ethnographic endeavor. What makes these pictures ethnographic per se? First of all, the very desire to travel somewhere else, far away from the researcher’s own society. Malinowski’s ideal of ethnographic fieldwork formulated by him in the beginning of the 20th century is persistent even till present days, not talking about the time of Riefenstahl’s travel. There is a certain idea of a field as “the place where the distinctive work of the ‘fieldwork’ may be done, that taken-for-granted space in which an ‘Other’ culture or society lies waiting to be observed and written”, “the mysterious space” (Gupta and Ferguson 1997, 2). Edwards describes it as “the fundamental tourist desire for ‘authenticity’ of experience which is couched firmly in the ‘authenticity’ of that observed” (Edwards 1997, 60). The tourist’s attitudes are similar here to ones of an anthropologist. The move to “somewhere”, to culturally and spacially distant and different place, is, according to Edwards, a “form of ritual journey” (62). It is, thus, not just a rhetorical stance when The Last of the Nuba is opened with the words, “"Unapologetically romantic, unashamedly obeisant towards the beauty of the human form, she held to her own vision of an ancient and uncorrupted Africa that neither White nor Arab intruder had yet despoiled" (Riefenstahl 1995, 10).

Secondly, the ethnographic ambition is to understand a culture as a whole, as a totality. That is why the reports (both by Riefenstahl and Mead and Bateson) are not limited to an aspect or a focused research problem. Instead they tend to describe the grand topics of life and death, love and war.

Bateson, Gregory. 1942. Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis. Special Publications of the New York Academy of Sciences, v. 2. New York: The New York academy of sciences.

Edwards, E. 1997. Beyond the Boundary: a consideration of the expressive in photography and anthropology. In Banks, M., and H. Morphy. eds. Rethinking visual anthropology. Pp. 53-80. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Gupta, Akhil and James Ferguson. 1997. Discipline and Practice: "The Field” as Site, Method, and Location in Anthropology. In A. Gupta and J. Ferguson eds. Anthropological Locations Berkeley: University of California Press Pp: 1-46.

Jacknis, Ira. 1988. “Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson in Bali: Their Use of Photography and Film.” Cultural Anthropology 3 (2): 160–77. Riefenstahl, Leni. 1995. The Last of the Nuba. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Sontag, Susan. 1975. “Fascinating Fascism.” The New York Review of Books, February 6.

Hold your camera still in the flux of social life

In her analysis of Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) Anna Grimshaw connect the film with the early cinema of Lumiere and Malinowski’s project of modern anthropology. These connections are important.

Malinowski radically opposed himself to the so-called armchair anthropologists who were trying to build their theories about culture and society on the base of the reports produced by travelers, merchants and whoever managed to spend some time in foreign countries. New understanding of anthropological knowledge resembled, as Grimshaw puts it, Impressionist move from studios to the outdoors – in order to understand society an anthropologist has to jump into the flow of the life of the society under study.

The Lumière brothers brought the camera outdoors, to the streets of their own country in order to observe their own society. In their films we can see the fascination with both technology and everyday life, when the latter was discovered as an interesting topic for shooting. Everyday life is full of meaningful actions which are however usually taken for granted by the actors of the society, and thus the actions become invisible. The camera causes the estrangement effect by creating (a technically necessary) distance to the scene and framing the action. The frame itself has a power to make sense even from what is senseless. But the Lumières were far from conceptual experiments and tried to choose meaningful actions constituting the rituals of the society.

The specific feature of the Lumière cinema is the still camera. And we see pretty the same stillness in Flahery’s and Haddon’s ethnographic films. Taking into account that the goal of ethnographic films is an observation and exploration of the society, the fixed camera constitutes an specific kind of approach. The stillness here bears connotations of observation as such, a certain kind of naivety that an anthropologist uses as his/her basic methodological tool – to study an unknown culture is to put yourself in the position of a child who needs to learn step by step everything that the adults take for granted).

Grimshaw emphasizes the cultivation of a Malinowskian ‘inocent eye’ and the naivety of Flaherty’s camera (for example his refusal to experiment with montage despite the common fashion of the time). But the centrality of innocence comes not just from methodological stance but also from ideological presuppositions. Grimshaw points out humanism and romanticism of Nanook’s story caused by the fact that for Flaherty the ethnographic project in the Canadian Arctic was an obvious attempt to escape the American society which he perceived as “industrial, urban, machine-driven, imperialist, complex, colliding and chaotic”. While what Flaherty was trying to find was whole, integrated and more authentic (Grimshaw 2001, 50). In pretty similar way Marcel Mauss published his The Gift (1925) from the context of the beginning of the 20th century Europe which he described as ‘the victory of rationalism and mercantilism’, ‘individualistic and purely self-interested economy governed by the economic rationalism’, the time of “icy, utilitarian calculation”, ‘the cold-hearted law of sale and payment for services’ the time when a person turned into ‘a calculating machine’ and ‘pure financial experts’ (Mauss, 2002). Thus, the stillness of the camera and the “naive” admiration of the flow of events can be far from naivety.

The fixed camera preserves this ambiguity. On the one hand, motionless proves to be an insightful tool to analyze the flow of events. For example, in my current ethnographic project on street musicians in Budapest I practice “motionless” in the fieldwork. When I find a musician, I just stay nearby and observe the scene for minimum quarter of an hour. To be in the flow of events would mean to pass by the musician or to stay for few seconds to give some coins and listen to music, but to stay longer means to jump out of the flow of events. And miracles immediately start to happen as I now see more than an ordinary passer-by – I see meaningful connections, interactions, communications.

On the other hand, rejection of montage and stillness of the camera can never lead to the neutrality/objectivity of representation. The frame is selective the same as our vision. And even the single-shot film reveals the filmmaker’s understanding of what is important. In this sense, the presence or absence of montage doesn’t change the very constructiveness of representation. It is just a matter of style.

Grimshaw, A. 2001. The Innocent Eye: Flaherty, Malinowski and the Romantic Quest. In The ethnographer's eye: ways of seeing in anthropology. Pp. 44-56. Cambridge: CUP.

Mauss, Marcel. 2002. The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. London: Routledge.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Iconophobia in anthropology

A picture from my project on street musicuans in Budapest

The role of visuality in anthropology is the topic of endless discussions. One way or another, they move around the attempts to define the specificity of anthropology as a discipline which is also a quite problematic topic, particularly taking into account that anthropological questions are more and more often being asked by diverse disciplines and ethnography is more and more included in different kinds of research projects. Nevertheless, fieldwork is still perceived as the “last stand” of anthropology (Hirsch et al, 2007). So, the question is how visual data are produced and used in the fieldwork and in the subsequent reports from the fields.

On the one hand, the connection between anthropology and visuality is essential. Anthropology was born and developed together with photography and film making. Early anthropologists did include visual records in their research. But on the other hand, if we talk about the status of visual data in anthropology, it is obvious that everything what is visual has much less significance in comparison with the written word. “The language is paradigmatic for anthropology,” Taylor says trying to find an explanation to what he calls “iconophobia”, or a fear of anthropology to visuality (Taylor 1996, 83). The fear emerges at that moment when visual data move beyond the simple illustrative role and start to compete with the written words for their authority and capability to convey the experience from the field. Isn’t it the reason why, as Margaret Mead observes in 1975, though the situation has not changed much since that time, the “departments of anthropology continue to send fieldworkers out with no equipment beyond a pencil and a notebook, and perhaps a few tests or questionaries” (Mead 2003, 4). In his exploration of iconophobia Tylor summarizes the key discussions of the opposition text vs image (film and photography) in anthropology and shows that it is the text which is believed to be reflexive, deep, human and objective, while an ethnographic film is criticized as “bossy, one-eyed, distortingly beautiful, simplyfying, and disarming” (Taylor 1996, 72).

Here we inevitably come to even a more complex problem of truth and objectivity in research. The harsh critique of visual tools in anthropology comes from a certain vision of a “proper” fieldwork and “proper” knowledge – a pencil can convey the data that the camera presumably cannot. It is particularly paradoxical taking into account that an observation, an essentially visual activity by definition, constitutes the core of the fieldwork. Why an observation and a written account are more valuable means of ethnographic knowledge production than shooting a film and making a photo essay?
As Susan Sontag once famously said, “photographing is essentially an act of non-intervention» (Sontag 2005, 8). There is a definite problem with engagement into the field as a flow of events. But the very idea of engagement is also not so obvious. Salzman prevents that the engagement will never be full, that the gap between the flow of events and the ethnographer's presence will never be overcome. The explanation is simple: "…the people we must engage, wherever we are doing research, are busy trying to lead their lives against difficult odds, and our project rarely if ever speaks to their needs… our work remains marginal to their lives, and we must consistently impose our research on the activity flow of local life" (Salzman 1994, 31). Life forces us to make choices to pursue our goals and needs, and the needs and goals of an ethnographer definitely differ from the ones of an informant. So, it is no matter if an anthropologist comes into the field with a pencil or a camera, a certain extent of non-intervention, of the impossibility of full engagement will always remain. In this sense, I don’t find persuasive the reasoning against the usage of visual tools which is based on the idea that camera creates unnecessary distancing and mechanical attitude. An anthropologist needs to recognize the fact that she will never be fully present in the flow of the field and thus will never get full knowledge.

And what is a full knowledge? In the discussion of pros and cons of visual vs textual accounts from the field it is easy to forget that all kind of knowledge is profoundly “situated” as Donna Haraway called it. She brought the metaphor of human eye as an organ that always has a limited vision as opposed to a theoretical “eye” that possesses a kind of total vision. And then by drawing the analogy to the science, Haraway calls for that kind of embodied knowledge(s), that kind of truth an of objectivity that are always limited and situated, not because of the researcher’s preference but because of (biological and cognitive) inevitability. The inevitable embodiment does not lead to the justification of a bias but instead demands greater reflexivity and responsibility in the process of knowledge production.
 “We need to learn in our bodies, endowed with primate color and stereoscopic vision, how to attach the objective to our theoretical and political scanners in order to name where we are and are not, in dimensions of mental and physical space we hardly know how to name. So, not so perversely, objectivity turns out to be about particular and specific embodiment and definitely not about the false vision promising transcendence of all limits and responsibility. The moral is simple: only partial perspective promises objective vision.(Haraway 1988, 582-3). 
The Haraway’s paradigm of the production of situated knowledge and embodied objectivity is an important ground for the revision of an idea of ethnographic fieldwork. It is the only way to overcome the claims for a kind of total and full knowledge of a cultural scene, and what Tylor called “naive realist theories of visual representation” (Stuart hall called it “reflective approach” in representation when a record functions like a mirror to the world). And it is the only way to move beyond the discussion of text vs images to a search of more productive ways to integrate and recognize visuality in anthropology. And it is particularly important taking into account the “literary turn” in anthropology when the discipline’s self-reflexivity made it eventually possible to recognize the role of writing as the same way “bossy, one-eyed, distortingly beautiful, simplyfying, and disarming” as the visual narration can be. “The dominant metaphors for ethnography shift away from the observing eye and toward expressive speech”, James Clifford says in the introduction to the famous “Writing Culture” (Clifford 1986, 12). Various literary devices, like as metaphor, metonymy etc, affect the way cultural phenomena are registered (4) in written accounts (to put simply, an anthropologist always brings a kind of story from the field). And in happens in the same way when an anthropologist applies the conventions of visual narrations known in her culture to explore visually un unknown cultural scene.

Clifford, James. 1986. Introduction: Partial Truths. In: Clifford, James and Marcus, George E. (eds). Writing Culture. The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Pp. 1-26. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Haraway, Donna. 1988. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14 (3): 575–99. doi:10.2307/3178066.
Hirsch et al (2007) Anthropologists are Talking on Anthropology After Globalization. Ethnos 72(1):102-26.
Mead, M. 2003 (1975). Visual Anthropology in a Discipline of Words. In Hockings, P. Principles of visual anthropology, 2nd ed. pp. 3-12. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Salzman, Philip.1994. The Lone Stranger in the Heart of Darkness. In: Borofski, Robert (ed.) Assessing Cultural Anthropology. Cambridge, Mass: MacGraw and Hill pp 29-39
Sontag, Susan. 2005. On Photography. New York: Rosetta. Taylor, Lucien. 1996. “Iconophobia.” Transition, no. 69 (January): 64–88. doi:10.2307/2935240.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Theoretical comfort zone

The picture functions here as an illustration
Imagine you are driving a car. You are very proud of yourself and of the whole situation. Your car is expensive, not everybody can afford it. Your driving skills are excellent. You turn on the music you like, the temperature that is comfortable to. Your stuff is next to your, your coat, notebook, coffee, navigator. You are fully equipped. But then everything changes. Imagine your car stopped working (expensive cars are usually good enough not to break down so easily) but just imagine. You lost everything. Or better to say, not just lost but can't use it any more. You are out of your car, in an unknown place, maybe in the middle of the field. There is wind and rain and nothing can protect you. Your smartphone died, the car's engine does not work and doesn't give heat anymore, the navigator can't receive the signal.

The shift between two situations, the quick shift, creates the feeling of vulnerability. And, to my mind, this is precisely the feeling Alyssa Grossman tried to describe when she told her story about shooting Bucharest. Bela's question about similarities between writing a research proposal and making a documentary film, and particularly about the function of a research question both in writing and in film,  elicited an unexpectedly sincere confession by Alyssia. After spending the year doing theoretical research on memory, she had only very vague ideas of how to make film out of this. She digged herself deeper in theories and writing but it did not facilitate visual creativity. And then at one moment she decided to close her computer and go out of the room right into the city park. She felt vulnerable, she felt lost, but she started exploring and shooting. She thought her visual materials were useless, she had doubts and hesitations, she did not believe it worked out. But then suddenly something emerged out of material collected. An idea of a film emerged.

I am interested in such kind of shifts. It seems like different ideas emerge in different situations and contexts. Does crossing the boundaries of your comfort zone boost your creativity? Vulnerability forces you to turn yourself from narticistic contemplation to careful attention to the surroundings. You start looking for the meaning and potentialities outside  not inside you. When you appear in the field of unknown, you are forced to activate the transferable skills from your previous experience and not to follow the patterns and schemas of known and familiar. How does it work? Why such kind of shifts are so productive? My curiosity is not so much about psychology here, but about the fact that writing a text and shooting a film are so profoundly different that the shift displays totally different experiences. Alyssa mentioned that if you do not transcend, you end up with a  very intellectual project, you squize the reality to find what you know. That means you will remain blind to the context, you'll remain in your car even if your (theoretical) car doesn't bring you anywhere.

Important links:
Alyssa Grossman. Into the Field (2006)