Anthropology and Photography 2014 (1)

British Museum, Clore Centre, 29-31 May 2014

(P01)

Anthropology and photography in the digital age

Location BP Lecture Theatre
Date and Start Time 29 May, 2014 at 11:00

Convenor

Matthieu Guitton (Laval University)  email
 Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

The Internet and the emergence of virtual spaces have considerably changed the way we can generate, access, store, and analyse images. This panel will explore how these new technologies and new "spaces of life" can alter the use of photography for anthropology.

Long Abstract

Within a few decades, the tremendous technical advances of information technologies, as well as the democratization of use of the Internet and other virtual spaces, have considerably modified the way humans communicate with each other. Incidentally, it has also deeply altered the way anthropologists can gather materials for their studies. This is particularly true for collecting visual materials. Indeed, while classical anthropology field work heavily relies on picture taking, the Internet and social media are emerging places where incredibly large amounts of visual material - pictures and videos alike - are spontaneously displayed by users. As people broadcast themselves, the pictures available on the Internet reflect a drastically different point of view from the one of an academic scholar. Furthermore, online spaces are not solely used to store pictures that document "real life". Online pictures also document the existence of emergent online communities of humans inhabiting virtual worlds. Since online materials can be accessed at any time by anyone and from anywhere, we are witnessing a major evolution of the use of photography in anthropology. For instance, given the multiplicity of choices, strategies of selection of the most appropriate visual materials are coming to the front. While these almost unlimited resources represent a new and fascinating tool for modern anthropology, their use also entails some important practical and ethical challenges. This panel will discuss online visual materials - pictures, online videos, webcams, machinimas, etc. - and will explore what anthropology could become in the digital age.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

An anthropological journey in virtual worlds

Author: Matthieu Guitton (Laval University) email

Short Abstract

Virtual spaces represent new “spaces of life” and a new field for anthropology. Using examples coming from various online settings and virtual worlds, we will discuss how online visual material can be gathered, and how information can be extracted from its analysis.

Long Abstract

Within a few decades, the tremendous technical advances of information technologies, as well as the democratization of the use of the Internet and other virtual spaces, have considerably modified the way humans interact with each other. Representing new "spaces of life", the various forms of online settings - including the most drastic immersive virtual worlds - challenge the way anthropology is performed, and at the same time opens new avenues to understand human societies and inter-personal interactions. Human individuals and communities increasingly occupy virtual spaces, leading to the emergence of virtual communities. Therefore, virtual anthropology represents an emerging area, with its own conceptual and methodological constraints, related to the absence of a defined physical field and its replacement by an extremely wide digital space. We will here discuss the nature and characteristics of the different forms of visual material which can be collected on the Internet and in immersive virtual worlds, from pictures to online videos and machinimas. Using examples coming from various online settings and virtual worlds, we will show how meaningful information can be extracted from analysis of online visual material, and discuss some of the methodological issues as well as some of the ethical questions raised by the collection of online visual material.

Blurred boundaries: Digitalization and transformation of climbing photography

Author: Guillaume Dumont (Universidad Autonoma de Madrid/Université Claude Bernard Lyon 1) email

Short Abstract

Drawing on a transnational ethnography, this paper examines how the work of climbing photographers has been shaped by the digitalization, commodification, and progressive commercialization of the activity.

Long Abstract

While climbing is performed either in remote outdoor areas or in artificial setting indoors, the exploits of elite climbers are constantly under the lens of the camera. These visual productions are fundamental to reflect and praise the athletes' performances. Whether being a professional climber embraces consequent self-promotion and marketing strategies and, nor media producers provide the athletes with the necessary visibility to obtain sponsorship and professionalize the activity. In this context, their work is in the midst of complex dynamics and connections, hand in hand with the industry that funds and the audience that consumes digital climbing contents. Constantly in the quest of the ultimate climbing shoot or video, climbing media is shaped by the development of a neo-liberalized activity. Embedded in flows of constant production, diffusion and consumption, it is re-modeling the forms and features of visual contents and climbers' performances. Based on a transnational ethnographic fieldwork in the USA and Western Europe, this paper discusses the transformation of climbing visual media, a field characterized by a niche of privileged professionals drawn by the popularization and commercialization of the activity. It stresses the growth of the specialist media industry and new information platforms that re-define the work of a media producer. In fact, while photographs become less and less the main medium to disseminate athletes' realizations, photographers and film makers are also challenged by the climbers themselves, who are now developing, producing and diffusing their own media content.

Making and looking at the past: visual artifacts, and ontological transformation among Cottica Ndyuka

Author: Olivia Gomes da Cunha (National Museum, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro) email

Short Abstract

This presentation explores the role of images displayed in cameras and cell phones, as they are used by Ndyuka maroon living Moengo (Suriname). They are conceived as an 'artifact' to record Ndyuka traditional knowledge, as well as related to conceptions of creation, knowledge, and learning.

Long Abstract

This presentation explores the role of visual artifacts, and how they relate to Ndyuka conceptions of creation, knowledge, and learning. Families and young adults living in the bauxite town of Moengo (Suriname) use cameras and cell phones as 'devices' to record and learn about their 'koni' (traditional knowledge) and 'kulturo' (culture).

The presentation explores the controversies arising from the invention of a 'cultural event' called 'Poolo Boto Show, a parade of boats in the Cottica river nearby Moengo, involving traditional dance, music, and clothes, controversially associated to funerary rituals. Digital images were 'made' during the process of preparation of the festival and have played an important role as an artifact to know 'how things were in the past'. During the festival, digital cameras and cell phones were again mobilized to capture and document the 'koni' - since the performances of dance and drumming in the boats are 'representations' of the real life in the villages and the way the ancestors lived in the past. For Christian and church converted Ndyukas who live in Moengo, these way of dancing, dressing, and honoring the ancestors no longer exist and have no place in the 'modern times'. For other non-Christians maroons, the boat parade was an event of learning and sharing of knowledge traditionally limited to few people. The paper seeks to describe as 'create' and 'learn' things done in the past does erupt accusations, criticisms and ontological apperceptions about a maroon person.

Mapping virtual communities by their online visual artefacts: the example of the Second Life Steampunk Community

Author: Cécile Cristofari (Laval University) email

Short Abstract

We studied the visual artefacts produced by a virtual community in a customisable immersive online environment, in order to understand how the identity of a community could be described through a quantitative and qualitative study of its specific aesthetics.

Long Abstract

In the digital era, where the rise of information technologies has tremendously increased the amount of visual stimuli available as well as their exposure, communities are often structured around a common aesthetics. Virtual environments offer spaces that can be customised by users, and where rules and canons get more labile, allowing communities to design their own identity with a great degree of freedom. Arguably, one of the best models to study virtual communities' aesthetics unhindered by real life constraints are the communities of fan of imaginary universes. Steampunk, for instance — a genre that could be described as neo-Victorian fiction with a science-fiction or fantasy twist — has given rise to a large community of fans. Although this community is not organised in reference to a definite canon, it is very active both in real life and in virtual spaces. By collecting and analysing hundreds of visual artefacts generated by members of the Steampunk community of the immersive virtual world of Second Life, we identified a repertoire of characteristics which allow to visually identify the community. In addition, examining the characteristics displayed by artefacts from other communities allowed us to map relationships between different aesthetics. This data demonstrate that photography at the digital age can be of considerable hep for anthropologists to describe, qualify, and quantify human communities on emergent media. Furthermore, various online communities' aesthetics are not distinct, but seem to be forming a network where differences are visible, but fluidity still dominates.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.