In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Visual Anthropology

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals and Reference Resources
  • Visual Analysis
  • Visual Methodologies
  • Indigenous Media
  • Other Directions

Related Articles Expand or collapse the "related articles" sectionabout

Forthcoming Articles Expand or collapse the "forthcoming articles" section


Anthropology Visual Anthropology
Chihab El Khachab, Marcus Banks
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0028


Visual anthropology can be broadly understood as the anthropological study of the visual and the visual study of the anthropological. However, for much of its history, the term has been associated almost exclusively with ethnographic film (see Ethnographic Film) and it is only in more recent decades that a broader consideration of other visual forms and visuality itself have come under the subdiscipline’s purview. Since the early twenty-first century, the boundaries have expanded further, partly through changes in technology (expensive celluloid film technology giving way to cheap high-quality video and digital processes, the rise of the Internet) but more through changes in theory and the opening up of new lines of intellectual inquiry. As with many other subdisciplines within the field of anthropology, many visual anthropologists would claim that they are simply anthropologists—with the same interests in kinship, politics, the economy, aesthetics, materiality, religion, and so forth as their colleagues—but with special attention paid to the visual and visible manifestations of those areas of human activity and creativity. The subdiscipline overlaps strongly with the anthropology of art and with the anthropology of material culture as well as with other disciplines such as media studies, film studies, and photographic history; in recent years, the field has also overlapped with action anthropology and other applied work coming out of development studies, and the rise of the Internet has given a new forum for the storage, study, and dissemination of images. There is no equivalent subdiscipline in the fields of archaeology and biological anthropology and primatology, though scholars in these fields do of course use photography and film or video for purposes of documentation (archaeology, forensic anthropology) and recording observations (primatology); interpretative approaches in archaeology, for example in the study of rock art, may draw upon approaches from visual anthropology as well as from the anthropology of art and the anthropology of material culture.

General Overviews

Despite its title and frequent citation, the articles in Hockings 1995 (first published in 1975) are almost exclusively concerned with ethnographic film. That said, it was a watershed publication, effectively founding the subdiscipline. Banks and Morphy 1997 explicitly seeks to decenter the emphasis on ethnographic film by including both anthropological knowledge production through visual means and anthropological studies of visual culture. Ruby 2000 retains the emphasis on film but opens the discussion up historically and in terms of media considered. Following from this, the contributors in Ruby and Banks 2011 examine the history of anthropological interest in a wide range of aspects of visual culture.

  • Banks, Marcus, and Howard Morphy, eds. 1997. Rethinking visual anthropology. London and New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

    A “state of play” volume, deriving in part from papers given at the agenda-setting 1993 ASA Decennial Conference (“The Uses of Knowledge: Local and Global Relations”). The essays have a strong emphasis on ethnographic approaches to the visual, ranging from the traditional or obvious, such as ethnographic film (Loizos), to the less obvious, such as poorly photocopied computer program manuals (Born).

  • Hockings, Paul, ed. 1995. Principles of visual anthropology. 2d ed. The Hague: Mouton.

    A key volume in establishing the discipline, not least because it bore the imprimatur of the then influential International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences (which is still the only global anthropological body). First published in 1975—a comparison between the contents of the two editions is instructive in terms of what was omitted and what was added to the second edition.

  • Ruby, Jay. 2000. Picturing culture: Explorations of film and anthropology. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Although there is a strong emphasis on ethnographic film in these essays, Ruby—a pioneer in the field—also covers topics such as Aboriginal television and documentary ethics; the final chapter advocates a new form of ethnographic filmic representation and is also one of the few works in this area to draw inspiration from film studies.

  • Ruby, Jay, and Marcus Banks, eds. 2011. Made to be seen: Perspectives on the history of visual anthropology. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    A collection of commissioned essays on visible aspects of culture and the visualization of culture, ranging from dress and clothing, experimental film, and indigenous media to audience research. The volume both traces the history of anthropological interest in their various fields and the current state of play in theorizing them.

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