In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Anthropological Activism and Visual Ethnography

  • Introduction
  • Early (Pre-1980) Visual Projects and their Legacies

Anthropology Anthropological Activism and Visual Ethnography
Jonathan S. Marion, James Scanlan
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 March 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0227


Since the development of mechanical visual technologies—such as still and moving photography—some producers and scholars have seen the potential of using these technologies as tools for social improvement and change. Photographers and journalists were the first to wed social justice to visual imagery, as well as early film pioneers like theorist and documentary innovator Dziga Vertov. Anthropologists and ethnographers also saw the benefit adopting visual technology for research early on, but many of the products of this early era were exploitative, stereotypical, and theoretically simplistic. Notable exceptions to this trend included Margaret Mead’s photographic and film work in Bali and beyond and Jean Rouch’s reflexive experimental films which both resulted in sensitive and influential work. The general tide began to change as the technology became more democratic and as wider theoretical discourse began to consider the various impacts of creation, representation, and dissemination. During the 1980s and into the 1990s there was a serious crisis within ethnographic film and the social sciences more widely concerning representations of the Other in Western media. This coincided with video cameras and videotape becoming more widely available commercially, leading to an explosion of visual projects including many that were Collaborative, Participatory, or otherwise aimed at improving the lives of the community or group being studied. The emphasis on collaboration and equal participation of those being studied continues today, and this article describes key threads of current research that continue to explore the intersections of activism and visual ethnography. Almost all regions of the globe have begun to see the establishment of video projects and other visual research with indigenous and other marginalized communities, including a general movement to decolonize museums and visual representations of indigeneity. There has been a growing awareness during this time that the products of indigenous filmmaking could not be thought of solely as products of academic research, but rather as resulting from indigenous perspectives within the context of academic research. This has given rise to major discourses questioning not only the received traditions of production and presentation of indigenous media, but the place of indigenous media within academia and within the international film world more broadly. More recent projects—including work in and with photography, video, multimedia, and museums—have continued to develop collaborative and participatory methods linking the evocative potential of visual ethnography to activist sensibilities including resistance movements, undermining traditional narratives, and community improvement.

Key Journals

Visual ethnography and Visual Activism occur across various academic disciplines, with pertinent research found in a wide array of sources. The key journals noted in this section regularly publish visual theory, methodology, and projects, often with a slant toward community improvement, cultural advocacy, or outright activism. Visual Anthropology Review is the official journal of the Society of Visual Anthropology, heavily emphasizing visual studies and the exploration of diverse visual methodologies. Visual Anthropology, published in cooperation with the Commission on Visual Anthropology, emphasizes visual domains and encourages the expanded application of visual methods. Practicing Anthropology is the journal of the Society for Applied Anthropology and emphasizes social justice. Visual Studies, the journal of the International Visual Sociology Association, is an interdisciplinary resource that emphasizes the visual. Journal of Visual Culture is an international journal that explores global visual cultures. Camera Obscura is published by Duke University and explores the intersections of feminism and visual studies. Studies in Visual Communication was a pioneering journal associated with Sol Worth and the Annenberg school. The Journal of Film and Video is published by the University of Illinois and focuses on film and video research. Media Practice and Education seeks to foster interdisciplinary collaboration. Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies emphasizes new methods and experimental projects.

  • Camera Obscura. 1976–.

    Duke University publication that bridges visual research, feminism, and activism.

  • Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies. 1988–.

    Peer-reviewed journal that emphasizes cutting edge media and cultural studies research, seeking to highlight new innovations and voices.

  • The Journal of Film and Video. 1984–.

    University of Illinois publication focusing on film and video research and analysis.

  • Journal of Visual Culture. 2002–.

    Peer-reviewed, interdisciplinary journal that explores global visual cultures.

  • Media Practice and Education. 2018–.

    Formerly known as Journal of Media Practice (2000–2017), this peer-reviewed publication seeks to foster interdisciplinary collaboration.

  • Practicing Anthropology. 1978–.

    Peer-reviewed journal of the Society for Applied Anthropology that publishes contributions of applied anthropologists, which emphasizes social justice and amplifying the voice of marginalized groups.

  • Studies in Visual Communication. 1980–1985.

    Short-lived but pioneering journal of visual studies, edited by Sol Worth and associated with the Navajo Film Project.

  • Visual Anthropology. 1987–.

    Peer-reviewed journal. Emphasizes visual domains of cultural anthropology and seeks to foster the use of visual methods in the analysis of human society and interpersonal relationships.

  • Visual Anthropology Review. 1970–.

    Official Journal of the Society of Visual Anthropology, this is a peer-reviewed journal that heavily emphasizes a broad variety of visual ethnography and research.

  • Visual Studies. 2002–.

    Peer-reviewed journal of the International Visual Sociology Association, which publishes sociological and interdisciplinary research with a visual emphasis.

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