In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section History of Society for Visual Anthropology

  • Introduction
  • Multimodal Anthropology and the American Anthropologist

Anthropology History of Society for Visual Anthropology
Stephanie Takaragawa
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0232


The Society for Visual Anthropology (SVA) was founded as a section of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) in 1984 to encourage the development and use of visual media in anthropological research and teaching. The adoption of photographic technology, along with film and video, into anthropological practice informed the development of a visual anthropology early on, but visual media were not formally incorporated into anthropological and ethnographic research until the 1970s, through predecessors of SVA to be discussed in depth in this article. SVA was developed largely by North American anthropologists who identified the growing importance of visual media to anthropological studies, and argued for greater critical awareness in the implementation of their use. SVA continues to be an active subsection of the AAA, as well as producing the journal Visual Anthropology Review (VAR). In the journal American Anthropologist (AA), SVA contributed heavily to the ethnographic film section beginning in the 1960s and continues to contribute through the newly renamed Multimodal Anthropology section. In addition to serving as a forum for members interested in visual anthropology, SVA has advocated the use of visual media for satisfying promotion and tenure requirements. In 2001, AAA formally approved guidelines created by SVA for the professional evaluation of ethnographic visual media, to assist in the tenure and promotion processes for anthropologists working with and producing visual materials. Historical documents of the SVA have been archived at the Smithsonian National Anthropological Archives in Suitland, Maryland by SVA Historian Joanna Cohan Scherer. SVA developed from the Society for the Anthropology of Visual Communication (SAVICOM).

Precursors That Contributed to the Formation of the SVA 1966–1984

The SVA can be traced back to the Program in Ethnographic Film (PIEF), established in March 1966 by the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and the Wenner-Gren Foundation, with the aim to “encourage production, distribution, and utilization of high-quality ethnographic film,” outlined in the memo Balikci n.d. The Program in Ethnographic Film Newsletter was created and the group worked to promote film screenings as part of AAA’s scholarly program. Members of this group, drawn together by common interest in ethnographic film, began to sponsor their own ethnographic film festivals. In 1972, Sol Worth chaired a session that included prominent visual anthropologists at the time discussing the formation of a new professional society and affiliated journal. Such anthropologists included Margaret Mead, whose 1975 essay, “Visual Anthropology in a Discipline of Words,” in Hockings’ edited volume, further helped to articulate the area’s goals. The establishment of SAVICOM (Society for the Anthropology of Visual Communication) in 1972 is documented in Blakely and Blakely 1989. The directory also provides part of the history of the predecessors of SVA, and served as a repository for information about scholars who self-identified as visual anthropologists. This volume illustrates a more broadly conceived role for the study of visual artifacts and objects in cultural anthropology as visual anthropology, because categories were largely self-defined and not prescribed by the editors. PIEF and SAVICOM contributed to the development and institutionalization of a more broadly conceived visual anthropology, the SVA, and to what is now the SVA Film and Media Festival (to be discussed in depth in the section SVA Film and Media Festival). To supplement this goal, a proposal for a National Ethnographic Film Center was also produced in 1968 by Matthew Huxley and Marjorie Halpin (Huxley and Halpin 1968), with the support of Jay Ruby, Gordon Gibson, and Sol Worth.

  • Balikci, Asen. n.d. Proposed meeting on “The Ethnographic Film in Social Education” sponsored jointly by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the PIEF, to be held on March 22, 1968 at the Wenner-Gren in New York. Memo. National Anthropological Archives. Box 3. Subseries 1.

    This memo outlines a plan for ethnographic film’s importance in teaching and research and its dissemination.

  • Blakely, Thomas D., and Pamela A. R. Blakely. 1989. Directory of visual anthropology. Arlington, VA: Society for Visual Anthropology.

    This publication documents the history of the creation of SVA as well as including a contact list of people working within the field of visual anthropology. Research areas and interests, as well as biographic information, were largely unedited in order to retain the specific language and terminology originally submitted.

  • Huxley, Matthew, and Marjorie Halpin. 1968. Proposal for a national ethnographic film center. National Anthropological Archives. Box 3. Subseries 1. 6 (March).

    A discussion paper for the Wenner-Gren Conference on Ethno-Film in Social Science Education.

  • Mead, Margaret. 1975. Visual anthropology in a discipline of words. In Principles of visual anthropology. Edited by Paul Hockings, 3–10. The Hague and Paris: Moulton.

    Mead’s consistent use of film and photography within her ethnographic research provided her the background from which to make this critical analysis about images and anthropology as an early champion for visual anthropology and the role of images in data collection, analysis, and presentation. In addition, her inclusion of art within visual material culture as a central component of cultural analysis also firmly located her as an early visual anthropologist.

  • Williams, Carol, and Jay Ruby, eds. 1970. Program in Ethnographic Film Newsletter 1.1 (March).

    The first issue of the Program in Ethnographic Film Newsletter contained reviews of ethnographic film festivals and conferences, and other topics related to ethnographic film.

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