In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Primitivism and Race in Ethnographic Film: A Decolonial Re-visioning

  • Introduction
  • What Is the Decolonial Visual Turn?
  • The “Primitive” Archive and Colonial Visuality

Anthropology Primitivism and Race in Ethnographic Film: A Decolonial Re-visioning
Arjun Shankar
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0245


Ethnographic film, given its history as a vestige of colonial visual culture, has been defined by and constrained by the racist and imperial ideologies of those who were the earliest ethnographic filmmakers. Scientistic, distanced, observational film-making techniques continued the colonial quest for totalizing knowledge through the romantic ideal that film was “objective.” At the same time, the earliest ethnographic films relied on the perceived difference between white, Western, “civilized,” “modern” filmmakers and non-white, “primitive,” tribal, backwards peoples rendered mute on-screen. This ethnographic film history was predicated on observing and salvaging the histories of the “primitive,” soon-to-be-extinct peoples through visual documentation and, in so doing, these ethnographic films neatly mapped race onto culture, unabashedly fixing “primitive” practices onto bodies. Such films also differentially imposed sexist stereotypes on both men and women, pre-determining hierarchies of colonial heteronormative masculinity and femininity within which non-white Others were slotted. In the past thirty years, anthropologists realized the fallacy of essentialized biological racial difference and began reckoning with the role that visual technologies played in re-producing “culture-as-race” mythologies. And yet, ethnographic filmmakers have largely neglected the explicit conversation on race and racialization processes that their projects are inevitably a part of despite the fact that the subjects and objects of ethnographic filmmaking continue to be, for the large part, previously colonized peoples whose contemporary practices are still heavily impacted by the racialized values, institutions, and technologies of the colonial period. As a response, this entry provides a history of ethnographic film which focuses on processes of racialization and the production of “primitive” subjects over time. Part of the task in this entry is to begin to “re-read” or “re-see” some traditional and iconic ethnographic films through an attention to how decolonial visual anthropologists have theorized the ways that the film camera (and visual technologies more broadly) has been used to primitivize, facilitate racializing processes, and produce the expectation of radical cultural alterity. The entry will engage with content that has been produced by anthropologists while also engaging with films outside of the anthropological canon that disrupt, disturb, and unsettle anthropological ways of seeing. These disruptions have obviated the fact that anthropological filmmakers cannot revert our gaze, but instead must find new ways of acknowledging the complex and messy histories from which the discipline has emerged while carefully engaging with the emerging global hierarchies that rely on neocolonial ideologies and produce new racist ways of seeing for (still) largely white and white-adjacent audiences. Each section will include texts and films as examples of how various visual techniques have emerged in order to challenge earlier processes of visual primitivizing. Note: Words such as primitive, tribal, and backwards are used here to describe characterizations imposed on anthropological subjects by (neo)colonial ethnographic filmmakers and do not reflect the views of the author.

What Is the Decolonial Visual Turn?

This work participates in the ongoing project of decolonizing anthropology by holding space for those who have been systematically erased from the discipline’s visual theorizing. As such, what I term the “decolonial visual turn” is an explicit attempt to uproot visual culture from its racist colonial history and extends scholarship such as that of Harrison 1997, Tuhiwai Smith 2012, and Tuck and Yang 2012, which brings together various strands in the Indigenous, Black radical, feminist, postcolonial, and anti-caste traditions, to reveal how visual production and representation remain deeply racist enterprises. While some scholars cited in this section may not themselves claim the mantle of the decolonial, what grouping them in this way reveals is a shared recognition that visual production is part and parcel of the unfolding of colonialism’s global racialization processes. Decoloniality, as Tuck and Yang 2012 remind, is not a metaphor, but instead requires an attention to the regionally and historically specific ways that colonialism has had impacts all over the globe. This means that visual analysis must attend to these varying colonial encounters in order to reveal the complex manifestations of primitivizing and racializing processes in image and film. For example, working from within the postcolonial feminist tradition, Minh-ha 1991 argues that the conceit of objectivity and the tradition of studying the Other worked at the behest of the worst sexist and racist tendencies of colonialist “First World” observers of the “Third World.” Fabian 1983 articulated the way that “the rhetoric of vision” interacted with schizogenic conceptions of time to manufacture notions of the primitive Other. At the same time, ethnographic filmmakers who have emerged from the Black radical and Black feminist traditions have found anti-racist visual methods in the filmic work of Zora Neale Hurston, who in short films such as Children’s Games, Logging, and Baptism experimented with filming techniques that avoided objectifying and pathologizing those who were represented on screen. Building on Hurston’s work, Tobing Rony 1996 explicitly interrogates the racialized and gendered gaze of early ethnographic filmmakers while Campt 2017 develops her ethnographic insights by searching for moments of refusal within traditional colonial photo archives. Poole 2005 called for a politics of suspicion to productively reinvigorate visual analyses of archives that are deeply imbricated in colonial modes of pleasure. Beginning from the specificity of native expropriation, indigenous filmmakers have worked to unsettle the settler colonial basis for anthropological visual productions. For example, Masayesva’s Itam Hakim, Hopiit challenges the settler colonial production of the static, primitive native which was the basis of the salvage ethnographic project and justification for the appropriation of indigenous life and land (cited in The “Native” Strikes Back). Such work has been careful to place racializing and primitivizing processes in relation to critiques of the nation-state, patriarchal and sexist mores, heteronormativity, casteism, and religious and classed bigotry, “framing” coloniality as it intersects with, relies on, and enhances other forms of systemic oppression. For example, Natarajan and Ninan’s A Gardener in the Wasteland draws from the work of Jyotiba Phule to tell a visual story of the global interrelation between racist and casteist practice, complicating any simplistic idea of decolonial solidarity building.

  • Campt, Tina. 2017. Listening to images. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

    Drawing from Black feminist traditions, Tina Campt provides methodological tools by which to analyze colonial photographic archives in ways that counter their violent and exploitative histories. She asks us to listen to images as a way to see the resistance, refusal, and fugitivity of those Black subjects within colonial-era images in ways that do not reinscribe processes of dehumanization.

  • Children’s Games. 1928. Directed by Zora Neale Hurston.

    The anthropologist Hurston’s filmic renderings—including Logging (1928) and Baptism (1929)—shot under the tutelage of her advisor Franz Boas, have been hailed as a subversion of the voyeuristic taxidermic gaze of 1920s ethnographic filmmaking. She utilizes self-reflexive methods and experiments with movement and zoom in ways that challenge the primitivizing gazes of her anthropological contemporaries. Her methods foreshadow the experimental and radical uses of the camera that emerged in the late 20th century.

  • Fabian, Johannes. 1983. Time and the other: How anthropology makes its object. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

    Classic text in the critique of anthropological knowledge, in which Fabian delineates the ways that anthropologists have propagated myths regarding the Other through the production of schizogenic time. Fabian interrogates “the rhetoric of vision” which undergirds anthropological theorizing and functions to deny coevalness to its objects of study.

  • Harrison, Faye, ed. 1997. Decolonizing anthropology: Moving further toward an anthropology for liberation. Arlington, VA: Association of Black Anthropologists, American Anthropological Association.

    Essential reading in decolonial anthropology. Harrison outlines the way that anthropologists must continue to interrogate their fieldsites by attending to imperial and colonial histories and the raced and gendered power relations that re-emerge in diasporic movements and transnational projects in the late 20th and early 21st century.

  • Minh-ha, Trinh T. 1991. When the moon waxes red: Representation, gender, and cultural politics. New York: Routledge.

    Trinh T. Minh-ha’s writings are a must for any student interested in interrogating the act of filmmaking as inherently racialized and gendered. In her work, she consistently critiques the white, Western, male anthropological gaze which produces the need to discover “primitive societies.” The language of science and the totalizing quest for objectivity is but a masculinized form of racial Othering, which also is reflected in the way that anthropologists have used the film camera.

  • Natarajan, Srividya, and Aparajita Ninan. 2011. A gardener in the wasteland. New Delhi: Navayana.

    In this graphic novel, Natarajan and Ninan draw inspiration from the anti-caste activist Jyotiba Phule and his iconic work Gulamgiri (Slavery), to illustrate the continued role that caste supremacy plays in India today. The work visually demonstrates the history through which nationalist leaders maintained caste and Hindu supremacy in their racialized anticolonial undertakings while also revealing critical linkages between the struggles against racial and caste oppression.

  • Poole, Deborah. 2005. An excess of description: Ethnography, race, and visual technologies. Annual Review of Anthropology 34:159–179.

    An essential resource for those interested in a comprehensive historical overview of visuality and race. She draws together much of the literature in early visual anthropology to claim that suspicion of the visual is a productive site from which to reclaim visuality from its racist past.

  • Tobing Rony, Fatimah. 1996. The third eye: Race, cinema, and ethnographic spectacle. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

    Tobing Rony’s text is a classic study of ethnographic film’s role in the invention of the primitive Other. She excavates the history of anthropology and popular film to show how they together constructed white-Western notions of race, gender, nation, and empire. Her work demonstrates how ethnographic cinema produced fixed notions of culture as race and critically interrogates the various movements through which the colonial racial gaze stuck the “primitive” subject in the past.

  • Tuck, Eve, and K. Wayne Yang. 2012. Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1.1: 1–40.

    Tuck and Yang argue that sincere decolonial praxis should not be collapsed as a metaphor for any and all forms of critical social justice work. Instead, they argue that decolonial praxis is an explicit critique of the entangled settler colonial triad structure of settler-native-slave. This means that a decolonial praxis must engage with indigenous scholarship, unsettle the specific categories of settler colonialism, and open up space for sincere solidarity that does not erase the experiences of indigenous communities.

  • Tuhiwai Smith, Linda. 2012. Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples. London: Zed Books.

    Tuhiwai Smith argues that academic methods of knowledge production have been embedded in global systems of imperialism and have never been innocent, distant, or apolitical. As such, Tuhiwai Smith calls for a disruption of the researcher/researched binary and provides research methodologies that open the possibility for new visual modes, largely by indigenous communities themselves, that challenge the values and practices of neocolonial visual anthropology.

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