In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ethnographic Film

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Representing the Ethnographic Other

Cinema and Media Studies Ethnographic Film
Pamela Wilson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 December 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 December 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0183


The relationship between visual media and anthropology has a long history growing out of the imperializing impulses of the 19th century, and anthropologists—as well as others such as cultural explorers, scientists, geographers, journalists, and travel writers—have long used forms of visual media to document their impressions of and perspectives about what we might call the cultural “Other”: cultures that have seemed different, exotic, or fascinating to us. Until the 1980s, in fact, anthropologists traditionally studied small, isolated, and traditional communities, and these small-scale societies dominated the subfield of ethnographic film and visual anthropology. Today, the field of visual anthropology contains several distinct subfields, ranging from ethnographic film to indigenous media and media anthropology, and intersects as well with museum studies. In an effort to complement the Oxford Bibliographies article on Visual Anthropology by Marcus Bank, this bibliography charts the predecessors of ethnographic film as well as emerging fields most related to ethnographic film. It begins with the evolution from the early usage of visuals (photography, film, museum exhibits, and other forms of visual culture) to support and enhance traditional written ethnographic monographs, long considered the most valid form of expressing anthropological and imperial knowledge of the cultural Other. Then it moves quickly into the ethnographic film movement, peaking in the 1970s and 1980s, when anthropological filmmakers (or anthropologists in partnership with documentary filmmakers) created filmic records or documents of the cultures they were studying. Along the way, some intersections between ethnographic and experimental filmmaking are examined. Beginning in the late 1980s, the approach by which the anthropologists placed the cameras in the hands of their cultural subjects and encouraged them to create their own auto-ethnographic films blossomed out of the “postmodern” turn in anthropological thought, leading to a subfield of visual anthropology called “Indigenous Media,” which is introduced here. Also during this period, a spate of scholarly literature and documentary media was sparked by the feminist and postcolonial paradigms. Issues raised by ethnographic film and the scholarship surrounding it have invited a larger discourse, both scholarly and artistic, about broader forms of representation that represent what might be called the “ethnographic gaze” (such as Coco Fusco’s and Guillermo Gomez-Pena’s critical performance piece “Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West”), but these are unfortunately beyond the scope of this bibliography.

General Overviews

Readers seeking overviews of the field at any point in time might explore some of these books that more broadly introduce and discuss the issues in both the theory and practice of ethnographic film, indigenous media, and visual anthropology. Hockings 1975 is a seminal anthology of articles providing a foundation for the development of visual anthropology. Heider 2006 (originally published in 1976) is an iconic volume on ethnographic film that laid out a philosophy and methodology for the field, while Ruby 2000 establishes critical standards and methodology, as well as providing a historical overview of three decades of ethnographic film. Barbash and Taylor 1997 is a handbook for cross-cultural documentary filmmaking. Askew and Wilks 2002 introduced a fresh anthology of writings by leading anthropologists and practitioners whose works collectively formulated an anthropology of media. El Guindi 2004 provides a textbook on visual anthropology in theory and practice, followed two years later by Pink 2006, which discusses the ethical implications and considerations of using visual methods in social science research. Grimshaw and Ravetz 2009 returns to the epistemological and aesthetic issues underlying observational cinema, bringing the film theories of André Bazin to bear upon the discipline, thereby further marrying film theory and cultural theory.

  • Askew, Kelly, and Richard Wilks. The Anthropology of Media: A Reader. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002.

    Marking the emergence of the new field of anthropology of media, this reader includes essays from within and beyond the discipline of anthropology by Marshall McLuhan, Raymond Williams, Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, John Berger, James Faris, Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, Hortense Powdermaker, Sut Jhally, David Whisnant, as well as a number of the visual anthropologists mentioned in this article.

  • Barbash, Ilisa, and Lucien Taylor. Cross-Cultural Filmmaking: A Handbook for Making Documentary and Ethnographic Films and Videos. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

    This text covers the practical, technical, and theoretical aspects of filming, from fundraising and pre-production to distribution and exhibition. Addresses styles of filmmaking, practical and ethical issues, and technical aspects (equipment and techniques for shooting film, video, and sound).

  • El Guindi, Fadwa. Visual Anthropology: Essential Method and Theory. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira, 2004.

    A single-authored survey textbook, this overview begins with a section on “Issues, Ancestry and Genealogy,” followed by sections discussing ethnographic film, research film, visual ethnography, and “From Doing Cinema to Doing Ethnography,” among others.

  • Grimshaw, Anna, and Amanda Ravetz. Observational Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009.

    Uses Bazinian film theory to examine the history of observational and ethnographic cinema as a form that “involved the abandonment of ethnographic interpretation as explanation and argument in favor of a different kind of interpretive logic—one that was filmic rather than derived from written text” (p. 4). Explores the underlying logic and aesthetic of this filmic documentary style.

  • Heider, Karl G. Ethnographic Film. Rev. ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006.

    The classic 1976 primer and theoretical model establishing ethnographic film as a genre, which attempted to establish a scientific methodology and rules for filming reality with as little distortion as possible so that ethnographic films would become evidentiary documents about cultures under study without artistic or narrative interpretation.

  • Hockings, Paul. Principles of Visual Anthropology. The Hague: Mouton, 1975.

    This landmark collection of twenty-seven articles was the first major anthology of writings aiming to “put visual anthropology into its proper perspective as a legitimate subdiscipline of anthropology and at the same time a contributor to the history of cinema” (p. xv). Most papers originated at the 1973 International Conference on Visual Anthropology held in Chicago. Contributors included “nearly all the key persons in visual anthropology” in the mid-1970s.

  • Pink, Sarah. Doing Visual Ethnography. 2d ed. London: SAGE, 2006.

    Pink explores the appropriate use and ethical issues of visual methods (photography, video, and hypermedia) in ethnographic and social research that involves representation of cultures.

  • Ruby, Jay. Picturing Culture: Explorations of Film and Anthropology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

    Historical reflection on thirty years of the marriage of anthropology and film, as well as a theoretical and practical attempt to develop a set of critical standards and methodology. Ruby strives to situate visual anthropology as an interdisciplinary critical field borrowing from media and cultural studies as well as anthropology.

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