Skip links

Fear of the Visual? Power of ‘Writing’ in Anthropology and the Eclipse of Photography

… ethnographic enquiries came to depend upon words, words and words, during the period that anthropology was maturing as a science – Margaret Mead in ‘Visual Anthropology in a Discipline of Words,’ 1995.

Paradoxically, while social researchers encounter images constantly, not merely in their own daily lives but as part of the texture of life of those they work with, they sometimes seem at a loss when it comes to incorporating images into their professional practice – Marcus Banks in Visual Methods in Social Research, 2001.

What I have attempted in the previous eight chapters is to explore a number of themes with regard to photography, which were of interest to me.  As I had noted at the very beginning of this book, this was both a personal journey as well as an academic inquiry that varied from revisiting the combined histories and intersections of photography, anthropology, sociology and colonialism on one hand, and dealing with the politics of specific kinds of photography such as selfies, wedding photography and what I have very subjectively called fleeting, casual and thoughtless photography.  In this journey, I have also traversed across issues of ethics in visual research and the dynamics that led to the emergence of visual sociology and anthropology.  I have attempted to undertake this admittedly incomplete and fragmented history of seeing in the specific intellectual contexts of South Asia where these issues have not received much attention.  And this is clearly the case with regard to the region’s sociology and social anthropology, within which I am located. Moreover, my focus has been that of a sociologist with a keen interest in photography in particular and the visual more generally, and not as a photographer or as a visual sociologist. And in this effort, I have situated my undisguised subjective self as well as my anxiety-ridden academic self in the midst of this journey as two related characters walking down the same path, but quite unsure of where they might end up.  That itself is perhaps too much of an unorthodox approach when seen from the perspective of the clinical and what I consider boring and often-colorless domains of formal sociology and social anthropology in South Asia.  I am sure, for many of my colleagues, what I have said will not be adequately ‘sociological.’

But as far as I am concerned, my movement in the direction of photography’s implication in sociology is well within my interests in sociology.  At the end this ruptured and non-linear journey, I remain unconvinced of the reasons that led sociology and social anthropology to expel the visual into the sub-disciplinary domains where it now resides. In fact, I think it should be self-evident that one major foundation for my journey was this intellectual rupture and my inability to understand the underlying logic for it in both theoretical and methodological terms despite my reading on the matter and subsequent conversations and reflections with many colleagues, friends and students who shared some of these interests. My attempt in these concluding pages is to briefly revisit this intellectual rupture in the context of the overall conditions I have so far discussed, and place in context my own thoughts on why photography in sociology makes sense.

Writing in 1974, in the conclusion of his influential essay, ‘Sociology and Photography’, Becker had expressed much hope that the kind of work involving photography and sociology he was trying to “encourage barely exists” at the time even though “common and converging interests of social scientists and photographers, often in the same person, suggest that we don’t have long to wait” (Becker 1974: 24). Re-reading Becker’s essay and reflecting on his hopes, I can not help but feel how right and how wrong he has been at the same time.  He was right to the extent that the visual and photography have found pronounced interest within visual sociology and anthropology as well as cultural studies and a number of other domains of study in social sciences and humanities. But it is quite evident today that his hope has not manifested within the mainstreams of either sociology or social anthropology.

It almost seems that the latter 20th century criticisms of photography’s usefulness in sociology and social anthropology I had outlined in Chapters 3 and 6 seems to have assumed to a great extent that photography somehow had to narrate a story so authentic and autonomous, which had to be the ultimate truth, and that it had to be done through images alone. Alternatively, the criticism was, whatever was narrated with images, including photographs, was too soft and smacked of unreliability in discursive and analytical terms.  Today, in the era after the ‘writing culture’ and ‘partial truths’ debates initiated by the writings of James Clifford, George Marcus, Michel Fischer, Stephen Tyler and others in the 1980s, such a sense of absolute privilege is not even offered to the written text in the practice of ethnography. Hence, the understanding of ethnographic accounts as ‘partial truths’ – the residue of theorization, interpretation and representation of what had been collected from the ‘field.’ It is self-evident today that the ‘perfume’ of specific places and moments that Levi-Strauss refers to in the context of his field notes also manifest not as simple ‘facts’ beyond which there can be no interpretation.  Instead, they too are snippets of partial truths open to interpretation just as much as his own photographs, which he had later discarded due to their alleged lapses in sociological value.

Like field notes, photographs in any anthropological work have to be situated and interpreted as one is expected to when dealing with any other kind of social and cultural material. This is what Bourdieu and Bourdieu mean when they assert, “photographs should be the object of a reading that one may call sociological and that they are never considered in themselves and for themselves, in terms of their technical or aesthetic qualities” (Bourdieu and Bourdieu 2004: 605).  Much of the suspicions over photography’s suitability for sociological research in methodological terms also emanated from situating it within an idiom of art and aesthetics. This is why Bourdieu and Bourdieu very clearly emphasizes the need to engage in a sociological reading via photographs without reference to its aesthetic sensibilities. It is in this context that Wright has noted that “the status of the visual in much contemporary visual anthropological practice is often achieved largely through a denial of any aesthetics, constructed through a distancing from any potentially polluting ‘artistic’ concerns (Wright 1998: 17).

It is also in this context that Becker tried to argue in the 1970s that, “photography from the beginning strove toward art just as it did toward social exploration” (Becker 1974: 5). As a pioneer visual sociologist with a great passion for photography, and writing twenty-four years prior to Wright, Becker was not denying the artistic potential of photography. Instead, he accepted it as a matter of fact.  On one hand, he argued, “the artistic element of photography was held at a substantial distance from photography carried on for more mundane purposes, including journalism” (Becker 1974: 5). In a certain sense, sociology was also one of these mundane purposes which to a significant extent necessitated a conscious shift from framing in the idiom of art or leisure to that of recording ‘facts’ in so far as photos generated in predetermined research contexts were concerned.  On the other hand, Becker also thought aesthetically oriented photography and discursive practices like sociology need not be seen as separate when he argued, “art and social exploration describe two ways of working, not two kinds of photographers” (Becker 1974: 5).

The arguments about photography as art or as an aesthetic practice and could therefore dent the scientific validity of sociological research was a tool to disrupt its methodical entry more seriously into mainstream sociology and social anthropology rather than a clear understanding of its fallacies.  It is in support towards this argument that photographs were expected to narrate an independent narrative to make it sociologically viable if they were to be considered adequate sources of research in mainstream sociology and social anthropology. It is quite interesting that seminal ethnographies written on the basis of memory and recollection in contexts where field notes were destroyed such as M.N. Srinivas’ Remembered Village (1980) and Edmund Leach’s Political Systems of Highland Burma (1954) have been so well received as sound ethnographic accounts which has never been accorded to photography in mainstream contemporary social anthropology. It would appear that in the received wisdom of conventional South Asian as well as global mainstream anthropology, memory and recollection are far more reliable in methodological terms despite their countless fallibilities than the apparent silence and stasis of photography. However, the reality is that photographs are no less or more partial or mute than field notes or recollections of memory – if carefully situated in context.

Another source of anxiety over photos in social anthropology stems from the fact they are not always captured while an event was actually taking place. Often, photographs in anthropological contexts might be taken after an event very much similar to crime scene photos, which capture the “residual” by professionals who arrive “too late” after an incident has already taken place (Bond 2009: 1). But anthropologists and sociologists are not news photographers for whom ‘live coverage’ should not matter, as it does in news reportage, except in very specific circumstances.  Images captured by anthropologists and others who arrive at a ceremony, a ritual or any other event after it has taken place also fall into this category of ‘too late’ images. Nevertheless, this residulality itself should not become a source of anxiety when considering the research or narrative potential of photographs. In such moments also, photographs are taken in a specific situation, which is impacted by spatial, temporal, cultural and political factors. As such, any photograph will be “read” and situated, in that specific context to make sense. This brings to mind the following three questions Banks had formulated  in his book, Visual Methods in Social Research when attempting to make methodological sense out of photographs:  “(i) what is the image of, what is its content?  (ii)who took it or made it, when and why? and (iii) how do other people come to have it, how do they read it, what do they do with it?” (Banks 2001: 7).

It seems to me these three issues are of simple but direct relevance to any project in any discipline (not simply in sociology and social anthropology) that intends to utilize photographs as a central object or research or as main repositories of information.  In a similar context, Wright has suggested that three approaches can be utilized to read photographs. These include looking through photographs, looking at them, and finally looking behind photographs (Wright 1999: 38). Affectively, by using these three approaches, what Wright is arguing is the need to focus on both  the contents and the contexts of photographs to bring out their social and political meanings (Wright 1999).

Seen in the sense outlined above, the photographs of the Vedda ritual performances at the Mahiyangagna Raja Maha Viharaya Buddhist temple in southern Sri Lanka I had captured in 2009 were taken while the actual performances were in progress (see Image 9: A).  This was part of the annual ritual known as Vedi Perahera.

9: A. Vedi Perahera in progress, Mahiyangana Raja Maha Viharaya, Sri Lanka, 2005. Photo courtesy of the author’s research collection.

There was no time lapse between the event and the act of photography. Affectively, they were captured ‘live,’ and as a result, the issue of residuality that Bond refers to above does not come into play with regard this series of photpographs. While I have written nothing so far based on these photos or the work undertaken at the time, these images can “speak” to me today as well, if I wish to give them voice.  Similar images from the collection of the Seligmanns referred to Chapter 3 or in other colonial period collections will also offer such reading possibilities more than one hundred years after they were taken. But my images were taken while a large-scale ceremony was in progress as part of an annual ritual cycle, some of Seligmanns’ images and many other period photographs of Veddas were posed for. It is this kind of contextual relevance the three questions suggested by Banks (2001) referred to above establish. In other words, the answer to these questions with regard to photographs in a research project will establish degrees of reliability.

Once the limitations and strengths in a photograph as well as its contextual circumstances are taken into account, they would offer considerable information. In this sense, Image 9: A and others in the series pictorially refer to the changes the ritual have structurally experienced over time, changes in costumes, and what these changes might mean in terms of broader social and cultural transformations and so on.  In other words, they offer signposts for situating these rituals in specific historical milieus within a discourse of social change, and are still open for interpretation based on material from other sources. Vedi Perahera is an important ritual that establishes the entry of this indigenous community into the folds of Buddhism while it also refers to practices of trade that the community was traditionally engaged in. But beyond this symbolism, the costumes people wear nowadays and the layers of political patronage that precedes the ritual outlines significant aspects of recent social and political change while the symbolic references of the ritual are lost to many viewers for whom it has become a mere tourist attraction.  The point I want to make is, this photos and others in the series, when situated in the specific context in which they were taken as well as within the discourse of other materials on the Veddas, will allow for considerable information to emerge as well as numerous interpretative possibilities.

Similarly, the photographs I had captured over a sixteen-year period in northern Sri Lanka of war memorials constructed by the guerilla group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam and the Sri Lankan armed forces as well as other sites touched by violence were taken many years after they were constructed. Some of these images were captured in 2005 in the midst a ceasefire while others were photographed in 2012, three years after Sri Lanka’s civil war ended in 2009.[1] But none were taken in the midst of combat in the sense of ‘live’ photography. As articulated by Bond, what I had captured in these images were the “residual” of what had happened, after arriving at the scenes “too late” (Bond 2009: 1) after the war was over or in the relative safety of a faulty cease-fire.  For me, the value of these images has nothing to do with the time in which the monuments or other structures were constructed or when they were photographed, but in what they had to narrate about the kind of politics that ensured the emergence of these objects at one moment and how some of these were removed from the landscape at another moment as well as what they had to say about the manner in which memory worked. As I have noted on the use of photographs in my book, Warzone Tourism in Sri Lanka,  “the extensive availability of images from my own research collection as well as the personal narratives of others allowed for the pictorial contextualization of where travellers went, what they saw, why they recorded specific objects and places and the nature of discourse that emerged with respect to these places (Perera 2016: xii).

More broadly, in this context, the “focus on photography was not a matter of simply attempting to understand what people did in the form of a ‘thoughtless’ technical practice and getting a sense of what they saw in their travels. More importantly, it was also a methodological prerogative in at least partially creating a parallel narrative that would accompany the written text as a necessary subtext of what it was attempting to outline (Perera 2016: xii-xiii).  As far as my use of photographs were concerned, they were not mere illustrations, but were an integral part of what I saw and what I had to say as well as what I hoped others would also see and perceive. While I could have not used photographs in what I wrote, my conviction is that the photographs helped create an affective secondary narrative, which in some cases necessarily surpassed the narrative potential that of the written text in terms of nuance.

In many ways, photographing a place after a specific event has taken place is not very different from interviewing a person about an incident that has already taken place, and making notes of that conversation. In fact, unlike such an interview, a photograph might capture much more information such as the residue of war and its destructions as are clearly embedded in many of my own photographs. The last of these, which were taken in December 2012 in the midst of the former war zone still narrated stories of war and violence (see Image 9: B) while in many places, the presence of war and its destruction were being actively erased by the state, and destroyed homes and burnt Palmyra trees were replaced with hoardings announcing the rapid influx of private capital into the former warzone (see Image 9: C).

Image 9:B. House destroyed by war with bullet holes and identification marker placed by the military, Pudumathalan, Northern Sri Lanka, 2012. Photo courtesy of author’s research collection.






It seems to me that photography’s dislocation from mainstream anthropology and sociology emanated partly from not asking seriously enough what to do with photographs and how best to utilize them.  This is what Elizabeth Edwards wondered when she asked, “what ‘work’ is expected from photographs as objects – in albums, on walls, at shrines, in political protests, as gift exchange? Under what material conditions are photographs seen? In which ways are they things that demand embodied responses and emotional affects?” (Edwards 2012: 222). Instead of asking under what conditions and how photography can drive anthropology and sociology in both methodological and theoretical terms, the mainstreams of these two disciplines have felt more comfortable in allowing that question to be answered as central issues within visual sociology and anthropology rather than as part of a core interests within the mainstream.  And for that to happen, the visual in both sociology and anthropology and to be first expelled to their sub-disciplinary locations. In affect, this is what Edwards has done.  And it is clear that colleagues who have found visual sociology and anthropology a more comfortable intellectual home, have welcomed this distancing from the mainstream as well.

Image 9:B. Post-war commercial advertisement at Elephant Pass, Northern Sri Lanka, 2012. Photo courtesy of author’s research collection.

As Banks has noted, ultimately, “good visual research rests upon a judicious reading of both internal and external narratives” (Banks 1999: 12). The question that always comes to my mind is, are these reading possibilities not offered by the intellectual apparatuses generally at the disposal of sociology and social anthropology even today? Internal narratives are provided by the photograph itself, while the external narratives might have some references within the photograph.  But its main sources will be exterior to the photograph and embedded in other domains and contextual materials such as local histories, individual memories and other temporal resources, which might offer a more nuanced reading to the photograph and its context. This is because as Banks further notes, “at root, all visual objects represent nothing but themselves; their very existence in the world as material objects is proof of nothing but their autonomy” (Banks 1999: 12).

Despite the discursive possibilities embedded in carefully selected photographs as outlined above, what is apparent is that photography’s presence in mainstream anthropology eclipsed more decisively with the forceful establishment of the “literate” sensibilities in social anthropology consequent to the influence of the “writing culture” debate, particularly in the United States, and later in the rest of the world as well.  Though this debate was something that emerged within social anthropology, the power of the written word accompanied by statistics is similarly seen in sociology, and has played a core role in its own distancing of photography and the visual into the sub-disciplinary domains of visual sociology.  This eclipsing has been taking place steadily since the 1960s.  Rather than a self-conscious expulsion of photographs, this was more the byproduct of the emergent theoretical and methodological prerogatives privileging the practice of writing and literary sensibilities in the anthropological practice. As Clifford has noted, “writing” or “making of texts” is “no longer a marginal, or occulted dimension” in anthropology, but has “emerged as central to what anthropologists do both in the field and thereafter” (Clifford 1986: 2). Obviously, this does not mean that anthropologists did not write before.  Early armchair anthropologists wrote on what they had not seen, but had heard from others or “seen” via photographs.  Later, with the professionalization of the discipline and the advent of fieldwork and participant observation, they wrote what they actually saw on the basis of their comprehension. But in this latter incarnation, what was privileged was not the act of writing but participant observation, the act of being in the “field”.  This is what offered anthropology an almost mythologized and romantic identity.  Writing was simply the end-product of this over-encompassing and non-transferable personal experience of “being there.” It was this experience that paved the way for cultural relativism and emic understandings of culture. As we have seen, in both these schemes of anthropology, photography had an important role to play in situating the writing in its overall context, offering “truth” value or “scientific” validity to the claims that were made – depending on the circumstances as well as the interests of individual scholars.

However, compared to these earlier modes of anthropological expression, the dominant post-writing culture anthropological practice saw the emergence of writing as its core obsessive object.  As Marcus writes, anthropologists became  “more self-conscious than ever before that they are writers[1] who, as maturing professionals, routinely outgrow the models of ethnography by which they were inducted into anthropology” (Marcus 1986: 162).  As they become writers in the sense articulated by Marcus, among the things they discarded along the way included the centrality of participant observation as well as long-term research itself as a more embedded and complex process. This was both a theoretical as well as methodical re-orientation of the discipline at a time many perceived that the broader theoretical project of 20th century anthropology was in “disarray,” and enmeshed in “crisis” (Clifford 1986: 3; Marcus 1986: 263). As a result, these circumstances opened up possibilities to discuss more openly the textual expressions of anthropological knowledge and the career-circumstances of individual scholars (Marcus 1986: 263). In these conditions, the “literariness” of published anthropological knowledge became far more important than the processes, which made this discursive end-product possible.  It is in this overall context that researchers in social sciences with an interest in the visual – including in sociology or social anthropology – are moved to say that  they “work in a minority field that is neither understood, nor properly appreciated by their colleagues” because given social sciences’ over-focus on the written word, “there is no room for pictures, except as supporting characters” (Banks 1999: 1-2).

As far as social anthropology is concerned, this situation emerged in the general circumstances marked by an interest in literary approaches more generally in human sciences as well as the intellectual interest in literary theory and practice exhibited by a number of important anthropologists, which included Claude Levi-Strauss, Victor Turner, Clifford Geertz, Mary Douglas and others (Clifford 1986: 3). Interestingly, in their own differing ways, they have “blurred the boundary separating art from science”  (Clifford 1986: 3). As we have already seen, earlier in the evolution of anthropology, photography was inducted into the discipline for exactly the opposite reason. That is, to ostensibly take it more squarely into the bosom of science. However, this self-conscious rupture and anthropology’s march towards art was mostly predicated upon the emerging importance given to writing.  This process at no point looked towards other practices such as photography, which combined both artistic and reasonable discursive possibilities, depending on what kind of photography one was dealing with. But in this context, what might be more plausible is to assume that “art” in the sense of the literary turn in anthropology was more a matter of “skillful fashioning of useful artifacts” as once described by Raymond Williams (Clifford 1986: 6). In this sense, the formulation of anthropological texts, including ethnographies is “artisanal, tied to the worldly work of writing” (Clifford 1986: 6).

Seen in this sense, one can generally agree with Marcus that “textualization is at the heart of the ethnographic enterprise, both in the field and in university settings” (Marcus 1986: 264). But Marcus’ assumption is that ethnographic practice begins with orality, and proceeds towards writing “with difficulty” (Marcus 1986: 264-265). But orlaity is only one source of ethnography while visuality is another, which unfortunately does not find much space in the writing culture debate or in the post-writing culture intellectual environments in which we are located today.  In the overemphasis of literary approaches to anthropology and the dominance writing itself has come to occupy in the hegemonic schools of social anthropology globally, much has been rejected as “visualism” (Clifford 1986: 11).  What has been lost to both mainstream social anthropology and sociology in this context includes “reflexivity; collaboration; ethics; and the relationship between content, social context and materiality of images” (Pink 2003: 179). But visualism in this context is not merely photography. It refers to ways of seeing or how vision has been hierarchically positioned over other senses in Western literate cultures, and how in that same scheme of things, photography has also ebbed beyond the intellectual horizon of cotemporary anthropology.  This is because of its inability to compete with the power of the written word in post-writing culture over-literary anthropology. It is in the intersections of these circumstances, one may find the now-established but often unarticulated fear of the visual in contemporary anthropology.

(From the book, The Fear of the Visual? Photography, Anthropology, and Anxieties of Seeing by Sasanka Perera; 2020; New Delhi: Orient BlackSwan)

This website uses cookies to improve your web experience.