Visual methods: Knowledge production and ways of representation

Live notes at the eResearch seminar by Roger Canals (Universitat de Barcelona) and Juan Ignacio Robles (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid) entitled Visual methods: Knowledge production and ways of representation. Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain, April 29th, 2009.

An introduction to Visual Anthropology
Roger Canals

Visual Anthropology is the part of anthropology that takes the:

  • Image as an object, an object whose goal is to be seen. And this object creates social relationships, are social enablers;
  • Image as methodology, as a way to approach the reality; either by using already existing images and measuring the reactions of social actors towards these images, or by producing new images (photography, cinema, etc.)
  • Image as a discourse, images being used to transmit the findings, conclusions of the research itself.

Three steps: how images are represented, how a relationship is created between people and images, how a relationship is mediated amongst people through images.

Burke: image is valid in social sciences if it is contextualized.

Specificities of ethnographic cinema: the camera as a special object that needs “problematising”, putting it in context, make evident its use, its influence on what is seen and how it is seen…

On the one hand — a positive approach, by e.g. Vasant — we can believe that the genesis of the photographic image is automatic, unconscious and objective. There is no human intention (e.g. like in painting) in photography or cinema. Thus, we have to believe in the photographed object.

On the other hand — a post-modern approach, by e.g. Deleuze — we can also understand photography as a built image and, hence, it is useless for anthropology.

Of course, both points of view can co-exist. It is the double regime of the cinematographic image, with an immediate component and a complex component.

Use of cinema in anthropology:

  • Register. Though the context is very important to correctly frame this register. E.g. Nanook of the North is not a good ethnography about Eskimos, but it is a good ethnography about the encounter of Nanook and Flaherty.
  • Meeting point (dialogic camera)
  • Performance. As the camera is not invisible, all cinema is, on a certain degree, a performance.

All three combined provide a cinematographic way to approach reality: the data one gets are different (than without a camera), and the way these “data” (findings, reflections, etc.) are explained is also radically different than with other ways of representation (e.g. written language).

It is possible to think cinema ethnographically, as the way we produce the film (lightning, screenplay, etc.) does affect our research. And ethnography cinematographically: as post production, editing and mounting, etc. are also parts of the analysis of our subject of research

Transcultural cinema: camera is a research instrument and cinematographic decisions come (partially) determined by the characteristics of the subject of research.

Examples of visual ethnography
Juan Ignacio Robles

Markets, lives and suburbs

Juan Ignacio Robles presents a visual ethnography that does research on how different retail sellers in downtown markets face competition by supermarkets and illegal groceries. Footage is shot in three different European cities.

Problems: sometimes it is difficult not to break the space-time environment of the representees as sometimes it is not allowed to tape inside supermarkets. On the other hand, the quality of the equipment also determines how and what you can tape, depending of the circumstances of the people to be taped (e.g. noise in open air markets).

Rachida’s Kids

Project to show how Islam is taught in Spanish public schools. The camera enabled a higher degree of openness of the taped people, showing more things and shadows that would have remained hidden had not been the camera there. The people taped were the main characters of their own story and were able to explain their own point of view without intermediaries.

Muñeiras, Cows and Churches

How the franquist regime used the NO-DO to show Spanish traditions, to praise the dictator and to foster tourism. The NO-DO was said to be “ethnographic”, and the research wants to deconstruct how the different documentaries from the NO-DO were really designed and built.

Social Theatre

The Spanish-Equatorial association create performances on the street to transform feelings of hate, apathy into social vindication. It’s a Francisco Boal’s approach to activism theatre, to humanize the oppressor-oppressed relationship.

Q & A

Ismael Peña-López: how does the camera causes fake performance instead of empowering taped people to talk with their own voices? why not use invisible cameras (with the due permissions ex ante or ex post)? how do we go from describing to finding relationships of causality, from the how to the why?

Isidor Fernández: does anthropologist have to master the language of cinema? Roger Canals: yes, of course (though I don’t think there’s such a thing like cinematographic language).

Adolfo Estalella: what’s the responsibility of the researcher when “stepping into” the performance that is being ethnographed?

Francesc Balagué: how does the media (cinema, TV, etc.) affects not only the result, but the research itself?

Ruth Pagès: Not make the camera invisible but even more visible, more present, and include the ethnographer inside the ethnography itself.

Juan Ignacio Robles: I don’t want an invisible camera, as the camera induces actions and events. The characters of ethnographies usually attribute the camera a leading role too. The camera is but another character.

Roger Canals: If the camera is not active in the ethnography, maybe it’s not ethnographic cinema at all. It is all the remainings of the positive approach that the reality is “pure” and we should not affect it. But this paradigm has been set aside as we believe there’s no “pure reality” at all. Anthropology only happens when there’s an encounter, hence the appearance of the camera is an absolute need for this encounter to happen.

Elisenda Ardèvol: the ethnographer is a participant and the camera mediates.

Edgar Gómez: technicalities (e.g. is the audio ok?) are not distractions from the core of the research? Won’t the camera get most attention that due? Roger Canals: it is not a matter of putting the camera in the middle of the scene/research, just to give it the appropriate attribution.

Roger Canals: for the anthropologist, the field research is very important. Before taping, there’s a lot of work to be done on the field and master the nature of the subject to be studied.

More information


e-Research: opportunities and challenges for social sciences (2009)

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2009) “Visual methods: Knowledge production and ways of representation” In ICTlogy, #67, April 2009. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
Retrieved month dd, yyyy from

Previous post: Mobiles in developing countries: hope or mirage?

Next post: The Network of the People

1 Comment to “Visual methods: Knowledge production and ways of representation” »

RSS feed RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Your comment: