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Knowledge through images

Project analyzes the use of photos and film as a research strategy or product

An image from a para-athletic game studied and photographed by Joon Ho Kim

Joon Ho Kim An image from a para-athletic game studied and photographed by Joon Ho KimJoon Ho Kim

The use of photography and audiovisual media in cultural anthropology harks back to the initial years of the discipline. Professor Sylvia Caiuby Novaes, of the Department of Anthropology in the University of São Paulo School of Philosophy, Literature and Human Sciences (FFLCH-USP), locates its origins in the work of evolutionary anthropologists. In their view, societies develop following similar stages and patterns at any time or in any part of the world, from “primitive” to “civilized”. Thus, visual evidence is appropriate for witnessing the evolutionary signs found in the people studied and their ways of life. Since then, evolutionary anthropology has been supplanted by other, later theories, and images only came back into the spotlight in the 1940s with the work of Americans Margaret Mead (1901-1978) and Gregory Bateson (1904-1980), in Bali, and became effectively standard in the 1960s with the work of the French researcher Jean Rouch (1917-2004) in Africa. Many debates remain, such as that comparing the possibilities of descriptive recording and the use of images in an expressive way. These and other issues were addressed in the thematic project, The film experience in anthropology, coordinated by Novaes from 2010 to 2015. It was the third and last of an interconnected series, totaling 18 years of research.

When it emerged, she observes, “photography was seen as a resource to replace painting, to the extent that it captured an objective reality, and even today is frequently seen as if it could not ‘lie’.” For the researcher, “what visual anthropology seeks is to know how to use the images, either as a strategy or as the product of a study.” The search for new languages, according to Novaes, assumes that “our scientific rationality, often imbued with positivism, is not suitable for studying universes different from ours.”

The work of Peruvian artisans...

Sandra Rossi CostilhesThe work of Peruvian artisans…Sandra Rossi Costilhes

The project incorporated two lines of research. The first, “Photography, ethnographic film and anthropological reflection – Theory and practice,” sought to uncover the similarities and differences between anthropological theory and the taking of photographs and making of films. According to Novaes, “the great challenge in this line of research is the possibility of incorporating new audiovisual languages in the fundamental questions of contemporary anthropology.”

One example of a film produced within the scope of the thematic project and this line of research is Pimenta nos olhos (Pepper in the eyes), which originated from discussions with inhabitants of Pimentas, a neighborhood on the outskirts of the city of Guarulhos, São Paulo State, mediated through workshops and photographic exhibits with the intention of exploring questions of space, imagery and memory in the community. Another study that brings together the possibilities of photography as part of anthropological reflection is contained in one of the articles of the book Entre arte e ciência – A fotografia na antropologia (Between art and science – photography in anthropology), published by researcher Joon Ho Kim, who received his PhD in anthropology from FFLCH-USP. The book is one of the extensions of the thematic project, with text and photos contributed by some of the researchers. Joon employed photography in a study carried out with wheelchair athletes who play rugby. The purpose of the research, which won the Capes Thesis Award in the Humanities, was to record the precise details that reveal the violence, agility and collisions between bodies and machines during matches. Joon thus wanted to “capture aspects able to deconstruct the stigma of immobility through constructing images contrary to those suggesting victimization.”

The second line of research, “The expression of ethnographic knowledge: frontiers and dialog between anthropology and the arts,” studied audiovisual contributions to the production of anthropological knowledge. According to Novaes, the hybrid aspect of the images (both real and constructed), especially photography, allows a connection between art, knowledge and information. “Of the humanities, the closest to the arts is anthropology, partly because we deal with the unconscious aspects of social life.”

...and Brazilian artisans, recorded by Sandra Rossi Costilhes

Sandra Rossi Costilhes…and Brazilian artisans, recorded by Sandra Rossi CostilhesSandra Rossi Costilhes

Thus, some films breach the traditional distance between scientific research and artistic work. A study on youth in Cidade Tiradentes, on the outskirts of São Paulo, adopted a fictional format when adapted for an audiovisual medium. The film, Fabrik funk, a realidade de um sonho (Fabrik funk, the reality of a dream), authored by Rose Hikiji, Novaes and the anthropologist Alexandrine Boudreault-Fournier of the University of Victoria, Canada, tells the story of a woman who wants to become part of the funk music scene. It was made using the shared anthropology method, in which the community studied participated in developing the script and in production. “All of the research data is there but, if we had done a traditional documentary, the approach probably would not have been as rich,” says Novaes.

More than 50 films were produced as part of the three thematic projects. In the most recent phase, 27 researchers were involved. According to the researcher, the project established the anthropology of expressive forms as a discipline at FFLCH-USP, to study the relationship between anthropology and the various fields of artistic expression. It was through these thematic projects that the infrastructure of the Laboratory of Sound and Imagery in Anthropology (LISA) was implemented. It contains an archive of 1,500 films, 8,000 photographic images and more than 180 hours of recorded audio, in addition to reference documents, some available on-line. LISA is used by three research groups: The Visual Anthropology Group (GRAVI), the Center for Anthropology, Performance and Drama (NAPEDRA), and the Musical Anthropology Research Group (PAM).

The film experience in anthropology (nº 2009/52880); Grant Mechanism Research grant—Thematic Project; Principal Investigator Sylvia Caiuby Novaes (FFLCH-USP); Investment R$ 528,441.00.

CAIUBY NOVAES, S. (ed.). Entre arte e ciência – A fotografia na antropologia. São Paulo: Edusp, 2015, 224 p.