The Anthropology of Visual Communication at Temple University - 1967 to 2004 - A Personal View [1]

Jay Ruby [2]

Courses of Study, Conferences, Publications and Institutions

In 1967 I was hired by the anthropology department at Temple University with the understanding that I would develop my interests in ethnographic film into a course and related activities. For several years prior to that, the department had an annual "Ethnographic Film Festival." In the spring of 1968 I taught the first undergraduate seminar in visual anthropology at Temple and organized an "Anthropological Film Festival" featuring Sol Worth showing and discussing films recently completed by Navahos and Ray Birdwhistell exploring his use of film in the study of body movement. A number of other films were screened and discussed including Asen Balicki's Netsilik Eskimo series (1968 Conference photo).

Over the years, the film festival evolved into the Conference on Visual Anthropology (COVA), co-directed by myself and Denise O'Brien, - an internationally renowned event attended by hundreds of people. COVA featured film and video screenings often with the filmmakers present, photographic exhibitions, scholarly paper sessions, hands-on workshops in video and photography, and organized discussions about funding, distribution and training (Link to 1972 Review of COVA). COVA lasted until 1980 and had a major impact upon the formation of the field of visual anthropology. (Link to Conference Programs)

In 1970, I assumed responsibility for the Program in Ethnographic Film ( PIEF), the first professional organization in the U.S. devoted to film and anthropology., Karl Heider's Films for Anthropological Teaching and was instrumental in convincing the American Anthropological Association to include film screenings as part of the scholarly program during their annual meetings.

In 1971, the department added Richard Chalfen, a student of Dell Hymes and Sol Worth, who specialized in the anthropological study of the "home mode" of visual communication. Chalfen and I designed a graduate course of study that included not only ethnographic film but also the anthropological study of all forms of visible and pictorial communication. Our original conception remained the core of the program for more than 25 years. I quote at length from a 1973 document:

  We should initially state an obvious point: visual anthropology has been intimately tied to the production of still and motion pictures as visual ethnographies of exotic cultures. Without neglecting the importance of this work and the many valuable contributions to date, it is our feeling that visual anthropology is much more.

  Visual anthropology should be conceptualized broadly enough to include, (1) the study of human nonlinguistic forms of communication which typically involves some visual technology for data collecting and analysis, (2) the study of visual products, such as films, as communicative activity and as a datum of culture amenable to ethnographic analysis, and (3) the use of visual media for the presentation of data and research findings-data and findings that otherwise remain verbally unrealized...

While recognizing the importance of technology for visual anthropology, we regard the acquisition of competence in film production as a technical skill that some students may need to acquire in order to pursue their research and teaching goals. As a technical skill, film production is viewed like other skills such as statistics, a field language, or contour map making- they are simply tools which have potential utility provided a research design calls for them. We realize that a basic understanding of film theory, construction and filmic conventions are necessary for an understanding of film as a communicative medium. We think of the film medium in terms of its limitations, advantages, functions, what it can and cannot be expected to accomplish and where the use of film is an indispensable aide to specific research interests.

  The general question that must be repeatedly asked is, what have you gained after using a visual medium that you would not have gained without it? Significant scientific research problems for an anthropologist do not consist of how to get a better sound track, why a particular tripod does not swivel in the Arctic, or what is the best distribution company for my film. These technical questions become relevant after research has been designed which demands a methodological approach involving visual technology.

Let us now mention several types of problems in visual anthropology that are intimately tied to the use of film.

        (1) Micro-analytic studies of human interpersonal behaviors...are generally aided by some form of visual evidence....

        (2) Visual technology may also be used in the study of macro-units of human behavior. Reference here is made to the production, for example, of motion picture footage of particular rituals, ceremonies, technological and/or artistic processes, socialization practices, subsistence patterns, warfare, and so forth. In this context, any visual manifestation of a culture is relevant subject matter.

        (3) Third, the visual products of both professional and nonprofessional camera-use can be studied as cultural artifacts. Images here are treated as data of a particular culture. This interest becomes more important to anthropology as an increased number of societies begins to produce their own sets of mass mediated messages. Research interests may necessitate the use of content analysis for the study of themes, plots, or the construction of realities in media drama-work... As more societies begin using the technology of mass media, the entire process of visual communication may be studied as a culturally structured stream of expressive and symbolic activity. This emphasis must include behavioral observations of the process, the artifacts per se, and the audiences for specific productions. This perspective may apply to the creation and reception of a photograph; a film, and a television program, as well as to the creation of an art object, the study of dance, and other folkloric performances.

        (4) A fourth and final problem is the dissemination of research findings, i.e., in developing the most effective strategy for using film or other visual forms to present anthropological statements. This problem encompasses not only the types of research mentioned above, but potentially all phases of anthropological inquiry. Here we wish students to explore film as a communication system in order to discover whether a set of filmic conventions can be developed that are somehow uniquely suited for the display of anthropological concepts.

    There are some obvious consequences to our program. Being anthropologists we are primarily concerned with developing a rigorously anthropological approach to the study of visual communication. We are not training people who will become exclusively anthropological filmmakers, or dance ethnologists, or nonverbal specialists, or even sociolinguists. Rather we are in the business of producing anthropologists who will be able to integrate their interest in a particular communicative mode into a broad spectrum of a communication approach to anthropology. We are more concerned with training anthropologists whose primary interests are in developing a visual approach to the anthropological study of humanity than in producing anthropologists who occasionally collaborate with professional filmmakers to produce educational documentaries as an adjunct to their own research.

    We feel that this approach is necessary in light of the traditional neglect of nonlinguistic communication forms by anthropologists and the corresponding tendency of anthropologists interested in this field to become peripheral to their own discipline. Our knowledge of humans as a multi-modal communicator is slight, We lack an understanding of the relationship between various codes, and in some instances the nature of the codes themselves. We feel that anthropology because of its unique holistic view of humans is in a critical position to provide an opportunity to study human communicative behavior as an integrated whole.

In 1972 a National Science Foundation grant allowed myself along with Sol Worth, Karl Heider and Carroll Williams to conduct a Summer Institute in Visual Anthropology (SIVA) at William's Anthropology Film Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Twenty graduate students and beginning assistant professors were selected for an intense summer workshop, Steve Feld among the students. The guest lecturers included Tim Asch, Ray Birdwhistell, Edward Hall, and Alan Lomax. During SIVA, the groundwork was laid for the creation of The Society for the Anthropology of Visual Communication (SAVICOM) and a journal, Studies in the Anthropology of Visual Communication. Sol Worth served as the first editor. After Worth's death in 1977, Larry Gross and I became the editors until the journal's demise in 1985. With the generous support of Walter Annenberg, the journal's scope was broadened and its name shortened to Studies in Visual Communication. I was also instrumental in the creation of a journal entitled Visual Anthropology for the International Commission on Visual Anthropology. The journal continues under the editorship of Paul Hockings.

In the 1980s, SAVICOM became The Society for Visual Anthropology and started a journal, Visual Anthropology Review. From its inception I was at odds with the intentions of SVA and have not been an active participant in its activities.

Between 1975 and 1990 Chalfen initiated the Working Papers in Culture and Communication, a program newsletter, Visual Anthropology Internships, a Graduate Lecture Series in Visual Anthropology, the Richard Cross Gallery in the Department of Anthropology, and Richard Cross MA Thesis Grants.

Soon after SIVA, a program offering an MA degree in ethnographic film at Temple was created in which students spent one year at Temple studying anthropology and one year at the Anthropology Film Center learning filmmaking. When a thesis film was completed, an MA degree was to be offered. This program, with its emphasis upon production, remained until 1992. It was becoming increasingly clear that program was not succeeding in that few students completed their degree and none of them continued on to become anthropologists.

When Jayasinhji Jhala, a filmmaker and anthropologist interested in art, aesthetics, and indigenous media, joined the department we decided to transform the MA program into a Ph.D. course of studies in the anthropology of visual communication in which students needing some technical media training received it within Temple at the Radio-Television-Film department (Later its name was changed to Film and Fine Arts).   In addition to the three visual anthropologists, myself, Chalfen and Jhala, several other anthropology faculty members such as Denise O'Brien, who was interested in the anthropology of art particularly in Oceania and Japan and Niyi Akinnaso, an anthropological linguist interested in semiotics, the relationship of images and words, and the ethnography of visual and verbal communication actively supported students in this program. Jhala developed a collaborative mode of video production in which he co-produced works with several students. As our intention was to have students pursue a broad range of interests, faculty members from Dance, Radio-Television-Film and other departments frequently served as members of student's degree committees. Although limited by the funds available we were able to develop a Media lab with production and editing equipment maintained by a graduate student media technician. In addition, we created an undergrad "track" for anthropology majors in visual anthropology. I believe it to be the only course of study in visual anthropology for undergraduates available anywhere. This track remains actively although its' courses are taught mainly by non-tenured faculty who have only one year contracts.

From 1994 until 2004, over 60 percent of the inquiries about graduate school we received were from students interested in the visual program and approximately 40 percent of the entering class during these years began as visual students.   When an applicant was received the prospective student was encouraged to examine a web page when described program, faculty and other relevant information (Link to program web pages). As we maintained very high and demanding standards, some students left the program after one year. Some to explore other aspects of cultural anthropology and others simply left the university. Our critics argued that this attrition was evidence of a flaw in our program. We regarded it simply as proof that we wished to train only the best students. There was one additional factor, this course of study was unique which made it difficult for prospective students to fully understand its scope and demands. Consequently, when some students entered the program they discovered that it did not meet their needs and left. In 1996 Peter Biella wrote an evaluation of the program for the American Anthropological Associaton's Newsletter.

Ph.D. students were required to take a total of 16 graduate seminars, four were reviews of the four major fields in anthropology and served as a form of preliminary examinations.   Two seminars, anthro 408 and anthro.409 were required visual seminars. The remaining 10 seminars were elective. During these years there were usually 20 or so students in residence. They became an active group often presenting papers at the American Anthropological Association (AAA) as well other professional meetings.   They created the Graduate Association in Visual Anthropology (GAVA) and organized a conference, "The Future of Visual Anthropology" that ran during the AAA meetings (See for a description of the 2005 conference).   With the aid of several students I constructed a web site, Web Archive in Visual Anthropology WAVA) where we made available out of print works of Sol Worth and Hortense Powdermaker as well as unpublished dissertations of several Temple students and some documents relevant to the history of visual anthropology. For a time I published a program newsletter (Link to a Spring 1999 example).

As is often the case in academic departments with innovative programs of study, there were some basic and unresolved disagreements among those involved. In addition, several cultural anthropologists in the department actively opposed the idea of teaching visual anthropology.   The conflict was more personal than intellectual and, in the end, caused the demiseof the program. When Chalfen and I retired in 2004 and were never replaced. Although I am clearly prejudiced, I believe that when it was functioning that Temple's program was the best in the world.

In spite of these conflicts, the program produced a number of M.As and Ph.Ds including over a dozen Ph.D. students who were mentored by me among them are Matt Durington, Stephanie Takaragawa, Kathryn Ramey, Milton Machuca,Nora Jones JiKung Lee, Alex Baker, Sigurjon Baldur Hafsteinsson, and Michael Intintoli.


Ethnographic Film, Image Ethics and the Anthropology of Visual Communication

From 1967 to 1977 I concentrated my research and writing on the history, theory and practice of ethnographic film and critiques of several ethnographic filmmakers such as Robert Flaherty, Robert Gardner, Tim Asch and Eric Michaels. This work culiminated in the publication of Picturing Culture (2000, The Yniversity of Chicago Press). With Larry Gross and John Katz, I organized several seminars and edited two books on Image Ethics (Image Ethics: The Moral Rights of Subjects in Photographs, Film and Television. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988 and Image Ethics in the Digital World.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003). Most recently, I co-edited with Marcus Banks, Made To Be Seen: Historical Perspectives on Visual Anthropology, to be published in 2010.

Juniata Country Project

In addition to the opportunity I had to develop these educational programs, Temple provided me with the chance to pursue my research interests. (Link to a complete academic biography). In 1976 Sol Worth and I decided to develop a long term ethnographic field project to explore some of our ideas about the anthropology of visual communication. We selected a site for the research, Juniata County, PA and wrote a preproposal, Made To Be Seen and circulated to several granting institutions.   Our intention was to prepare a complete proposal to submit by the fall deadline.   In August 1977, Worth died while attending the Flaherty Film Seminar. I waited a year to pursue the project. With summer research finds from Temple, I enlisted the aid of one of Worth's students, Bob Aibel.   We gathered sufficient field data to write the proposal (Link to complete proposal) In retrospect it was wildly ambitious and completely unrealistic.   It was rejected by the National Endowment for the Humanities and other funding agencies. Aibel along with another Worth's student, Chris Musello secured their own funds and conducted their dissertation fieldwork in Juniata County.   In 1980-1981, I obtained a sabbatical leave from Temple and joined Aibel and Musello to conduct my own field research. My original intent was to do ethnographic research about the uses of film and photography in the community. As it turned out my interests rapidly becme focused on historical aspects of photography. I produced a book on death and photography (Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America), articles on the role of postcards, view campanies and a bilgraphy of a 19th century advocational photographer (Francis Cooper). (Link to a list of my Juniata County related publications.)

While we were completing our individual studies, it became clear to the three of us that we wished to make a film which communicated what we had learned about this community.   We wrote a preproposal in the Spring of 1981 and then submitted a full proposal to the National Endowment for the Humanities the following fall. They funded our film. In the fall of 1983 we released " A Country Auction: The Paul V. Leitzel Estate Sale ". Twenty-five years later, Milton Machua, a former student, and I obtained Pennsylvania Humanities Council and Pitzer College funds to produce " A Country Auction Revisited ." (Link to a discussion of the original Auction Film and the Revisited Film).

Oak Park Stories

In 1999 I embarked on a long term ethnographic field project that permitted me to explore a number of issues that interested me for some time. I selected Oak Park, Illinois, a upper middle-class suburb of Chicago as the field site. As Oak Park is my hometown, I was able to add to my interest in reflexivity as I was both researcher and native. I was also able to see how well ethnographic methods functioned when examining an upper middle class suburb. As Oak Park deliberately integrated itself beginning in the 1960s, I was also able to ethnographically describe one of America's successful social experiments. Finally, the research was designed to see if I could produce what I have been calling "an anthropological film." The end result of the project was four digital multimedia ethnographies on CD-ROMs and one 30 minute DVD, Val. Three were family portraits: An African American Family, An Anglo-American Family, and a Lesbian Family. The fourth was a portrait of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, the cornerstone of Oak Park's plan for integration. Oak Park Stories are distributed by DER.


[1] A preliminary version of this paper was presented at a panel at the American Anthropological Association meetings, December 2, 1998 in Philadelphia entitled Seeing Culture: The Anthropology of Visual Communication at Temple University.

[2] I have written this essay in the first person as it reflect my views.   I am fairly certain that others involved with the anthropology of visual communication at Temple see things differently.   I would hope that they will see this essay as a provocation and write their own version of reality.