The Future of Anthropology

The Future of Anthropology is exciting. The world that we live in is advancing rapidly both in its interconnectedness and it’s technological complexity. As these changes occur so too does the greater human ecology change with it, and with that change Anthropology will also advance with it. So many novel fields of study and potential avenues of application for our field of interest are developing. In fact, the utility and complexity of Anthropology has so much potential to grow that I might be willing to say that (with a few other good conditions) Anthropology is on the verge of a potential explosion of activity. One theoretical field that interests me greatly is avenues of Anthropology that will open up concerning Our interaction and integration with technology as it becomes more and more inseperable from our existence. These ties may even extend to technology become an integrated part of my anatomy, and I look forward to Anthropology expanding to explore and analyze this interaction. What other potential fields do you see opening up in Anthropology as the world and our species progress forward?

Actors or Subjects?

One thing that I have consistently struggled with when watching works of visual anthropology is how you can delineate between when the people you are filming are being treated (and behave) as actors or subjects, and perhaps which is more appropriate for the medium.  Early documentaries a anthropological documentaries had a tendency to reenact what the film maker felt were genuine cultural practices from the ethnic group they were filming. The major problem with this is that by having the people being filmed reenacting their own cultural practices corrupts how they would naturally perform those practices as they may seek to “put on a performance” for the camera. This also opens up avenues for the film maker to exaggerate and focus on certain customs and traits of cultural groups, unwittingly or perhaps consciously blowing them up for the benefit of the filmmaker and the film. Visual Anthropologists rebelled against this in the late 60’s by adopting long unedited shots and little to no presence of the film makers in the film. This helped add more genuine qualities to documentaries, but the presence of the camera still effects the behavior those being filmed and so this method must still be scrutinized and analyzed otherwise we may become to confident in it’s ability to communicate genuine depictions of human behavior. Another unfortunate product of this transition is the palatability of films to the general public. By treating those being filmed more as subjects as opposed to actors the films become much better tools for academic analysis but at the same time the films become less accessible and so somewhat limit their impact on the general public. So what is preferable, to accept that to some degree anyone being filmed and is aware of the camera is an actor, or to focus instead on capturing as realistic as possible a depiction of those being filmed by treating them as subjects?

Wasteland

Vik Muniz’s work in Brazil is inspiring in the social activist work documenting his efforts entitled “Wasteland.” Muniz himself is well versed in the poverty he captures in his art; he was born in one of the many slums in Rio De Janero and made it to America with less then 3 dollars to his name. Working in a department store, Muniz found he had a pashion for collecting the refuse that people threw out and making art with it. This unique approach to art got Muniz an immense popularity and following that rocketed him to high status in many art circles. Muniz took this fame with him to the trash heaps back in his native Brazil in an attempt to docuemnet the troubles faced by the residents there. I cannot say much on Wasteland past this point that wouldn’t spoil the amazing film, but I will leave this post with a great picture that shows the impressive scope of the social activist art that Muniz undertook. I highly encourage that anyone reading this post go and see this amazing film.

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Ethnography and Anthropology in the Modern World/

Anthropology is presently in an identity crisis. The discipline has lost much of its voice in the academic sphere, and in the eyes of the wider public it appears as a subject that is increasingly irrelevant in today’s modern world. The problem of Anthropology’s growing silence is peculiar, as Anthropology has more potential than most social sciences to give us a greater understanding of the human ecology around us. Anthropology gives us the opportunity to look at ourselves and learn something, and more than most any other discipline it gives us an academic means to analyze the effects that the rapidly changing world around us has on our person by evaluating how cultures (and so, humans) cope across the world with increased globalism/interconnectedness and rapid technological development.

Part of the problem may be that the Anthropologist is seen by many as synonymous with the Ethnographer. Ethnography as a method of learning is a powerful tool, and in many ways acted as the gold standard for research in cultural anthropology for many years. However, the great utility of ethnographic methods has led to the term “ethnographic” being used by many other social sciences carelessly to describe their own research methods, hoping to add validity to their studies. Ethnographic research is now used to Positivist ends; a means to acquire data and facts about a certain group of interest. This goes against the very beauty of true Ethnography, as Ethnography performed correctly is not simply a way for a researcher to attain certain customs, traits, or data from specific groups.

Ethnography is most useful as a cooperative venture. One where the researcher and the subject participate together as humans to learn about the human condition. The twisiting of Ethnography is doubly damaging as it is assumed to represent Anthropology, which has pubically remained silent.

The New Americans Project: Leila Yavari

As I followed Professor Alexander’s New Americans Project I was pleased to see many familiar faces and to gain some insight on their personal stories. One in particular is someone who I have grown close with over the past year my friend, Leila Yavari. With us both being film majors Leila and I have had many encounters in various film classes in the past. It wasn’t until Spring 2016 in our Documentary Filmmaking class that we became close. Whether it’s trips to Cinnaholic (our favorite vegan cinnamon rolls) or adventures filming for class we always have a genuinely great time.

From the very beginning of our filmmaking classes Leila expressed a desire to give people like her a voice and that’s how we really connected. Many have asked us why do we only want to use Black people or Persians in our individual films and our response is who else is using them or writing for them. We love to give people like ourselves a voice in America. Leila and I have had numerous conversations about her ethnicity and issues behind it. There is a lot of judgement from Americans as well as people in her culture. Her upcoming film for our Narrative filmmaking class delves into the issue of sexualizing “exotic/ambiguous looking” women. There’s an issue in America where many men feel like they only want to date a girl because she’s exotic or because “they’ve always wanted to date a Persian girl.” I wish I could present a more elaborate and defined written version of her film since it is written so eloquently and full of passion. Hopefully she will share it on social media for everyone to see. In all I am so happy to have met Leila and learn more about her and her culture. She is not only an amazing filmmaker and writer but also has a pure and kind heart.

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Jared Callahan and Compassionate Filmmaking

Jared Callahan has the sort of personality that captures the entire room the moment he enters. He seems to actually listen to your voice and opinions, and makes you feel important when you talk to him. This in itself is not a unique trait, but what is is that his mannerisms come across in his films. I found his short films especially to be compassionate and inquisitive, despite their brevity, and reflective of who he is as a film maker.

What stood out from meeting Jared was his desire to portray his subjects as lovable people. As a person who primarily deals with narrative film, I find this to be difficult because I spend so much time creating flawed characters who are interesting, and taking already flawed people and making them lovable is a totally different approach. In consideration of how to do this, I’ve been thinking about a phrase he tossed out: creative audacity. As filmmakers we need to have the creative audacity to dare to tell stories with sensitivity and capture the humanity of our subjects, rather than focus on the “otherness” that makes them compelling to research. How to be responsible to our subjects while still telling a story that is interesting to an audience is an issue I’m still struggling with, but I appreciate Callahan’s approach of making a story about a person who is or who does something, rather than something that is being done by a person.

Waiting for Katrina

 

Paul Chan and Creative Time produced Waiting for Godot in New Orleans in two neighborhoods— the Lower Ninth Ward and Gentilly— in partnership with the University of New Orleans, Xavier University, and Dillard University for the benefit of the people of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. In conjunction with the play, Creative Time and Paul Chan co-produced an experimental film entitled The Fulness of Time, which explored the lives and psychological state of Hurricane Katrina survivors. The film, directed by Cauleen Smith, was filmed concurrently with Chan’s production of Waiting for Godot in New Orleans, and combines elements of science fiction and documentary film to express the range of emotions had by those who experienced the trauma of Katrina. The Fulness of Time amply captures the joy and despair of post-Katrina New Orleans through its series of vignettes which do not follow a narrative structure. The goal of the cast and production team of Waiting for Godot in New Orleans was to contribute to the society that they came into, which influenced Chan’s choice to not charge for tickets to the show or any of the subsequent events. Instead, Chan set up a “shadow fund” which raised money for the neighborhoods where Waiting for Godot in New Orleans was performed. Waiting for Godot in New Orleans was described as “a socially engaged performance at the heart of a national crisis, and direct support to the community is an essential component of the project”.

Photo elicitation

The method of photo elicitation brings about the interesting question of whether visual communication is inherently better. I feel like this is a very subjective question as it truly depends on the person’s learning style, some do better with visual than others. It links into the degree of comfort for communication. Yet, this method really brings up the importance of material culture, something that is very unique to us humans.

With regards to the Burning and the interviews, it was interesting to note that the context of the ethnographic work was worth knowing. We are fortunate enough to be literate but for most of the African migrants, they are illiterate and therefore rely heavily on visual mediums and the method of photo elicitation would definitely be preferred. Also, with regards to photos that Fino sent to his family we see the trail of misrepresentation of reality in terms of representation one’s best self to others. There is a distinct link or parallel to our use of Instagram in which we make reality look better than it actually is!

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In Douglas Harper’s article, he defines photo elicitation was that it is simply the idea of inserting a photograph into a research interview. The best part of photo elicitation seems to be its ability “to prod latent memory and to stimulate and release emotional statements about the informant’s life”. Photo elicitation can also overcome the difficulties that come along with in-depth interviewing because its based on an image that is at least in part understood by both parties.

My favorite part of his article was the section in which he discusses the two ways in which photo elicitation can lead the subject and researcher towards a mutual understanding. Photographs when breaking the frame and taken from a different angle or perspective can challenge the person and lead to deeper commentary. Thus, jolting the subject into what he calls a new awareness of their social existence. The other method he discusses was the use of images as a bridge between worlds especially culturally distinct ones. As such, one photograph can elicit different ideas from different people and when a photo is made up that shared view, the differences in perspective can be compared and analyzed.

 

Beauty and the Streets

Two summers ago, I travelled to Buenos Aires, Argentina for six weeks on a Study Abroad Program to study the Spanish language and culture. Buenos Aires is a luxurious city influenced by Italian architecture and the cosmopolitan capitals of the world. The people on the streets are beautiful and exceptionally kind. Yet there is a stark contrast in the beauty of this city compared to the beauty of the rest of the country. This difference is not necessarily something bad, yet it turns negative when these differences divide the population in terms of power, status, and opportunities.

Due to the Great European Immigration Wave in Argentina in the 20th century, most of the residents of Buenos Aires are of European descent. The concentration of lighter skinned Europeans being located in the largest city in Argentina led to a beauty standard that resembled more closely the Europeans rather than the majority of the darker skinned Argentinians. When I was in Argentina, even in other parts of the country all of the advertisements depicted light skinned models who looked nothing like the major population.screen-shot-2016-11-06-at-10-55-48-pm

This idolized beauty standard led to noticeable mistreatment of those who did not slightly resemble this image or come from European descent. In order to challenge the status quo, the street artist duo Primo took to spray painting large murals of solely dark skinned and indigenous people on the streets of Buenos Aires.

Primo is made up of two artists, Sasha Reisen and Nicolás Germani, who stand out from other street artists because they exclusively paint darker skinned people which drastically contrast with the abundance of advertisements featuring lighter skinned models. The intended effect of these murals is to not only show that there is beauty in all shades of skin, but also to bring the presence of the darker skinned Argentinians into Buenos Aires in a beautiful way. One piece that I find particularly stunning is the mural of a young dark skinned woman with a pony tail. The image is simple. In this simplicity, Primo is able to show the normalness of having different skin tones. In addition, the angle of the woman’s head is slightly up showing that she is not hiding, she is proud.

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While many people specifically in the street art community praise Primo’s work for the beauty of the portraits, not everyone treats them with the same appreciation. One mural of a black man with a snake coming out of his mouth had not been finished in one day, so Primo wrote “mural en proceso” (mural in process) only to return the next day to see that someone had painted over the image. The vandalizers instead wrote “mural en DESproceso” as well as “Y el respeto?” (and the respect?), “No se tapa, se respeten” (don’t paint over it, show some respect), and drew a speech bubble that said “no respiro” (I’m not breathing) as if the black man was saying that he couldn’t breathe now that the vandalism had covered his face[i]. While it is not clear if these comments are in regards to Primo not having respect, black people not having respect, or just a silly prank, the effect of this vandalism was that the mural was ruined and Primo had to start over in another location. According to the article by BA Street Art, the artist duo commented on the vandalism by reporting that they felt hurt and angry that these people implied a lack of respect and that they wasted a lot of time and resources just to have to start over again[ii]. This act of vandalism could have been a meaningless prank, but it also could have been targeted towards Primo since they are creating somewhat controversial murals by solely painting darker skin people. Since the vandalizer left their street art name “Lake” on their tag, it does seem as though they are directly challenging Primo.

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One critique of Primo’s street art is that since graffiti is a relatively new medium of art, it certainly does not hold the same impact on a community as other longstanding forms of art. People may not attribute the same respect to graffiti artists since graffiti is often associated with rebellious teenagers who are “up to no good.” Potentially, by using a medium that is not well respected, it could lead to these murals not being respected as well and have a reversed effect on the intention to create beauty around darker skinned people in Buenos Aires. Nonetheless, while this street art is not the ultimate fix to racism or changing the beauty standard, it does start conversation about what is art and what is beautiful.

 

[i] “Graffiti Wars as Primo Mural Painted Over Before It’s Finished.” BA Street Art. 2012.

[ii] Ibid, 2012.

Falling in Love with Film

What makes us fall in love with a film?

I found myself asking this question as I walked out of class after meeting Jared Callahan last week. While his three shorts we watched, Janey Makes a Play, American Moderate, and The Many Friends of Sommer Caffarella were all beautiful, well-constructed, and heartwarming pieces of film, none of them immediately struck me as impactful. Not in the way that Homemade or The Burning had – in a way that made me feel moved to action or residually haunted by problems that seemed so grand that they couldn’t filter through the sieve of my attention span. After watching Jared’s films I felt intrigued and impressed, but beyond that they left nothing but a warm aura of an impression.

And then we met Jared. From reading the other posts of my classmates, I know I’m not the only one who felt drawn into his charismatic responses to questions and his infectious enthusiasm. Within minutes of first hearing him speak about his filmmaking history and process, I wanted to see every film he’d ever made and ever film he would ever make. Forgetting the slow lulls in Janey Makes a Play that I had noted the night before, I found myself retrospectively enchanted with all of Jared’s films. I wanted to watch them again, I wanted to tell other people about them, and I wanted everyone to know how great this person and his artwork appeared to me. Suddenly, I felt a certain type of love for these pieces of work and their creator.

While I reacted with cynicism towards other guests we have brought into the class, I found for the first time that meeting Jared made me like his films more. That his approach, one he described as centered on a goal of “having [viewers] fall in love with [the subjects of his films],” made me feel more accepting of the films we had watched and less critical of their agendas. Jared’s films suddenly seemed an extension of himself, someone I found compassionate and charming, making his camera’s gaze seem comparably kind. Knowing and liking Jared made me feel like I knew and liked his film. Like I really, truly loved his films that night before I had felt somewhat ambivalently about.

As I’ve thought about the way meeting Jared tinted my perceptions of his films, I’ve begun to wonder if more important than the question of what makes us love certain films is if in doing so we come to love the people who create them. American Moderate, my favorite of the three pieces, portrays a set of characters who I would imagine I’d find it hard and disagreeable to interact with in person. Liz and her community are different from me – they have different views, different life experiences, and different values in many ways – but through Jared’s vision of them I found them understandable if not even endearing. However, I am unsure if the feeling of warmth that I feel towards Liz is truly directed at her: if I love Liz or if I love the way Jared loves Liz. If I love the subjects of his film or if I love his outlook on them. And if the two are divorceable in the first place.

In class we spoke at length about the ability to like films without liking their filmmakers, alluding to immoral or unpleasant filmmakers, authors, and others. It seemed like many of us thought that while in some capacities knowing an author, or actor, or director may be a “bad” person makes us look at their work more critically – in documentary film, several of us could find examples of films we loved despite their grating subjects. While I wasn’t uniquely drawn to Liz or Janey, meeting Jared made me feel drawn to the way he understood them. Piecing through this experience, I’ve begun to wonder if what makes us love documentaries – something unique from loving fictitious creators – is loving the way they see things.

The things I found enticing about Janey Makes a Play and Jared’s other works were not their stories or even their subjects, and in some sense, I believe that contrary to his objective, what Jared made us love was not these people but rather his relationships to them. Janey Makes a Play is only exciting because of the admiration that Jared expresses when he speaks about his grandmother. The Many Friends of Sommer Caffarella is heartwarming because of the kindness with which we see Jared interact with Sommer and the palpable intimacy and love in their relationship. Liz, a girl from a background that has led her to have beliefs I fundamentally disagree with, is relatable because Jared chose to make her so, omitting intentionally incriminating footage of her and her family saying racist or offensive things. In all of these instances what draws me to these people are never the people themselves but Jared’s choice to portray them in a certain light – I am drawn to his perspective and his mission as a filmmaker.

I believe that this relationship – not just between the viewer and the filmmaker – but between the viewer and the filmmaker’s perspective and intent is integral to the way we consume and relate to documentary film. Thinking back to other guests we had in the class, the significance of this relationship became more apparent. I didn’t dislike Danielle as a person; I disliked the way she related to a family she saw struggling and the way she chose to represent them. While these are examples are anecdotal, they speak to what I believe is a critical component of what makes us love film: an ability to find in film a perspective that appeals to us and resembles our own, people who look through similar lenses and interpret things in similar frameworks. Just like how we find ourselves in characters, in fiction, and in people, we find ourselves equally in the resonance between our own outlook and those of others’. I love Jared’s approach to film because it seems grounded in a set of principles that are agreeable with my own. Even if we can divorce people from their work and their character from the quality of their creations, it is perhaps in the inextricable influence of an artist’s perspective that we find ourselves falling in love with work – with the idea that the frameworks through which we interpret, imagine, and observe the world are shared and given some weight of truth.