An undergraduate in Canada recently wrote me asking whether visual anthropology was a valid field of study for an M.A. or Ph.D. I won't post her original letter here, but here is an excerpt of my response (from which you can deduce her queries):
Dear XXX -
Thank you for your e-mail. I apologize that I will not be able to reply at length as I am about to leave for the field. I took the opportunity to look at your website. Your photographs are quite well done, evocative and emotional.
What is ethnographic photography? As with regular print ethnography, there is no single type. However, as with written ethnography there is a purpose. Look through the print ethnographies that you have found particularly evocative (one of my favorites is Lila Abu Lughod's Veiled Sentiments) and ask what the author is trying to do in the work. Then ask yourself how you would do this in the medium of your choosing.
To answer your other questions in brief:
- Visual anthropology is on the margins of the discipline. Few programs offer degrees in it and there are even fewer jobs.
- It is my own belief that photography or film work that isn't backed by participant-observation research is weaker than that that is. If your goal is to fly in, take photos, and fly out, then you might want to pursue a degree in journalism.
- There are dwindling grants for visual social science research. You would most likely apply to standard anthropology grants -- which means that your work should speak to the discipline of anthropology in some way.
Explore the reading lists posted on my course website for further direction.
The question of visual anthropology is one that I struggle with daily. I received my PhD and was hired in my first two positions on my strengths as a regular ethnographer. My first book is remarkably non-visual for a book on deafness and sign language. Retrospectively, I think I was trying to pass or to "cover" (to use Kenji Yoshino's term) as a cultural anthropologist.
Now that I'm engaged in visual anthropology head-on (with both still and motion photography), I keep permuting my concept of what visual anthropology means for me. Right now, this is an issue that I can't answer in just a few words (supposedly I'm presenting a paper on this topic this summer, so I need to at least figure out how to say it in 15 minutes).
Anyone have anything to add?