Art or Anthropology?

A focal role in the development of my understanding and intrigue in ethnographic film came in the form of films such as Leviathan (Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor 2012) and Sweetgrass (Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor 2009). The boundaries that these films challenge provoke an invaluable discussion as to what the essence of ethnography truly is. If Anthropology is quintessentially the pursuit of understanding others then surely the means of achieving this is of little significance; if an artistic image can create a feeling that communicates and documents the sensory environment of another, then surely it has achieved the goal of ethnography?


“In the very waters where Melville’s Pequod gave chase to Moby Dick, Leviathan captures the collaborative clash of man, nature, and machine. Shot on a dozen cameras — tossed and tethered, passed from fisherman to filmmaker — it is a cosmic portrait of one of mankind’s oldest endeavors.”

Drawing on Rabiger’s Excercise


Figure 1. Rabiger’s Documentary Proposal Template (214-15:2014) annotations in colour added.

My plan for the final visual piece is to create a collaborative and sensory snapshot communication. While I originally planned to create a more holistic ethnography; including a variety of demographics/generations within the documentary, it quickly became apparent that although this approach created some interesting comparisons it did not allow for subject development.

Thus the design of the piece became focused on a uni-lineal narrative – the use of this structure will moreover enable a more personal dialogue between the camera and subject; a technique that should create a conversational tone that engages the wider audience. While I had my own preconceptions and visions for the film (to perhaps create a sense of the unnaturalness/claustrophobia of living in an urban city-scape), I decided to hand over the majority of visual control to the subject; a decision aimed at reducing the potential bias carried by the angle of my shooting/editing.

While the comparison between individuals will no longer be a feature in this piece; a conflict will still be conveyed, be it in a more personal nature; taking the form of an internal dialogue of a young newcomer to London. The choice to focus on this subject came from the rather “Anthropological” characteristic of their situation; with their recent move into London creating a simultaneous inclusion and detachment from the community just entered.


Rabiger, M., 2014. Directing the documentary. CRC Press.

Skepticism and a Symbolic Camera


Admittedly when this exercise was first explained, I wasn’t entirely convinced of it’s relevance to the course as a whole however my skepticism was short-lived and I found it to be an essential medium in addressing the filmmaker-camera-subject interaction that I had previously given relatively little thought to.

I found that when going through the motions of using the symbolic camera to “film” and interview subjects, I was acutely aware of how I positioned and held the camera simply because I felt somewhat ridiculous and hyper-aware of what I was doing with the empty space that was the symbolic camera. In short it drew valuable attention to the camera space and it’s relation to both me and my subject.

The reasoning for designing it as a phone camera was simply to reflect the nature of my project vision; I wanted to create a piece that used images to narrate a personal communication between two individuals. I also didn’t feel that the film needed to be technically and visually accurate; I felt that using poor quality, sound disturbance and unique/abstract shots could add to the visual communication rather than attempting to document everything as “realistically” as possible. For me the project was about creating a piece that communicated an experience, using a combination of realistic and artistic images to do so. I feel in some cases, the careful use of abstract visuals can in fact communicate the moment more effectively by creating sensations in the viewer that can transcend an otherwise apparently static observed visual.


“The photograph itself doesn’t interest me. I want only to capture a minute part of reality.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Project Proposal

It is important to mention first the train of thought that has brought me to this project and the medium of visual communication. In terms of academic alliance, I would place myself precisely on the border between biological and social Anthropology; in fact to my mind there is no border and both disciplines are essential to understanding the other, with the endless communication between our biological bodies and our exhibited social behaviours mimicking the timeless “chicken and egg” debate. In fact, one of my key fascinations is with this interaction. In Darwin’s famous theory of evolution, published in his Origin of Species (1859), it is proposed that organisms adapt to their environment and form a constant communication and equilibrium with their habitat. Moreover, I find it is interesting to note that as a species we are unique in that we have started to manufacture our own environment; with large scale urban industrialization. The consequences of such a shift are surely worth exploring, which brings me to my project…

I am hoping to film in London and create a question into the experience of living in a mass urbanised society; unpicking the emotions and behaviour that accompany this manufactured lifestyle. A key element I hope to observe is the feeling of freedom and excitement that young people discuss which draws them to cities and the accompanying experience of isolation. On the surface these emotions seem somewhat perplexing; to feel isolated in a city of millions, in a society incomparably bigger than any lived in by a non-human primate. My view is that cities break the instinctive mould of sociality; which is to form a close community of interdependent relationships, with each person fitting into a role and intrinsic hierarchy in daily life. While you could say that cities are a supersized version of communities, with interlinked and interdependent industries, it is evident that on a personal level, individuals are no longer affiliated with most members of the society and as such they transcend a fixed hierarchy and defined role. A phenomenon with leads to a social liberation of sorts accompanied perhaps by a sense of discomfort or isolation; a loss of an immediate and close-knit community.

I am interested to focus this discussion on young people working in London and to use a visual medium to narrate and communicate some of the concepts and sensations they depict. My reason for being drawn to film as a mode of discussion is partly due to my frustration with the often limiting, elite and static quality of written academia. Vision is our primary interface with the world and as such it is the most powerful and instant form of communication; a quality that can be dangerous of course as countless examples of propaganda will show. It will be important for me to ensure that the film is reflexive and I plan to achieve this by discussing with the subjects what visuals they think will represent some of the feelings and patterns of their daily experience and including this footage in the final project. Moreover it seems odd to neglect to consult the subjects on what clips would be important to include in their ethnographic film since self report and observation together can surely build a greater image of the experience.


Darwin, C., 1859. On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or.The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, London/Die Entstehung der Arten durch natürliche Zuchtwahl, Leipzig oJ.