First-Year Studies: Anthropology and Photography


Walker Evans once referred to photography as offering “searing little spots of realism.” This course attends to the cultural and experiential dimensions of photographic imagery by way of an anthropological exploration of the social, political, and aesthetic dimensions of photography in a range of settings. We will develop an understanding of how people throughout the world use, circulate, and perceive photographs and how such uses and perceptions tie into ideas and practices of vision, time, memory, family, sociality, history, politics, and personal and cultural imaginings. We will also consider the ways in which photography and film can portray well (or not) the lives and concerns of particular peoples. Each student in the course will engage with these issues through practical research, writing, and photographic endeavors. Each student will also be asked to undertake an ethnographic research project in order to investigate the features of a specific social world—such as a homeless shelter, a religious festival, or a neighborhood in Brooklyn—in which a combination of words and images serves in the portrayal of that world. She or he will then craft a fully realized “photoethnography” that conveys something of the features and dynamics of that world in lively, accurate, and comprehensive terms. Through these engagements, we will reflect on the complicated ethics and politics of documentary photography, the sense of differing cultural aesthetics informing the creation and evaluation of photographs, dynamics of time and memory, the intricate play between text and image, and the circulation of digital images in a transnational era. Readings to be considered include Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead’s Balinese Character, James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let us Now Praise Famous Men, Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, and Robert Frank’s The Americans. We will also view a number of ethnographic films that explore questions of photographic representation.