Audiovisual Ethnography

Audiovisual Ethnography is a way of engaging with the world.

It deals directly with the senses, seeing and hearing in particular, and requires the viewer to engage with audiovisual material differently than one does with the written text. A film offers visible particularities of a certain place and time. These are concrete, seen and heard. Watching a film is about looking and placing oneself into that particular place and time through one’s sensory experience and perception.

Anthropological films, being an outcome of audiovisual ethnography “rarely adopt the actual visual perspectives of individuals”, writes David MacDougall (2011: 111). “Rather,” he continues, “figuratively and literally, they look over their shoulders, staying close to them through different events. Viewers come to understand others’ feelings not by experiencing them directly, but by vicariously sharing their social interactions and physical surroundings” (MacDougall ibid.)

Visual anthropology, the academic field using audiovisual methods, is usually described as a cross-section between art and human sciences. It has always been an aesthetic practice. In her book Experimental Ethnography, Catherine Russell writes that “[e]thnography may even be considered an experimental practice in which aesthetics and cultural theory are combined in a constantly evolving formal combination” (1999: 14). Production of ethnographic film, ethnographic photo essays, interactive multimedia exhibitions, or works made in collaboration between artists and anthropologists are experimental practices generating both academic and applied research outcomes. “While of course a video camera cannot record touch, taste or smell as it does sound and image”, writes Sarah Pink, “it nevertheless has potential to represent the multisensoriality of the research encounter” (2011: 608). In their book Observational Cinema, Grimshaw and Ravetz write that most importantly “visual anthropology has begun to emerge as the critical site for a convergence of different perspectives around the visual” (2009: xii). Defining the observational cinema as a fundamentally phenomenological enterprise, they see observational filmmaking as a mode of anthropological inquiry where the skill and sensibility of the filmmaker challenges new expressions of knowledge-in-the-making (Grimshaw and Ravetz 2009: 130-136).

Excerpt from Vavrova, D. (2014). ‘Skin has eyes and ears’: Audio-visual ethnography in a Sepik society. PhD thesis, James Cook University.

ALTAR films - Skin has Eyes and Ears cut


Grimshaw, A. & Ravetz, A. (2009) Observational Cinema. Anthropology, Film, and the Exploration of Social Life, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

MacDougall, D. (2011) ‘Anthropological Filmmaking: An Empirical Art’, in Margolis, E. & Pauwels, L. (eds.) The SAGE Handbook of Visual Research Methods, London: Sage Publications, pp. 99-113.

Pink, S. (2011) ‘A Multisensory Approach to Visual Methods’, in Margolis, E. & Pauwels, L. (eds.) The SAGE Handbook of Visual Research Methods, London: Sage Publications, pp. 601-614.

Russell, C. (1999) Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video, Durham: Duke University Press.







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