Visual Anthropology

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A common introduction to anthropology is through film and television programmes. Series such as BBC TV’s Tribe, while not strictly anthropological in intent, nonetheless give an insight into other societies. Older series, such as Granada Television’s Disappearing World and BBC TV’s Under the Sun, were made by anthropologists working with professional film-makers and give rich accounts of life in non-European societies: many films from these series are available for hire or purchase from the RAI. They are valuable in revealing a more rounded representation of the issues that anthropologists normally investigate – particularly with respect to ritual, music, dance and other areas where a purely written description cannot convey the richness of the experience. Teachers of anthropology have also found film to be valuable for conveying a sense of the work that anthropologists actually do in the field.

However, visual anthropology is much more than ethnographic film. It encompasses a much wider study of visual systems. Most anthropologists produce visual representations in the course of their work (often photographs, but also video footage, maps, drawings and diagrams) and all societies make visible aspects of their social life and their cultural understandings. Visual anthropology is concerned with understanding the production and consumption of all these forms. Visual anthropology clearly overlaps with the anthropology of art, but also includes the study of local photographic practice and increasingly the study of local television and film production.

Text written by Professor Marcus Banks  (reproduced with author’s permission)

Postgraduate Programmes in the UK

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Recommended Resources


The following film Bury the Hatchet was screened at the 11rh RAI International Festival of Ethnographic Film in 2009.


Director Aaron Walker
Location New Orleans, Louisiana, USA
Language English
Release 2009
Length 84 mins

Bury the Hatchet features three Mardi Gras Indian Big Chiefs in a dynamic portrait of the unique and endangered culture of New Orleans they represent. Descendents of runaway slaves given harbor by the Native Americans of Louisiana,these practitioners of a hundred-year-old tradition sew elaborate costumes resembling that of the Indians, parading through the streets of the city on Mardi Gras day. In footage collected for three years pre-Katrina and one year post, the filmmaker was alowed intimate access to this often hiden New Orleans experience.

The Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI) has one of the largest ethnographic film libraries in Europe. Films are available for hire, sale or loan for educational and academic purposes. Click here for a list of films the RAI distributes on Visual Anthropology.


Take a look at the RAI’s Anthropology of Water Photography Gallery

Take a look at the RAI’s Anthropology of Sport Photography Gallery

– A extensive website offering news and resources for visual anthropology.
– A resource and gateway site for students and researchers using visual methods of research and representation in ethnographic projects.


The Future of Visual Anthropology:Engaging the Senses
Pink, Sarah  (Routledge 2005)

Visual Anthropology: Essential Method And Theory
El Guindi, Fadwa (AltaMira Press, 2004)

Principles in Visual Anthropology, Third Edition
Hockings,P. Ed. (Mouton de Gruyter, 2003)

Professional Organisations, Groups, and Associations

European Association of Social Anthropologists, Visual Anthropology Network – The network aims to cover all aspects of Visual Anthropology

Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain (RAI) – The RAI is active in promoting Visual Anthropology and holds one of the Europe’s largest collections of ethnographic films.

Society for Visual Anthropology – A section of the American Anthropological Association promoting the study of visual representation and media.