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To Show or To Tell

OrganizedKhaos's picture

How has image and documentary film changed the fate of anthropological text?

movie of the mind

movie of the mind (G. Grow)

The final way to present a movie of your mind for reading requires that you talk about elements of your experience in the reading for which you do not have an easily summarized view. When we read we have perceptions and reactions, sometimes faint ones and are not fully conscious. Consequently, we must try to capture these responses by showing rather than telling. (Elbow, 1998)

        For the last few weeks in our class called the Evolution of Stories and the Story of Evolution we have looked at a couple novels and a film in which the writers incorporate the styles and techniques of self-reflexivity, existentialism, and film adaptation. Among these titles include Powers’ novel Generosity, Camus’ The Plague, and Spike Bonze’s film Adaptation. Through these works and the exploration of the aforementioned topics in our discussions we were able to stumble upon some interesting questions that not only got at the relation the novels and films had to evolution in the larger context but also their relation to our class.

        In our discussion of Generosity we talked about the distancing of characters and the way in which the reader is not allowed to enter “the world of the novel”. This style of writing though done less so in Camus’ text is then done blatantly in the film Adaptation with the use of the voice over of the narrator and main character carrying the viewer in and out of scenes. Within all these works the audience was forced to see the world of the novel through the mind of a narrator and in no way became part of the scene. This technique seemed to go against the often suggested writing style of showing instead of telling and we as viewers or readers expressed some dissatisfaction with this puppetry aspect. Interestingly enough many novels have been made into films in an effort, in my own opinion, to show the reader to a greater extent a specific story or event. But what does it mean when audiences gravitate more towards film as oppose to text?

        In anthropology the goal of the anthropologists is to show not tell the stories of a group of people or certain culture. By using descriptive words and unraveling the web of meaning we as humans exist in, the anthropologists should then be painting a vivid picture or creating a film of the mind that allows the reader to enter the realm of the text and that culture. Anthropologists separate the physical distance that may actually exist between two cultures in hopes of that the reader can visualize and understand someone else’s life style. In the 60s the invention and use of the camera came to be and this seemed to change the kind of anthropological stories that appealed to the broader audience.

        The grueling process of digging scrupulously for artifacts and interpreting the culture and lifestyle of groups in the past is often simplified and romanticized for the public. Simplification and romanticism of history is then converted into capital by many forms of media. Forms of media such as magazines, museums and the film makers take the responsibility of relaying history to the public unfortunately, whether they omit certain details, put their own views forward, or mix reality with fantasy is completely up to their discretion. The way in which they choose to educate the masses has not only reduced the work of anthropologists but is also the cause for decreasing interests in reading ethnography and the value of anthropological text.

        In 1899, a group of scholars came together with the idea that, “making geography or any other scholarly pursuit accessible to a general audience was revolutionary…” and bringing geography into American homes was necessary. (Gero and Root, 532) This brought the beginning of National Geographic. The ability to make culture and history accessible to everyone and anyone through pictures and stories was viewed as an equalizer and way to bring access to those who did not have the fortune of traveling to places such as Africa and developing countries.

        The National Geographic spreads included something that the original texts and stories did not include and that was the power of the image. There was now a face, background, or scenery to connect to the stories they heard about these “far away” lands. What the picture did for anthropology was very grand. From the photography then came video where Meade brought the world of another culture to the homes of Americans and the face of anthropology changed from the simple text to larger field that not only included ethnographic methods but imagery and a showing of culture outside of descriptive language.

        If one takes a look at anthropology in terms of reflexivity, then it seems as though film assumes a particular role in the communication of anthropology. It’s said by Jay Ruby that, “to be reflexive, in terms of a work of anthropology, is to insist that anthropologists systematically and rigorously reveal their methodology and themselves as the instrument of data generation” (Ruby, 1977). At one time it seemed possible to argue that narrative was the logical way to report ethnography, then film as an inherently narrative medium (at least in our culture) should have the potential as a mode of anthropological communication, no?

        Going with the idea of reflexivity I think it would only be appropriate to express my position on this subject matter. I, as an anthropology major, enjoy viewing documentaries as well as reading ethnographies form the field. Writing my thesis I found that it is in fact difficult to paint a “good enough” picture through words that can represent the work you have done or the group you have worked with. I find that had I been able to film my time with a certain group and the work I did during the past few months would be much more helpful to my reader.

        On account of my own frustrations in ethnography and the idea of showing verse telling in text, I feel that though film has changed the way anthropology is viewed and interpreted by the larger audience (society) like adaptations of novels into film it does not limit readers or viewers but gives them a glimpse of a world that they may want to look into more so or that they would not have access to because of different reasons such as education or socio-economic status, often times linked.

        According to Ruby, who writes about Seeing Anthropology, “ethnographic film is only marginally related to anthropology and constitutes an impediment to the development of an anthropological cinema” (Ruby, 1971). Those films that are generally placed within the genre of ethnographic are sometimes produced without any input by anthropologists and those productions that do involve an anthropologist follow the conventions of documentary realism without any apparent consideration of the implications these may have on the cultures or message being sent to the public. These thus lack a pictorial expression of anthropologically constructed knowledge and become more fiction.

        I found this interesting because it correlated to the film Adaptation and the way in which the main character struggled to stay true to the novel about an orchid and in order to cater to the audience (society) watching the film certain concessions or adaptations to the world of Hollywood film had to be made. On account of this occurrence in novels and anthropological texts I find that originals are it novels or ethnography will not become obsolete or lose its value in evolution of history and knowledge. As long as individuals value the freedom to interpret and want to learn more they will pick up a book.

        I do not think that film limits one’s imagination either, I rather think of it as complementary to one’s imagination, maybe some assistance but in no way limiting. For those who may be visual learners film adaptations and images can really help develop and build a more vivid or real picture of what it is they may have read or heard about. It is also said that due to the technologies developing in our world the attention span of people are dwindling thus films and images begin to hold more meaning and information than do words on a page. Look at the amount being thrown into branding and logos over the past few years. Thus, I believe that a picture does still hold a thousand words and show and tell was always and will continue to be the most exciting day in elementary school.


Ruby, Jay.

(1975). Is an ethnographic film a filmic ethnography? Studies in the Anthropology of Visual Communication 2(2).

(1977). The image mirrored: Reflexivity and the documentary film. Journal/of the University Film Association.

Gero, Joan & Root, Dolores. Public Presentations and Private Concerns: Archaeology in the Pages of National Geographic. Chapter 20. Page 531-533.

Rouch, Jean (1974). The camera and man. Studies in the Anthropology of Visual Communication 1(1), 37-44.

Ruby, Jay (1971). Towards an anthropological cinema. Film Comment 7(1), 35-40.

Elbow, Peter. Writing Without Teachers. Lawyer of the Mind: Movie as Writer. 77-78, 85-92 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2nd ed., 1998).

Gerald Grow. Teaching Learners to be Self-Directed.



Anne Dalke's picture

On being self-reflective

This paper exists in a nice evolutionary relationship to your last one, which looked @ the evolution both of anthropology and the stories it tells; now you are exploring the emergence of anthropological video. Since you also look briefly, along the way, @ the emergence of National Geographic, you should be quite interested in the work that has been done by the anthropologist Catherine Lutz on Reading National Geographic --in which (per Amazon's review!) she "identifies a tension between the desire to know about other peoples and their ways and the wish to validate middle-class American values," and argues that the magazine promotes "a kind of conservative humanism that acknowledges universal values and celebrates diversity while it allows readers to relegate non-Western peoples to an earlier stage of progress." I heard Lutz speak @ BMC years ago, and was quite impressed with and instructed by her close analysis of how the 1000s of pictures in National Geographic operate on us as readers.

There has also been a ton of work done on "self-reflexive anthropology," which might be of interest to you, too; this is a postmodern "turn" that has not been limited to documentary film-making, but finds its way into multiple texts, in which the anthropologist "reads" herself reading others. I'd be curious to learn more about your sense of the value of this work--whether you find this to be the sort of reflexivity that is generative, or rather that sort that turns in on itself and closes off the conversation. I myself often get impatient (and begin to skim) ethnographies, because they are so full of the showing, so thin on the telling: I want a pulling together, an analysis, an explaining of "so what" and "what for" that can often be missing in the richness of "thick description."