An Introduction to Visual Anthropology

Images and What They Tell Us About People

A portrait of an Arikara man published in Volume V of The North American Indian (1909) by Edward S. Curtis.

Historical Picture Archive / Getty Images

Visual anthropology is an academic subfield of anthropology that has two distinct but intersecting aims. The first involves the addition of images including video and film to ethnographic studies, to enhance the communication of anthropological observations and insights through the use of photography, film, and video.

The second one is more or less the anthropology of art, understanding visual images, including:

  • How far do humans as a species rely on what is seen, and how do they integrate that into their lives?
  • How significant is the visual aspect of life in any particular society or civilization?
  • How does a visual image represent (bring into existence, make visible, exhibit or reproduce an action or person, and/or stand as an example for) something?

Visual anthropology methods include photo elicitation, the use of images to stimulate culturally relevant reflections from informants. The end results are narratives (film, video, photo essays) that communicate typical events of a cultural scene.


Visual Anthropology only became possible with the availability of cameras in the 1860s—arguably the first visual anthropologists were not anthropologists at all but rather photojournalists like the Civil War photographer Matthew Brady; Jacob Riis, who photographed 19th-century slums of New York; and Dorthea Lange, who documented the Great Depression in stunning photographs.

In the mid-19th century, academic anthropologists began collecting and making photographs of the people they studied. So-called "collecting clubs" included the British anthropologists Edward Burnett Tylor, Alfred Cort Haddon, and Henry Balfour, who exchanged and shared photographs as part of an attempt to document and classify ethnographic "races." The Victorians concentrated on British colonies such as India, the French focused on Algeria, and the U.S. anthropologists concentrated on Indigenous communities. Modern scholars now recognize that imperialist scholars classifying the people of subject colonies as "others" is an important and downright ugly aspect of this early anthropological history.

Some scholars have commented that visual representation of cultural activity is, of course, very ancient indeed, including cave art representations of hunting rituals beginning 30,000 years ago or more.

Photography and Innovation

The development of photography as a part of the scientific ethnographic analysis is usually attributed to Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead's 1942 examination of Balinese culture called Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis. Bateson and Mead took more than 25,000 photos while conducting research in Bali, and published 759 photographs to support and develop their ethnographic observations. In particular, the photos—arranged in a sequential pattern like stop-motion movie clips—illustrated how the Balinese research subjects performed social rituals or engaged in routine behavior.

Film as ethnography is an innovation generally attributed to Robert Flaherty, whose 1922 film Nanook of the North is a silent recording of activities of an Indigenous band in the Canadian Arctic.


In the beginning, scholars felt that using imagery was a way to make an objective, accurate, and complete study of social science that had been typically fueled by an extensively detailed description. But there is no doubt about it, the photo collections were directed and often served a purpose. For example, the photos used by anti-slavery and aborigine protection societies were selected or made to shine a positive light on Indigenous people, through poses, framings, and settings. American photographer Edward Curtis made skillful use of aesthetic conventions, framing Indigenous people as sad, unresisting victims of an inevitable and indeed divinely ordained manifest destiny.

Anthropologists such as Adolphe Bertillon and Arthur Cervin sought to objectify the images by specifying uniform focal lengths, poses, and backdrops to remove the distracting "noise" of context, culture, and faces. Some photos went so far as to isolate body parts from the individual (like tattoos). Others such as Thomas Huxley planned to produce an orthographic inventory of the "races" in the British Empire, and that, coupled with a corresponding urgency to collect the "last vestiges" of "disappearing cultures" drove much of the 19th and early 20th century efforts.

Ethical Considerations

All of this came crashing to the forefront in the 1960s and 1970s when the clash between ethical requirements of anthropology and the technical aspects of using photography became untenable. In particular, the use of imagery in academic publication has impacts on the ethical requirements of anonymity, informed consent, and telling the visual truth.

  • Privacy: Ethical anthropology requires that scholar protect the privacy of the subjects that are interviewed: taking their picture makes that nearly impossible
  • Informed consent: Anthropologists need to explain to their informants that their images may appear in the research and what the implications of those images might mean—and get that consent in writing—before the research begins
  • Telling the truth: Visual scholars must understand that it is unethical to alter images to change their meaning or present an image that connotes a reality not consistent with the understood reality.

University Programs and Job Outlook

Visual anthropology is a subset of the larger field of anthropology. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the numbers of jobs projected to grow between 2018 and 2028 is about 10%, faster than the average, and competition for those jobs is likely to be fierce given the small number of positions relative to applicants.

A handful of university programs specializing in the use of visual and sensory media in anthropology, including:

Finally, the Society for Visual Anthropology, part of the American Anthropological Association, has a research conference and film and media festival and publishes the journal Visual Anthropology Review. A second academic journal, titled Visual Anthropology, is published by Taylor & Francis.


mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Hirst, K. Kris. "An Introduction to Visual Anthropology." ThoughtCo, Jan. 5, 2021, Hirst, K. Kris. (2021, January 5). An Introduction to Visual Anthropology. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "An Introduction to Visual Anthropology." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).