In Karen Nakamura’s recent blog post: “Careers: Visual anthropology as a field of study?” she republishes a letter she sent a student asking about graduate study in visual anthropology.
- Visual anthropology is on the margins of the discipline. Few programs offer degrees in it and there are even fewer jobs.
- It is my own belief that photography or film work that isn’t backed by participant-observation research is weaker than that that is. If your goal is to fly in, take photos, and fly out, then you might want to pursue a degree in journalism.
- There are dwindling grants for visual social science research. You would most likely apply to standard anthropology grants — which means that your work should speak to the discipline of anthropology in some way.
Like Karen, when students approach me about pursuing a career in visual anthropology, I usually attempt to dissuade them. The reason being that if they are interested in producing visual documents, they are unlikely to be able to do so in a Ph.D. program in anthropology. Only rarely are visual documents accepted in lieu of written ones at the graduate level. While some may complement their written thesis with “supplementary materials,” they will most likely remain just that.
Of course, if someone is interested in media studies and would like to do an ethnography of visual media production, then I think they’ll do OK.
Such a study falls within the framework of traditional anthropological research. While pursuing any degree in anthropology is a questionable career choice these days, your chances of getting an academic job are even smaller if you don’t produce a traditional written ethnography. Moreover, if you are primarily interested in producing visual documents, the best training is to get lots of production experience, either by working in the media industry or by going to film school – not by getting a Ph.D. (in any discipline).
A lot of people are interested in visual anthropology because it seems like they don’t have to choose between an academic career and a career in the filmmaking. It doesn’t really work out that way. Don’t make any mistake about it: if you are getting a Ph.D., you are choosing an academic career. However, if you really love anthropology and are willing to accept the “supplementary” status of your visual work, then by all means, go for it. Being a production-oriented visual anthropologist today usually means pursuing a double career, not merging your various interests into a single one. Are you ready for that?