Reviewed by Alex Oehler
Expanded Visions: A New Anthropology of the Moving Image
Recommended citation: Oehler, A. (2021). ‘Review: Arnd Schneider’s ‘Expanded Visions: A New Anthropology of the Moving Image”. Routledge (2021)’, entanglements, 4(2): 79-81.
Social anthropologist Arnd Schneider combines eight of his essays on the use of moving and still images in art and anthropology to focus on experimental forms of film. He delves into lesser-known parts of the history of visual anthropology, stirring up current debates on the nature of ethnography, the use of social context-based art, the place of material nuance, and the essence of sensory and participatory ethnography in anthropological research. The book stands out for its many illustrative photographs.
Schneider’s goal, in chapter one, is to inspire “a new wave of criticism and scholarship” by opening up the “radical epistemological potential” (p. 1) of non-traditional cinema and experimental film. Core concerns of his are the decolonization of anthropological practice and a move toward multivocality in response to anthropology’s enduring textual bias. To this end, he introduces film sets which, like ethnographic sites, are places of re-creation, retelling, and (re)inventing. Set and site can learn from each other, subject as they are to decisions about style and degree of realism. Schneider warns, however, of a “hyperrealism.” Where images become more authoritative than their subjects, Schneider suggests including experimental features that draw attention to the processes of making and representing.
“Experimenting with film, art, and ethnography: Oppitz, Downey, Lockhart” offers such experimental examples. Anthropologist Michael Oppitz uses ethnographic exactitude as an “art practice” while inverting Eurocentric valuation by using poetic voiceover for factual description and authoritative voice for mythical accounts. Video artist Juan Downey’s “The Laughing Alligator” (1979) deliberately stages scenes and includes visual manipulation of ethnographic footage to reveal the observer’s subjectivity. Artist Sharon Lockhart works with two anthropologists and a demographer to document the reactions of an audience to a choir performing in an opera house. Consisting of a proportionate crosscut of the population of the city of Manus, the audience is juxtaposed by a photo exhibit of their own empty homes, critiquing colonial photography’s depiction of people as “specimens” in their habitats.
In chapter three, “Rethinking anthropological research and representation through experimental film,” Schneider challenges anthropological assumptions about perception. Unlike feature film, which carries a narrative by way of illusion or mimesis, experimental film uses its own medium to affect a viewer’s experience of time, often through montage. Anthropologists now have technologies at their disposal that allow them to synthesize divergent viewpoints to better reflect the perspectives of collaborators. While their accounts remain largely retrospective, Schneider asks what a non-retrospective ethnography might look like. He suggests anamorphosis—or the embedding of multiple possible viewpoints in the same projection. To access an alternative viewpoint, the viewer must shift their position.
Chapter four, “Stills that move: photofilm and anthropology,” explores the use of still images in moving film. Examples from Leonore Mau and Hubert Fichte’s ethnographic photofilms include dockworkers of the 1960s in Hamburg’s port. In Fichte’s words, “One thinks more in sequences, and considers things important, which I wouldn’t include in an ordinary photo.” Linguistic anthropologist John Haviland uses photofilm as “narrated evidence” (2009) by combining portraits taken in 1977 with voice recordings from 1983, discussing individuals from the photos who had since passed away. Scholar and photographer Dick Blau combines still images from a Polish Easter service (2011) with a decoupled sound recording of the same event, allowing the viewer to focus on ethnographic details that would have been lost in video.
“On the set of a cinema movie in a Mapuche reservation” speaks to ways of avoiding the “hyperreal” construction of reality. It follows the making of El Camino (2000), an Argentine feature film (2000) with an Indigenist agenda, shot on a Mapuche reservation. Schneider examines the discrepancy of perspectives between film crew, village residents, and Indigenous participants on a film set that has become an ethnographic site, and where the observer (Schneider himself) not only becomes complicit with the crew but also intervenes in the production of the film itself. It is a warning against the effects of self-contained feature film production routines and economic discrepancies between those making the film and those featuring in it, both of which weaken the self-determination in a community’s participation.
By contrast, chapter six, “A black box for participatory cinema: Movie-making with the “neighbours” in Saladillo, Argentina,” explores the methods of CCV (Cine con Vecinos, or “Cinema with Neighbours”). This style of digital community-based filmmaking draws on the agency, collaboration, and social life of people living their lives in close proximity, offering anthropologists useful methodological insights. CCV is produced and consumed by the same community, allowing individuals to connect as neighbours and through their roles on screen. Guided by assigned directors, shorts can be produced in a day, following flexible scripts, resulting in an aesthetic of place that focuses on collective experience rather than the final product.
In “An anthropology of abandon: Art—ethnography in the films of Cyrill Lachauer,” Schneider calls attention to an “environment animate with matter, plants, animals, and people.” He focuses on the work of Lachauer, who encounters the Other from non-normative angles. Using provocative and often cynical lyrics sung to his face by individuals who have been systemically marginalized, the artist draws attention to his own problematic role as a white male body making travel films in the American West. As an “art-ethnographer,” Lachauer observes, documents, and archives the uses of time and recollection, in search of a new way. For Schneider, this is the way of art-ethnography, a practice full of promise for times of decoloniality.
In the final chapter, “Can film restitute? Expanded moving image visions for museum objects in the times of decolony,” Schneider turns to repatriation. Using the politically daring film Statues Also Die (Marker and Resnais, 1953), he shows how films can challenge representational inequality. Looking to its visual language, which lent inanimate objects distinct viewpoints, Schneider establishes connections to the works of contemporary visual artists, such as Anglo-Ethiopian Theo Eshetu, Métis filmmaker Amanda Strong, and Janine Prins. Their multimodal methods, he concludes, call visual anthropologists to an “uneven hermeneutics”—a recognition of the possibility for genuine dialogue, combined with a deep respect for difference.
The book is timely in its call to decolonize anthropology, and it inspires through its many examples of lesser-known ethnographic art projects. What it misses is a discussion of ubiquitous innovations in image capture, including the use of drones, digital raw film, immersive 360-degree video, and 3-D web photo sharing. Although Schneider emphasizes the importance of non-visual sensory data for a holistic hermeneutic in chapter three, he offers no examples to emulate. Given its focus on visual media, an absence of multi-sensory methods is to be expected. Overall, the book is a welcome inspiration to anthropologists and artists searching for methods that speak to a representational crisis and fit our era of self-determination.
Department of Anthropology, University of Regina, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada