Ultrashort, low-resolution and anonymous: Designing anthropological films for smartphone viewers

Sanderien Verstappen

Recommended citation: Verstappen, S. (2020). ‘Ultrashort, low-resolution and anonymous: Designing anthropological films for smartphone viewers’, entanglements, 3(1):62-80

A new kind of film has come into being, meant to be viewed and shared on a smartphone: ultrashort, low-resolution, and anonymous. Smartphone videos often have a very short duration of only a few minutes or even seconds, are distributed as small-size files for easy phone-to-phone sharing, and in many cases contain no credits, no director or producer, and no location of production. Such videos have attracted much attention recently in India, where their distribution has become a source of concern because they are thought to promote violence against minorities. Simultaneously, the distribution of documentary films, including ethnographic films that previously functioned as a window to minority perspectives, is limited by old and new forms of censorship, including self-censorship.

How can visual and multimodal anthropologists respond? Besides studying smartphone usage, media regulation, and violence, can they also engage the smartphone as an alternative venue of knowledge sharing? Can anthropologists, then, appropriate this new mode of filmmaking? In this experience I share how I have considered these questions and arrived at possible answers. It was a shift in disciplinary attention, from the world of ethnographic filmmaking to the world of graphic design, that challenged me to think outside of the conventions of the discipline of visual anthropology in which I have been trained and in which I teach. The three pilot films I developed in the process are downloadable below. The rationale for appropriating the popular genre of ultrashort films has been to enhance the potential for fulfilling anthropology’s public tasks of communicating about research in ways that can implicate viewers.

My motivation to experiment with new forms of anthropological filmmaking originates from prior ethnographic research work in the western Indian region of Gujarat. My first film about overseas Gujaratis in the UK was recorded in 2008-2009 (Verstappen, Rutten and Makay 2011). Thereafter, I conducted further research into questions of migration and development. Given the history of anti-Muslim pogroms in the region, topics of violence and displacement also became a part of this research. In my publication strategies, however, a bifurcation between text and film emerged. While I wrote and made films to report about migration and development, I only wrote about the sensitive topic of violence. While I made films with Hindus, I rarely pointed a camera at those among my interlocutors who were Muslim, because I did not know if it was safe to film them. The impossibility of Gujarati Muslims to make themselves visible in public, political and legal spheres has been widely reported (e.g. Chandrani 2013; Jaffrelot 2012). From a filmmaking perspective this impossibility presents an ethical dilemma, because non-filming may guarantee the anonymity and safety of vulnerable interlocutors but ultimately also reproduces the dominant structures of visibility in which they are marginalised. Thinking about this dilemma led me to reconsider my filmmaking practices. I did this during a course in graphic design.

The experience: an ethnographic filmmaker in a Graphic Design course

“In this course, you will develop visual literacy. You will build a visual vocabulary around your academic work. You will learn to distinguish between visual illustrations and visual arguments, and become aware of a variety of visual distribution infrastructures.” This was how graphic designer Marthe Prins introduced her Graphic Design course. The course was part of the Academy of Creative and Performing Arts, a research institute at Leiden University, which enables university students and staff to participate in arts education at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague (KABK).

I took the course in the spring semester of the academic year 2017-2018, in the period February to June 2018, during a postdoctoral research fellowship at the Leiden University. At the time I was writing a book, but one evening a week I abandoned the writing desk and took the train to the Hague, where I sat in a classroom with students of the humanities and arts, social sciences, and natural sciences. Our shared interest was in visual communication.

This was briefly after the journal American Anthropologist had called for a shift from “Visual Anthropology” to “Multimodal Anthropology” (Collins, Durington, and Gill 2017), and I was just starting to consider what “multimodality” might be and where it might lead. The course supported me in this endeavour. It exposed me to forms of visual communication besides filmmaking, such as paper collage, screen printing, and digital techniques of magnification and reduction. While filmmaking remains my favoured mode of communication, this temporary immersion in the world of graphic design led me to radically reconsider the established practices of filmmaking I was accustomed to as a visual anthropologist.

The pilot films: “Presence in times of erasure”

This experience starts with the outcome: an initial series of three pilot films, or film scenes, which I created with a smartphone viewer in mind. Each has a small file size of ten megabytes or less, which enables the .mov files to be directly downloaded, stored, and shared on a smartphone (by clicking on the thumbnails). Each of the films has an ultrashort duration of 40 seconds. The third film scene plays with the handheld character of a smartphone screen. It is oriented horizontally while a text is projected vertically, and therefore challenges viewers to physically turn their phones, or their heads, to read the text. 

Why and how I developed the films in this way is the topic of this article.

Pilot film series “Presence in times of erasure”

Figure 3: Scene 1. Image.
Figure 4: Scene 2. Sound.
Figure 5: Scene 3. Movement.

How to be present in times of erasure? As the world moves towards more authoritarian and repressive regimes, with a proliferation of images that promote exclusivist national ideologies and singular narratives while rendering invisible more diverse experiences and histories, this film series of three scenes is an attempt to reflect on the question: “how to be present in times of erasure?”

  1. Image
  2. Sound
  3. Movement

Aims: video, violence, and censorship

Public discussions in India have in recent years often addressed the question if and how videos that are distributed on social media platforms have become a tool to incite violence against Muslims. I recap some of these discussions here to clarify why the situation in India presents both a challenge and a dilemma for anthropological filmmakers, and how this provoked me to look for other modes of visual communication.

In the first months of 2020, India was making international headlines because citizens across the country had taken to the streets to protest a new citizenship law that explicitly excludes Muslims. The controversial Citizenship Amendment Act, passed in December 2019 by the lower house of the Parliament, introduces religious criteria for immigrants who want to become Indian citizens. It promises citizenship to non-Muslims who have fled persecution from three nearby countries, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. This legal marginalization of Muslims has been discussed as the latest step in a long-term process of majoritarian Hindu nationalist politics, which promotes a view of Indian citizenship as limited to (certain kinds of) Hindus (for an example of discussions in the international press, see Gettlemanand Abi-Habib 2019). While Hindu nationalist ideas exist in competition with more inclusive ideas of the Indian nation, the groups that promote a Hindu nationalist interpretation have grown in confidence and power since 2014, when the Bharatiya Janata Party came to national power with an absolute majority.

In these years, India has also witnessed the emergence of a distinct form of anti-Muslim violence, which has been described in the Indian and international newspapers with the vocabulary of mob lynching: attacks organized by non-governmental groups that portray themselves as delivering “justice” by executing violent attacks on individuals or groups suspected of “crimes” ranging from child abduction to the consumption of beef. Many of the victims have been Muslim and Dalits, who were molested or even killed; traders and transporters involved in the trade or production of beef were specifically targeted. These developments have been widely reported in national and international newspapers (for an attempt to provide an overview of all lynchings since 2015, see The Quint 2020). Crucially, the individual perpetrators and the groups directly or indirectly associated with them (such as holy cow protection committees) have rarely been convicted or prosecuted, signalling tacit approval of the ruling government (Dhattiwala 2018).

The role of fake news and hate-inciting videos shared on social media has become a prominent topic in discussions about India’s mob violence (e.g. Pahwa 2018; BBC and Satish 2018; Christopher 2019; Sengupta 2019). Existing documentation shows that distribution platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, WhatsApp groups, and more recently TikTok have become a fierce battleground of religious and caste politics (Christopher 2019), in particular, that short videos distributed through social media platforms have become a venue for promoting and inciting violence against minorities. The existence of such content has been acknowledged by the social platforms themselves, for example by WhatsApp, which responded by setting a limit on how many times messages can be forwarded (BBC 2018). Questions about the role of media in legitimizing and representing communal violence are not new for scholars of India (Rajagopal 2001; Ohm 2010), yet a growing body of new scholarship considers the ways in which media practices are both persisting and changing with the arrival of emergent digital infrastructures (e.g. Udupa 2018; also Arun 2019; Monteiro, Jayasankar and Rai 2020).

A simultaneous yet distinct discussion centres around the changing conditions for the distribution of documentary films. While the video technology of the 1980s offered documentary filmmakers in India multiple opportunities to circulate their films beyond state control, and thus to align with activists, grassroots social movements, and local communities working towards social change and participatory development (Battaglia 2018), the internet has not delivered the freedom of circulation it once promised to generate. On the contrary, the internet has strengthened the state surveillance of media practices and has moreover created conditions for new forms of repression of minority perspectives. The anthropologist-filmmaker Harjant Gill experienced these new forms of repression when he released an uncensored version of his documentary film Mardistan (2014) on YouTube and Vimeo. Some of the online comments on the film were cruel, even dehumanizing, and the individuals posting these violent comments remained anonymous by hiding behind a pseudonym (Gill 2017). Such online trolling has been widely observed in India and elsewhere (Udupa 2016). New forms of nongovernmental repression are not only affecting the filmmakers themselves, but also target the individuals appearing within the films.

These discussions about violence, video, and censorship have challenged me to reconsider the filmmaking practices that I have been accustomed to as a visual anthropologist. Because of the potential risks for film participants, I could not envision making a film about Muslim perspectives without risking potential harm for the protagonists. While ethnographic writing provides a range of conventions that enable anthropologists to protect the anonymity of interlocutors, ethnographic filmmaking relies on camera-based research and almost without exception on the cinematographic exposure of protagonists – whether Observational, Impressionistic, Expository or Reflexive (Barbash and Taylor 1997, 1-33). My own filmmaking practices, influenced by Observational and Expository Cinema approaches, were no different.

Overall, these developments and discussions thus present both a challenge and a dilemma for anthropological filmmakers. On the one hand, the very fact that video features so prominently as a violence-inciting device seems an open invitation to keep making other kinds of audio-visual (re)presentations. On the other hand, the non-anonymous character of (most) anthropological filmmaking presents risks that can’t be reconciled with responsible research ethics. In response to this dilemma, my quest has been to look for other visual communication techniques that would enable a visual anthropological intervention into existing visual discourses about Indian Muslims.

Explorations: visual research and (re)contextualization

“For next week, collect 50+ images, references, words, environments, moods, materials related to your topic. Work intuitively, don’t think too much — roam the web, get lost, try different entries, screenshot .movs, .gifs, save .jpgs, capture pages of books in libraries with your smartphone — and bring them printed (B/W) to class.”

Marthe Prins posted these instructions in the ACPA Graphic Design KAKB Facebook group to help students start up the initial phase of the visual research (on February 6, 2018). In response to this homework assignment, which was repeated in slightly different forms during the weeks thereafter, I collected hundreds of images related to contemporary and historical instances of communal violence in India. The images were drawn from Google image searches, newspaper articles, YouTube videos, and videos sent to me by interlocutors in Gujarat via WhatsApp. They included descriptive as well as suggestive images, stereotypical as well as oppositional images, and violence-inciting as well as violence-denouncing images.

An evident topic was the portrayal of Muslims in Indian films. An outing to the Pathé cinema in The Hague, where the Hindi film Padmavaat (Bhansali 2018) was screened at the time, provided an example of a stereotypical portrayal of “good Hindus” versus “bad Muslims” in a popular Hindi film. The hero of the film is a righteous Rajput king, married to the virtuous queen Padmaavat, and the villain of the film is a Mughal emperor whose sole aim is to take Padmaavat away from her husband. The Mughal emperor is portrayed as barbarous, treacherous, disloyal, fratricidal, sexually immoral, and repulsively non-vegetarian (Sengupta 2018). While the anti-Mughal undertone of the film is unmistakable, the link to “Muslims” as a broader category remains implicit, communicated through indirect visual and narrative codes (e.g. non-vegetarianism) rather than verbally expressed.

Besides negative and stereotypical portrayals of Muslims, Indian filmmakers and artists have also produced a multitude of counter-images (e.g. in Gujarat, Sharma 2003). One source of counter-images is the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad in Gujarat, where students produced the hip-hop/history video Mughlai wrap (2018) under the supervision of NID Faculty Arun Gupta and Prahlad Gopakumar. The Mughlai wrap was created in response to concerns about the stereotypical representation of Mughals in popular media. In an interview with Satvika Kundu in Scroll.in (February 13, 2018), Arun Gupta clarified that: “Given the climate that exists in India of trying to erase a part of our history, specifically the Mughals, as being negative or as not being there, I thought about how one can intervene in this and look at the Mughals positively, instead of just seeing them as Muslim invaders, or outsiders.”

With this growing database of images, I returned to the classroom. There, we received the assignment to create new meanings by (re)contextualising the images – in other words, montage. The principle of “montage” was introduced as a practice of joining together different elements (similar to the definition of montage used by Suhr and Willerslev 2013). So, the images we had found would now be given new meaning by linking them together, writing or drawing on them, etc.

We worked on this montage assignment in groups to spark unexpected outcomes. So, the images I had printed in black-and-white were now shuffled with the images other students had brought. They had worked on seemingly unrelated topics, such as climate change, gender, sexual freedom, colonialism, plant and animal rights, so it proved quite a challenge to find thematic and aesthetic connections between our images. We used scissors and glue to cut, combine, and modify; created paper poster collages; and eventually folded the posters into each other to create experimental “books”. We also experimented with digital techniques of magnification and reduction, playing around with pixelating effects, to delink the form of the images from their content. These exercises unfolded during the first weeks of the course and challenged us to consider how new meanings can be created through techniques of (re)contextualization.

Figure 11: Example of a poster collage created for the assignment to create meaning by (re)contextualizing images during the ACPA Graphic Design course.

Distribution: from the ethnographic film festival to the smartphone

In the second part of the course, students worked individually on the development of their final projects. One student was working with jute shopping bags, another was creating a self-made book in the form of a bible, and the photography students experimented with different materials on which their photos could be printed – paper, glass, textile. I was occupied with Final Cut Pro, re-editing the images and sounds I had collected into a film.

For inspiration, we studied examples of existing graphic designers and video artists. Given the nature of the assignment to produce a “pamphlet”, an educational form aimed at generating social change, we specifically discussed the work of artists driven by some form of idealism or activism: Hito Steyerl, Barbara Kruger, Martha Rosler, Ai WeiWei, Banksy, among others. Of these, the video artist Hito Steyerl spoke most directly to my topic, especially the video How Not to Be Seen. A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File (2013). I mimicked but reversed her question, from “how not to be seen” to “how to be present in times of erasure”. This became the title of the project.

But teacher Marthe did not only ask questions about the aesthetics or message of the art works we discussed. She specifically also asked about their distribution infrastructure. “Where did you find this image?”, she would ask. “What kind of context is that?” These questions led to further questions about our own projects: “What will be an appropriate place to communicate about your topic?”, she asked us. “Will you display your work in a museum, where it will be seen only by the privileged few? Or, will you follow Banksy’s example and paint a wall? Knit a t-shirt? Print the exterior of a bus, or a spaceship?” The choice of audience and platform would influence the form of the intervention.

For an anthropological filmmaker, the established distribution channels are the ethnographic film festival and the academic conference. Multimodal anthropologists have proposed to look beyond these established venues (Collins, Durington, and Gill 2017, 144) and to implicate a wide range of viewers (Nolas and Varvantakis 2018, 2), generating new conversations about the public and political implications of anthropological (re)presentations. The choice for the smartphone as an alternative venue of film distribution stemmed from the prospect this device offered to intervene in an everyday space in which audio-visual content matters.

How, then, to create films for smartphone viewers? While some anthropologists have explored the methodological affordances of the smartphone, e.g. through the design and testing of ethnographic apps (Favero and Theunissen 2018), using smartphones as a tool of publication raises a different set of questions. What happens to film when it meets a handheld carry-along device? From the perspective of the filmmaker (e.g. Schlesser, Wilman and Keep 2015): what process of translation must take place in order to suit this device and its users? From the perspective of the film viewer (e.g. Christie 2012): what is specific about the experience of viewing films on a smartphone?

Form: Small, short, interactive, and anonymous

My preliminary answer to these questions is shown in the pilot films. I have focussed on four aspects: 1. small file size, 2. short duration, 3. adaptability to the embodied and interactive characteristics of a handheld smartphone screen, and 4. anonymity.

Small file size

The rapid distribution of smartphones has been paired with a growing access to digital video across the world. Video viewing experiences are often discussed in relation with streaming services such as YouTube and Vimeo, however, many smartphone users prefer to share videos with each other as files that can be stored on a phone independently of these video streaming platforms. For example, viewers without internet subscription or access to stable Wi-Fi, the “digital subalterns” (Rashmi 2017a), rely on Bluetooth or hard disks rather than the internet to exchange media files – as Rashmi found during research among auto rickshaw drivers, security guards and vegetable vendors in the Indian city of Bangalore (2017b, 222). But even privileged smartphone viewers with high-speed internet connections do not solely rely on streaming services to access videos; for them, too, the viewing of video files on their phones is linked to practices of downloading, collecting, archiving, and managing memory space.

With these video viewers in mind, the question becomes: can anthropologists produce films that can easily be exchanged between smartphones? From an editing perspective, this becomes a question of export settings: gigabytes or megabytes? Rather than aiming for the highest quality possible in order to enhance the chance of film festival screenings, this leads to an exploration of low-resolution qualities. Hito Steyerl’s article “In Defense of the Poor Image” (2009) has already opened this route and invites further experimentation. The poor image, she argues, broadens participation in video production, circulation, and viewership, liberates the image “from the vaults of cinemas and archives”, “transforms quality into accessibility” and “defies patrimony, national culture, or indeed copyright” – even if these opportunities are not only used for progressive ends (Steyerl 2009, 6).

Short duration

Ethnographic films can provide unique insights into unknown perspectives. They often reveal multiple layers, thick descriptions, and nuanced stories that unfold over a long time to reflect changes in the protagonists lives during several months or even years. They tend to be patient in their storytelling and their duration is often more than an hour (with some notable exceptions, e.g. Marshall 2009). The cinema hall is an ideal setting for viewing such films. However, concentration is less easy to maintain when ethnographic films are viewed on a digital device, already on a laptop amidst emails, websites, and to do lists, let alone on a phone where the small screen is in competition with many other impulses in the viewer’s surroundings. Even I, an enthusiastic ethnographic film viewer, at such moments end up watching only part of a film with the resolution to return to it later – which may or may not happen.

There is a word to describe this phenomenon: “drop off”. Drop off is considered a key problem of digital content creation on online platforms such as Vidya (for “a new generation of creators”) and HubSpot (for business communication strategists). Blogs posted on these platforms advise aspiring filmmakers that “video length matters” (Chi 2018, Matel-Okoh 2017). Citing YouTube statistics of video engagement that indicate that the majority of viewers stop watching within minutes or seconds, they give very similar advice on the question how long a video should be. For YouTube, which allows for more “in depth” content because viewers come here specifically with the aim of watching videos: two minutes. For Twitter: forty-five seconds. For Instagram: thirty seconds.

The phenomenon of drop off is not normally a consideration for anthropological filmmakers. Rather than disqualifying the ultrashort form altogether, however, the pilot films presented here explore if and how even films of 40 seconds can resonate with anthropology. My move to a duration of seconds rather than minutes occurred towards the end of the course, after I had presented a first draft of my film at the virtual Displacement Conference of the Society for Cultural Anthropology (2018, panel “Home as Memory and Horizon”). This was a 6.30 minutes video. Marthe, after seeing it, suggested to now break it up into three shorter pieces, so that I could explore different styles of visual argumentation in each of them. Following from these experiments, what I have come to believe is that ultrashort films can do (some) anthropological work. They cannot provide thick description, but they can raise questions, draw connections, and provoke reflections about ideas drawn from anthropological research.


Creative practitioners who have been creating video content for smartphone viewers for a longer time, some for more than 15 years, have recommended filmmakers to “look beyond the perceived technical limitations of GoPros, smartphones and tablet computers, and instead focus on ways that portable digital media devices might instigate innovative production strategies, new creative processes and experimental media forms” (Keep 2015). In “Presence in times of erasure”, it is the third film (“Movement”) that takes this recommendation most seriously. It is a play with the “portrait orientation” function of the smartphone.

The image on which this pilot film is based is an Instagram screenshot with a seemingly unremarkable image: the tricolour of the Indian flag, with symbols of Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam and three words: “we are one”. In recent years the tricolour of the Indian flag has become a visual code signalling not merely the nation, but an inclusive version of Indian nationalism. Rather than limiting the nation to saffron, a colour associated with Hinduism, the tricolour of saffron, white, and green is associated with an imaging of the nation in which non-Hindu orientations are included. In the protests against the proposed amended citizenship laws, the Indian tricolour has also become a symbol carried by Muslims to display their allegiance to the Indian nation (Ahmed and Bhattacharjee 2019).

The second film of the pilot series shows the waving of the flag during Independence Day, the third film haunts its Instagram representation through a play with orientation. While the film is exported in horizontal orientation, the text that appears mid-way is vertically oriented. The idea behind this is to activate the body of the viewer in order to enable a reading. Viewers who have the “portrait orientation” of their phone fixed can turn their phone while they are watching the film and will end the film in a vertical position. Viewers who have the portrait orientation function on “automatic” can also turn the phone, but as their phone will automatically turn the image sideways again, this will then generate further play of eye, hands, and text. This embodiment of film viewership, unique to the smartphone viewing experience, serves here to suggest the active work involved in imagining the nation.


Finally, the film series is an experiment in appropriating the anonymized character of online video landscapes. In the Indian visual landscape, moreover, anonymity seems to have become an aesthetic form in itself. An instance is the TEDx Talk Why is India so Filthy (TEDx Talks, posted on YouTube on October 27, 2014). The talk is delivered by “The Ugly Indian”, a masked figure, who claims to speak on behalf of “the people of India” while giving a speech that very closely aligns with the Indian government’s Clean India campaign launched in October 2014. Such displays of anonymity have been critiqued because they hide the interests and organisational links of the speaker and might preclude possibilities for deeper debate between differently positioned Indian people who may have different ideas about the topic (Doron 2016).

Figure 12: Screenshot from the TEDx Talk “Why is India so filthy?” by “The Ugly Indian” (posted on Youtube October 27, 2014, screenshot May 1, 2020).

If the example above suggests that anonymity can be harnessed as a source of hegemony, anonymity can also offer protection to individuals in vulnerable positions. In “Presence in times of erasure”, I used anonymity in this way and experimented with different aesthetic forms that create anonymity. Instead of camera-based research, the project was based on existing images that already circulate in the public domain. The image of the children waving with the flag was deliberately blurred to render the individual faces of the protagonists unrecognizable, similar to measures anthropologists take in ethnographic writing. Anonymity is further enhanced by the use of robot voices. The robot voice Veena (from the website https://ttsdemo.com) represents the voice of an interlocutor, while the robot voice William (from the website https://www.cepstral.com/en/demos) transmits the words of the anthropologist.

The choice of anonymizing not only the interlocutors but the anthropologist as well presents a radical break with conventions in visual anthropology, within which methodological transparency and reflexivity are widely considered a necessity. My choice for anonymity in this pilot film series therefore remains a rather ambivalent provocation. By publishing the pilot series in this article, I reconnect the robot voices to the researcher and allow viewers to access information about the methods and resources that inspired their words.

Exhibition: Starting to seek the audience

At the end of the course, ACPA organized a final exhibition for all students. For this exhibition I created an installation with a smartphone and an attached headphone, turning the three pilot films into a two-minute video loop. To enable viewers to access the three films independently on their own phones, I printed QR codes on a postcard that was exhibited along with the video loop.[1]

Figure 13 (top) and Figure 14 (bottom) : The ACPA final exhibition at the “Oude UB”, a university building of the Leiden University (June-August 2018). The overview photograph (left) was made by Tina Farifteh, the close-up (right) by the author.

Closing words: Anthropological filmmaking in new terrains

Anthropological filmmakers have yet to come to terms with the radically changing practices of filmmaking and film viewing that presently occur across the world. These changing practices, I have suggested here, present an open invitation to develop new kinds of anthropological films that can be distributed on new kinds of devices, including handheld devices that have now become meaningful venues for media consumption.  The pilot films exhibited in this article present a break with conventions of anthropological filmmaking in terms of their size, duration, anonymity, and their potential for activating the embodied experience of viewership on a handheld device. The characteristic of anonymity, in particular, offers a pathway of response to considerations of ethics in the context of filmmaking about sensitive research topics of violence, displacement, and marginalisation. Inventing new forms of filmmaking is one of multiple ways in which visual and multimodal anthropologists can respond to forms of (self)censorship that impose direct or indirect constraints on their work. Such invention may start by learning from the visual landscapes that anthropologists and interlocutors share.

[1] Following feedback from these initial viewings, I have slightly reedited the third scene before publishing it here.


Academic literature

Barbash, I., and L. Taylor (1997). Cross-cultural filmmaking: A handbook for making documentary and ethnographic films and videos. London: University of California Press.

Battaglia, G. (2018). Documentary film in India: An anthropological history. London, New York: Routledge.

Chandrani, Y. R. 2013. Legacies of colonial history: region, religion and violence in postcolonial Gujarat. Doctoral thesis, Colombia University.

Collins, S. G., M. Durington, and H. Gill (2017). ‘Multimodality: An invitation.’ American Anthropologist 119(1):142-153.

Doron, A. (2016). ‘Unclean, unseen: Social media, civic action and urban hygiene in India.’ South Asia: Journal of South Asian studies 39(4):715-739.

Favero, P. S. H. and E. Theunissen (2018). ‘With the smartphone as field assistant: designing, making, and testing EthnoAlly, a multimodal tool for conducting serendipitous ethnography in a multisensory world. American Anthropologist 120(1):163-167.

Gill, H. S. (2017). ‘Censorship and ethnographic film: Confronting state bureaucracies, cultural regulation, and institutionalized homophobia in India.’ Visual Anthropology Review 33: 62-73.

Jaffrelot, C. 2012. “Gujarat 2002: What justice for the victims?: The Supreme Court, the SIT, the police and the state judiciary.” Economic & Political Weekly 47 (8): 77–89.

Keep, D. (2015). ‘From Barbie video girl to smartphones: How portable media devices are
shaping new screen production practices.’ Paper presented at the ASPERA Annual Conference ‘What’s this space? Screen practice, audiences and education for the future decade.’

Monteiro, A., K. P. Jayasankar and A. S. Rai (2020). Diginaka: Subaltern politics and digital Media in post-capitalist India. Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan.

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Other written references (journalism, research reports, commentary, art, and blogs)

Ahmed, A. and N. Bhattacharjee (2019). ‘Indian Muslims wave national flag to show protest is not anti-India.’ Reuters, December 23, 2019.

Arun, C. (2019). ‘On WhatsApp, rumours, and lynchings’. Economic & Political Weekly 54(6).

BBC. (2018). ‘India lynchings: WhatsApp sets new rules after mob killings.’ BBC News, 20 July 2018.

BBC, additional reporting by B. Satish (2018).How WhatsApp helped turn an Indian village into a lynch mob.’ BBC News, 19 July 2018.

Bilal, M. B. (2017). ‘The Afrazul killing video as a perfect anti-Muslim crime. Economic & Political Weekly 52(50).

Chi, C. (2018). ‘How long should your videos be? Ideal lengths for Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube [infographic].’ Hubspot, posted on Apr 18, 2018.

Christopher, N. (2019).TikTok is fuelling India’s deadly hate speech epidemic’. Wired, August 12, 2019.

Dhattiwala, R. (2018). ‘“Blame it on the mob”: How governments shun the responsibility of judicial redress.’ The Wire, August 17, 2018.

Gettleman, J. and Abi-Habib, M. (2019).As Protests Rage on Citizenship Bill, Is India Becoming a Hindu Nation?New York Times, December 16, 2019.

Kundu, S. (2018). ‘“Mughlai wrap”: A hip-hop music video from NID Ahmedabad asks India to stop hating Mughals. “There are no outsiders or insiders in India.”’ Scroll.in, February 13, 2018.

Matel-Okoh, D. (2017). ‘Avoid video drop off: why video length matters.’ Vidya, posted on September 11, 2017.

Pahwa, N. (2018). ‘Yes, no, it’s complicated: Should WhatsApp be held accountable for lynchings?’ The Hindu, July 20, 2018.

Sengupta, R. (2018). ‘Padmaavat and the death of “history”.’ Dhaka Tribune, February 26th, 2018.

Sengupta, S. (2019). ‘How WhatsApp “truths” thrive on middle-class anxieties.’ Economic & Political Weekly 54 (37).

Steyerl, H. (2009). ‘In defense of the poor image.’ e-flux journal #10, November 2009:1-9.

The Quint (2015-2019). ‘Hunted: India’s lynch files. The Quint records incidents of mob violence across India since 2015.’ List available at: https://www.thequint.com/quintlab/lynching-in-india/, accessed on February 8, 2019.


Gill, H. (2014). Mardistan [Macholand]. Available on Vimeo, https://vimeo.com/120182667.

Bhansali, S. L. (2018). Padmaavat. 2018. Viacom18 Motion Pictures and Bhansali Productions. Screened at Pathé Cinema in The Hague, 2018.

Bhansali, S. L. (2017). Official trailer of Padmaavat. Viacom18 Motion Pictures and Bhansali Productions. Available on the Viacom18 Studios YouTube channel, posted on October 9, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X_5_BLt76c0.

Marshall, John. (2009). The Wasp Nest (!Kung series).Documentary Educational Resources.

National Institute of Design: International Open Elective (2018). Mughlai wrap. Concept Arun Gupta, supervision Arun Gupta and Prahlad Gopakumar, students Aditee Prakash Deore, Ananya Kori, Anuj Dhande, Ashish Kumar, Gautam Gulati, Hannah Mary George, Nikhi Arun Sarkate, Poorvi Mittal, Prabhu Gangadharan, Prakhar Virendra, Sai Krishna, Sushant Deshmukh, Vishu Negi. Available on the NID FVC Plus YouTube channel, posted on Feb 6, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Szo-iLJieUE.

Steyerl, H. (2013). How not to be seen: A fucking didactic educational .MOV file. Available onArtforum, https://www.artforum.com/video/hito-steyerl-how-not-to-be-seen-a-fucking-didactic-educational-mov-file-2013-51651.

Sharma, R. (2003). Final eolution. Available on Documentary Heaven, https://documentaryheaven.com/final-solution-massacres-in-india/.

The Ugly Indian (2015). Why is India so filthy? TEDxBangalore. Available on the TEDx Talks YouTube channel, posted on October 27, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tf1VA5jqmRo.

Verstappen, Sanderien, Mario Rutten, and Isabelle Makay (2011). Living like a Common Man. University of Amsterdam [DVD].

Other audio-visual resources

Screen recordings of my laptop playing, pausing, and rewinding the online trailer of the film Padmaavat on YouTube (2018).

Screen recordings of my laptop playing, pausing, and rewinding the Mughlai wrap (2018).

Screen recordings of my laptop playing, pausing, and rewinding the YouTube video ‘They kept saying we had beef, but we didn’t: Brother of teen killed on train,’ capturing part of an CNN report about a mob lynching (2018).

Screenshot from a photo by Shabhaz Khan, ‘Citizens hold placards during a silent protest “Not in My Name” against the targeted lynching, at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on Wednesday” (2018). The photo appeared in The Wire, in the article ‘Thousands rally across India to #NotInMyName protests against lynchings of Muslims, Dalits’ by The Wire Staff, 2017, and later in the article ‘The next five years could change India forever’ by S. Bhatia, 2019.

Video of boys waving the Indian flag while performing a gymnastic act, recorded in India during Independence Day (2017, edits 2018).

Screenshot of an Instagram post by Shakeel 775.

Audio materials

William. Robot voice ‘male’/‘American English’, from the website https://www.cepstral.com/en/demos, accessed repeatedly in March-June 2018.

Veena. Robot voice ‘female’/’Indian English’, from the website https://ttsdemo.com, accessed repeatedly in March-June 2018.

Voice of a girl singing, recorded in India during Independence Day, 2017.

Distorted sound of a Hindi song played on loudspeakers during a public event, recorded in India during Independence Day, 2017.


The experiences I have described here were made possible because of postdoctoral research funding from the Asian Modernities and Traditions fund and the International Institute for Asian Studies, at the Leiden University in the period 2017-2018. I thank Marthe Prins, all ACPA students, and my own students at the University of Tübingen and the University of Vienna for their feedback on the films; and Magali Peyrefitte and Mark Westmoreland for their comments on an earlier draft of this article.

Sanderien Verstappen is Assistant Professor with tenure track in Social and Cultural Anthropology with a focus on Visual Anthropology at the University of Vienna. She has conducted research on topics of mobility and migration, development and inequality, and violence and displacement. As a Visual Anthropologist she uses filmmaking as a research method and as a medium of publishing. Her films have been screened at film festivals and conferences, in university courses, and in the living rooms of the participants themselves. Her regional focus is on global South Asia, especially Gujarat (India) and its overseas diaspora. Web: www.sanderienverstappen.com