Life Matters: An #AmAnth2016 Panel Review

Life Matters: Accountability, Complicity, Politics

Presenters: Diane M. Nelson (Duke University), Laurence Ralph (Harvard University), Catherine Besteman (Colby College), Deborah A. Thomas (University of Pennsylvania), Jason Patrick De León (University of Michigan). Discussant: Ruth Behar (University of Michigan). Sponsors: Society for Cultural Anthropology and Association of Political and Legal Anthropology.

This invited session brought together scholars exploring questions of life and survival in times of crisis. The topics spanned pressing issues concerning refugees, the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and indigenous rights in the contemporary political climate where the struggle to live comes up against borders, racism, and marginality. All of the presentations explored questions of representation and temporality from the perspective of how knowledge, experience, and activist movements are mobilized or archived. They demonstrated how the anthropologist plays a key role in this documentation process. As discussant Ruth Behar eloquently stated, “we are timekeepers” and must be aware of time’s qualitative and quantitative dimensions in moments when which lives matter and to whom is in question. The panel challenged attendees to consider the limitations and possibilities for anthropologists today as we enter into a highly contentious political moment. This moment poses immense challenges for us as anthropologists and for the participants in our research; time is thus of the essence when the future seems uncertain.

Diane Nelson explored the circulation of water between human (and nonhuman) bodies and the intensified resource extraction industry. The threat of no longer having potable water underpins the uncertainty of life itself for indigenous Mayan communities living around the Marlin gold mine and megadam construction in Guatemala. The uncertainty around the water—its fall, flow, and levels of toxicity—provokes questions about its mattering, and the mattering of those who rely on it for subsistence. The question of lives mattering in particular historical moments was also taken up by Laurence Ralph, who provided a historical account of the violence Black people have faced, and continue to face, in the United States. He argued that “each death becomes a reckoning with time” in a complex #BlackLivesMatter moment that cannot be quantified. Reflecting on the words of W. E. B. Du Bois, Ralph called for another configuration of time, since we “cannot measure souls by the tape of another world.” Yet online documentation of Black people being killed by the police can motivate new activism in the fight for social justice. According to Ralph, the #BlackLivesMatter movement is not merely measuring the time between racialized events; it measures the experiences of people of color and how “people of color have long had to look at themselves through the eyes of others.” Ralph also connected technology with history, as people can now document events themselves, discuss them on social media, and witness new forms of activism taking place online.

Catherine Besteman’s presentation, entitled “Refugee Matters and the Anthropological Gaze,” showed how her previous research in Somalia has become an archive for a local refugee community in the United States. Her participants’ photographs, taken in the late 1980s in Somalia, have been represented on a website, included in museum exhibitions, and considered for other educational purposes. One of the projects was to establish a book for English Language Learners. While this initiative was welcomed and appreciated by parents, it did not have the same value for their high school–aged children, who did not grow up in Somalia. For instance, one student rejected and challenged the images of Somalia with which she was presented, arguing that her parents did not come from a rural area, as the image suggested. Other students felt embarrassed, as many of the images problematically capture the extreme deprivation and poverty experienced by their own relatives. Besteman asked, “Why does it matter that refugees are seen as poor and deprived?” She discussed the complexities of how refugee communities are reflected in the anthropological archive, suggesting that positioning refugees as charity recipients rather than political actors makes them not matter. Besteman concluded that our anthropological practice has to be filled with empathy, connection, and mutuality; we have to do anthropology in ways that make those with whom we work matter. Other scholars have also commented on representation of refugees that are linked to their case for asylum. But Besteman’s research reveals how a photographic archive can have varying affects and purposes for different viewers, even if they are coming from the same community.

Photo courtesy of William Richards.

Deborah Thomas also explored questions of time and representation as she reflected on her current work with residents of the Tivoli Gardens neighborhood in Kingston, Jamaica. How, she asked, do we capture a moment of crisis and the pain of its aftermath through document and installation? Following Tivoli Gardens’ May 2010 state of emergency and numerous civilian deaths, Thomas and the residents are creating an archive from recorded narratives, as well as visual and textual materials, to elucidate the structural, symbolic, and material forms of state violence as well as community responses. In order to share these stories with a broader public, Thomas plans to display the installation at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in December 2017. Another possible venue for the installation is the National Gallery of Jamaica.

Pakal Na, Chiapas, Mexico. Photo courtesy of Jason De León.

Jason De León closed the session with a compelling reflection on his own work on the migrant trail between Mexico and the United States. Like others on the panel, De León has grappled with notions of time as he has attempted to document life through photography, viewing the camera as an ethnographic tool to capture alternative temporalities. His presentation argued that the relationship between images and realities can be shown more boldly when interlocutors are included in images—able to gaze back at the audience, who then enter into a “social contract.” Above all, he asserted, the migrant trail crossers want their pictures to be taken since “anything can happen on a migrant trail,” and people want others to see the hardships they go through in order to cross the border. As well, De León explored how his interlocutors have their own representations of life and time as they photographed their border-crossing journeys; the outcomes were blurry reflections of “migrant time” that were, ironically, rejected by some publishers for their poor quality.

In her comments, discussant Ruth Behar suggested that all of the scholars on the panel took a critical approach toward how anthropology needs to be written today as we grapple with questions about life and death. If necessary, she noted, we need to challenge the requirements imposed by the institutional review boards of our home institutions to enable our participants to be seen, photographed, and named. “Accuracy, evidence, precision. The exact details need to be known, and we should embrace the possibilities that new media offer,” Behar argued. Behar (1996, 177) is widely known for her statement that “anthropology that doesn’t break your heart just isn’t worth doing.” Yet she has also noted that we need to be sure that our writing does not take on the tone of pity and that we are conscious about the moral implications of our research. In her comments, Behar suggested that as anthropologists, “we are witnesses, we are filmmakers, we are timekeepers, we are poets. We do our work online and offline, here and there.” Thus, she reflected, “we need to figure out how to write with hope in a hopeless time, how to write the truth in a time of lies, how to write with courage in a time of fear.” She concluded with the powerful statement: “Let’s not live in vain. Let’s do ethnography. Let's continue to go out into the world, convinced of the kindness that we know is there. It is definitely there.”

Each of the panelists, as well as the panel’s discussant, moved us to reconsider why the work we do matters and to recall that we must be deeply committed to our participants’ struggle to survive. These issues are timely, but the means to engage with them are often slow, creating a double bind for an engaged anthropology. Many of the panelists were deeply concerned about issues of survival in the present that, in many senses, demanded an immediate response. Yet these moments, as we know, are also shaped by longer historical trajectories and uncertain futures. This leads us as reviewers to consider the significance of time amidst the lengthy process of publishing ethnographic scholarship, especially when engagement and activism are needed more immediately. Questions that emerged for us include: In what ways does our discipline need to shift our energies in order to respond more directly to threats of violence and death facing some of our participants? How do we make our work beyond peer-reviewed publications matter, so that the voices of our participants can reach and inspire a broader audience more quickly? As well, we need to rethink and embrace new anthropological venues that can represent our work and the people we study in more accessible ways. The scholars featured in this invited session can surely help to pave a path toward a more engaged anthropology as we think through the complexities of time, disciplinary demands, and the need for more timely responses to mass deportation, police brutality, resource extraction, and state violence.


Behar, Ruth. 1996. The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology that Breaks Your Heart. Boston: Beacon Press.