Writing with Light: Editorial Introduction

From the Series: Final Writing with Light Series

The Writing with Light collective has decided to conclude the photo-essay project originally launched seven years ago as the Cultural Anthropology Photo Essay Initiative and relaunched three years ago as the Writing with Light photo-essays series. These initiatives provided an opportunity for us to focus closely on the photo-essay as a distinctly multimodal form of anthropology. They provided the opportunity for extended conversations among us and others about a series of specific concerns regarding the relation between image and text in the digital age.

The collection of photo-essays published in this final issue of Writing with Light provides excellent examples of the different ways of engaging the photo-essay as an anthropological form and mode of producing ethnographic theory. It also opens up a new space for considering how digital technology shapes how we use image and text to produce knowledge and for imagining new possibilities regarding the photo-essay form.

Kyrstin Mallon Andrews, in “Borderwaters,” draws on several years of fieldwork along the borderwaters between Dominican Republic and Haiti in order to show how the materiality of water affects local relations. Remarking on the complexity of activities that take place at the borderwaters as well as the diverse conditions of the water, one reviewer noted, “There is a broad range of ways in which water comes into the photos and not always as a border, but also as a site / territory of exchanges, play, work, life, etc.” Rather than a passive setting for human activity, the water running through these images depicts the way it affects social life in ways quite distinct from terrestrial manifestations.

In “Connotative Memories,” Derek Pardue draws our attention to the experiences of African migrants in São Paulo, Brazil. He artfully uses the “connotative” interplay between text and image to weave the traumas and violence of migrancy, racism, stigma, and death in urban spaces. Fiction and memory, thus, become ways in which Pardue moves away from traditional modes of transparency or the photojournalistic gaze, and instead facilitates the creative imagination. In turn, this photo-essay demonstrates the potentialities and poetics of “connotative memories” to push the limits of ethnographic narratives.

Amar Wahab’s photo-essay, “Debris n-1” explores the outlaw carnality of a “bullerman erotics” in the context of Trinidad and Tobago and renders it visible in ways that counter modes of erasure and silencing. Using a methodology of visual assemblage, Wahab aims to “queer photography’s fetish with the straightness of vision.” Rather than illustrate reality, Wahab advocates for visual anthropological research that pries open and cunningly crafts spaces of meaning. Noting the way images touch matter, one reviewer said, “I find the layering, refraction, and diffusion of images of sexual desire on local landscapes particularly important, as desiring embodiments are always situated in spaces and are rarely reducible to organs of vision.”

In “Camps and Ruins,” Dimitris Dalakoglou partners with photographer Yannis Zindrilis to present the tension between the European, and specifically Greek, economic “crisis” and the refugee “crisis” through a series of images that depict the infrastructures of crisis management. By combining images of the collapsed building boom and the infrastructures of containment, one reviewer highlighted the interplay between the “temporary and portable architecture and landscape that is a notable part of our era . . . [and] . . . those Western-led wars that have generated much of the refuge-seekers in the first place.” In response, the authors hope their photo-essay will create alternative discourses to challenge predominant ones.

Amy J. Bach, Elaine Simon, and Julia A. McWilliams remind us of the photo-essay’s historical legacy as a political tool by which to reveal the dispossessions of our times. As their title itself boldly exclaims, “This is about racism and greed.” They foreground the relationship between gentrification and the closing of Philadelphia’s public schools, thus forcing us to reckon with the erasures that have become an all-too-normal aspect of urban life in a capitalist world. They draw from theories of racial capitalism in order to argue that urban development continues to work through the destruction of the lives, loves, dreams, and futures of so many black and brown children. They also suggest innovations to our methodologies, integrating questions of participation and collaboration into the texture of the photo-essay and, in so doing, reminding us of the ethical challenges that come when producing multimodal work.

Experiments in the Field” is the result of an experimental collaboration between rural sociologist Paul V. Stock, photographer D. Bryon Darby, and graphic designer Tim Hossler to offer an often absent perspective and experience in imaginaries surrounding agriculture and farming in the United States. This set of photographs and graphically-designed layouts reflects the on-the-ground realities and experiences of “New Farmers” in Kansas, in an effort to resist the sentimentalization or romanticization often attributed to small-scale, first-generation farmers. The photo-essay, thus, attends to the perspectives and desires of farmers who do not seek economic gain through farming, but instead are driven by social and ecological questions of community and relationships to the land. That is, the photos show us “people pushing stubbornly against ‘progress’ and conventions with little promise of reward.”

Writing with Light: Looking Back, Moving Forward

Cultural Anthropology’s commitment to innovations in digital publishing enabled and encouraged Michelle Stewart and Vivian Choi to create a platform for peer-reviewed digital anthropological photo-essays, something that no other anthropological journal was doing at the time. The initiative featured open reviews to provide models for engaging with text and image as equal and interrelated modes of anthropological knowledge production. When relaunched as Writing with Light—as a joint initiative between the Society for Cultural Anthropology and the Society for Visual Anthropology—the expanded five-person editorial collective re-emphasized the importance of developing appropriate frameworks for peer review and evaluation.1 Over the span of three years we published nine photo-essays, rejecting around four submissions for every one accepted. Each submission was reviewed internally and included significant editorial support from members of the collective before being sent out for blind peer review. Our process resulted in the development of five key questions:

  • What is the contribution to scholarly knowledge and does the photo-essay format allow for theoretical discussions that would otherwise be neglected?
  • Does the photo-essay build a clear, compelling, and original argument through the image–text configuration?
  • Is there a theory of the image deployed that accounts for an aesthetic-political potentiality that might compellingly challenge a viewer’s way of seeing?
  • Does the photo-essay maximize the affordances of both text and image in order to work together as generative accomplices?
  • Does the photo-essay show a keen understanding of image ethics and the politics of representation?

In addition to these five questions, we also have come to explore the role of design and the limitations of our publishing infrastructure. Although uniquely developed for this initiative, the photo-essay interface on the Cultural Anthropology website relied upon a sequential presentation that displayed one image-caption set at a time, like a slideshow. The digital innovation of online publishing ironically foreclosed one of the most important affordances of the photo-essay: page design.

In the original photo-essays developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung (BIZ) and Arbeiter-Illustrierten-Zeitung (AIZ) in Germany, VU in France, and LIFE in the United States, the printed page allowed for a fixed spatial montage by juxtaposing multiple images of different sizes. The relationship between text and image in these early publications was unbound by most conventions and can be characterized by a great deal of variation and innovation. Rather than flattening the use of images into a uniform series, layout design helps distinguish between different uses of text and photograph—page spreads, short film strips, illustrations, and side notes—to engage the reader on multiple levels. It provides new avenues for “reading” images and text, thereby creating new possibilities for the production of knowledge with and through image sequences.

In the digital landscape, photo-essays face the possibility of transformation and even erasure as platforms for showcasing work shift and change. Unlike the fixed page of print design, digital publishing relies on dynamically changing software to present visual and textual elements. These change over time and have resulted in a loss of access to original design and aesthetic experience. Consider for example: Adobe Flash is a proprietary software that was popular for web design in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Many innovative web publications made use of this technology. As developers moved away from supporting Flash, those webpages were orphaned and abandoned. Early examples of visual anthropological research like Wendy Vissar’s award winning Lekso’s Codebox are no longer available. Even where emulators are created there are problems of access and the ability to accurately reproduce the original experience.

When the Society for Cultural Anthropology redesigned their website, all the photo-essays were archived on the website archive.org where functionality is limited, making it difficult to use as a resource for teaching and research. As the original photo-essay interface is no longer natively available on the new Society for Cultural Anthropology website, all the previously published photo-essays are presented here as a redesigned linear webpage. Where possible, we will also circulate the photo-essays in PDF form that promises greater longevity and ease of circulation. The PDF enables the easy and accurate transfer between online and printed forms and seems to be significantly more future-proof than Flash. Ironically, the ubiquitous PDF that dominates online publishing by reimposing the geometric conventions of the printed page onto digital outputs (which may delimit certain forms of formal innovation) nonetheless more easily enables the juxtaposition of text and image in compelling layouts, which proved so compelling in the earlier modes of photo-essay design.

These challenges have been a concern for the Writing with Light collective since its inception. This issue of design, combined with the goal of examining the role of the photo-essay in anthropology, was addressed at a Wenner-Gren–funded workshop in Austin, Texas in 2018. We are now working toward a new model that foregrounds page layout and image-text design. A future iteration of Writing with Light intends to create a new platform that can embellish the role of design for a series of expanded photo-essays. Our aim will be to conceptually push the juxtaposition of images and text in more sustained efforts to advance anthropological insights through empirically grounded, theoretically informed, and aesthetically engaging practice-based photo-essays.

With this retrospective of six peer-reviewed photo-essays, Writing with Light closes one chapter while opening a new one in its evolution as a platform capable of exploring the rich potential of this particular form of visual knowledge production. As we move forward, we remain committed to showcasing innovative work that explores how the interplay between image, text, and layout can push forward anthropological knowledge while also opening it up to new publics. Furthermore, as we develop a new publication platform, we will actively participate in reflecting upon and answering questions posed by the often rapid and sometimes unexpected shifts in online publishing and multimodal forms of expression and narrative construction. Keeping in line with the spirit of the collective, Writing with Light will continue to explore how the photo-essay has, is, and can continue to be a site for anthropological debate and innovation.


1. The collective initially comprised Vivian Choi, Mark Westmoreland, Zeynep Gürsel, Arjun Shankar, and Craig Campbell. Lee Douglas joined Writing with Light in 2017.


We would like to acknowledge the dozens of named and anonymous peer reviewers who contributed time and effort to careful evaluation of submissions. We are also indebted to the editors of Cultural Anthropology, current and past, (particularly former CA editors Anne Allison and Charles Piot and managing editors Marcel Laflamme, Jessica Lockrem, and Ali Kenner) for their dedication and support.