Writing with Light is an initiative to bolster the place of the photo-essay—and, by extension, formal experimentation—within international anthropological scholarship. As a collaboration between two journals published by the American Anthropological Association (AAA), Cultural Anthropology and Visual Anthropology Review, Writing with Light is led by an editorial/curatorial collective that aims to address urgent and important concerns about the sustained prominence of multimodal scholarship. Anthropological projects based in video, installation, performance, etc. take as a given that multimodality changes what anthropologists can and should see as productive knowledge. Such projects compel anthropologists to begin rethinking our intellectual endeavors through an engagement with various media, addressing the particular affordances and insights that each new form of scholarship offers. How, for example, does photography produce different types of knowledge than text and/or film? What criteria might we need to interrogate and evaluate each of these forms of multimodal scholarship? As part of a broader set of questions about the relationship between forms of scholarly work and knowledge production, we explore the ongoing relevance of the photo-essay.
The Writing with Light collective focuses on the photo-essay in the belief that multimodal (or visual) forms are not a singular paradigm and that a consideration of a singular research form might help us to rethink a broader array of anthropological questions. How does the photo-essay configure our engagement through its unique form of mediation and composition? We believe that the photo-essay provides a critical opportunity for reevaluating the word–image relationship. Conventionally known for its narrative qualities, the photo-essay is especially useful in reconsidering the relationship between words and images in photographic storytelling, as well as efforts to generate innovative anthropological knowledge with the capacity to go beyond storytelling. For example, we are especially interested in the photo-essay’s potential to generate insights focused on issues of mediation and representation, as well as methodological questions with the potential to shift how anthropologists conceive of the discipline itself.
This initiative is unique in that it draws on Cultural Anthropology’s wider view of emerging trends in anthropology, while foregrounding the particular concerns of Visual Anthropology Review as far as theorizing and critiquing practice-based modes of ethnographic scholarship. By relaunching the existing Cultural Anthropology Photo Essays section as a collaboration with Visual Anthropology Review, the initiative aims to open new spaces for interaction between sections of the AAA and corners of the discipline. By merging the literary and epistemological critiques of an earlier generation with the formal and aesthetic critiques driving visual anthropology today, we draw on the etymology of the word photograph for inspiration: thus, writing with light.
Contribution to Anthropological Knowledge: What is the contribution to anthropological theory and/or ethnographic knowledge? Does the author make reference to and build upon broader discourses in text, photography, and/or film? Does the author show an explicitly anthropological understanding of images, text, representation, and the cultural context under consideration? Does the use of the photo-essay format allow for theoretical discussions that would otherwise be neglected?
Argument and Narrative: Does the photo-essay build a clear, compelling, and original argument? Is their argument appropriately conveyed through the image–text configuration provided?
Production Quality and Theory of the Image: This criterion is intended to challenge notions of the photograph as mere description, i.e., an unmediated look into a given social world. Photographs require technical skills and artistic ability and, as such, the author should show a strong understanding of the photograph as an aesthetico-political form. Are the photographs compelling as independent productions? Do they show a cognizance of framing, lighting, and color? Does the photographer articulate his or her technical approach in a way that might compellingly challenge a viewer’s way of seeing?
Image–Text Relationship: What is the relationship between text and image? Is this relationship generative? Primarily, we are concerned as to whether the author recognizes that images and text convey different kinds of information and that they have sought to maximize the affordances of each media in their photo-essay. Submissions should not rely on either media, but especially text, in order to make their arguments. Instead, the juxtaposition of text and photographs—and therefore the photo-essay itself—should be greater than the sum of its parts.
Ethics and Politics of Representation: Ethics and the politics of representation are guiding principles for any anthropological work. We intend to consider if and how the media-maker understands power relationships and inequities in the production and dissemination of images. An ethically and representationally sophisticated approach needs to show knowledge of how images are likely to be read. Photo-essayists should show that they have considered reflexivity, positionality, rapport, the building of trust, and consent as part of their methodology.
Each category is reviewed on a four-point scale (1-4), with 1 representing a weak score and 4 as very strong or excellent. The collective acknowledges that these categories, unavoidably, have limitations. Therefore, aside from a numerical evaluation, we ask for reviewer comments as an essential part of our qualitative understanding of each submission.
Each submission will go through an internal review, in which the collective will assess its potential contribution to the photo-essay genre. After this review, the collective will decide whether to reject the submission outright, request that an author revise and resubmit before further consideration, or recommend that the submission be sent out for external peer review. If the external reviewer indicates that the submission is strong enough to publish, the collective will work with the author on any necessary revisions.
Craig Campbell (www.metafactory.ca) is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin. He received his PhD in Sociology (Theory and Culture) from the University of Alberta in 2009. Campbell is actively involved in producing works that span the range of expository writing, art exhibition, and curation. These function as companion works to a thematic interest in archives, photography, documents, and the anxious territory of actuality. Campbell’s ethnographic, historical, and regional interests include: Siberia, Indigenous Siberians, Evenki, Evenkiia, reindeer hunting and herding, travel and mobility, socialist colonialism, early forms of Sovietization, and the circumpolar North. He publishes widely in journals including Space and Culture, Geographical Review, Sibirica, and Visual Anthropology Review. His book Agitating Images: Photography against History in Indigenous Siberia was published by University of Minnesota Press in 2014.
Vivian Choi is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at St. Olaf College. She received her PhD in Anthropology at the University of California, Davis. With Michelle Stewart, she was a cofounder of the Cultural Anthropology Photo Essays section. Her current book project, Disaster Nationalism: Tsunami and Civil War in Sri Lanka, examines the social, political, and technological intersections of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the decades-long civil war in Sri Lanka, paying particular attention to disaster and risk management, conflict, and national security. As a part of this project, she examines a range of experiences and representations of disaster, including digital maps, videos, and photographs. Her next project examines sea-surface warming in the Indian Ocean basin. As a slow-moving disaster situated within broader concerns about anthropogenic climate change, sea-surface warming poses questions about the modes and infrastructures of institutional, scientific, and international collaboration required to approach a phenomenon taking place on so grand a scale.
Zeynep Devrim Gürsel is a cultural anthropologist and Assistant Professor in the Department of International Studies at Macalester College. Her first book, Image Brokers: Visualizing World News in the Age of Digital Circulation (University of California Press, 2016), is an ethnography of the international photojournalism industry during its digitalization at the beginning of the twenty-first century. She is also the director of Coffee Futures (2009; www.coffeefuturesfilm.com), the first in a series of short ethnographic films that explore contemporary Turkish politics through the prism of the everyday life of women. Gürsel’s next project investigates the intersections of photography, politics, and sovereignty in the late Ottoman Empire.
Arjun Shankar is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. His work brings together theories of globalization and development, literary and visual ethnography, affect theory, and curiosity studies. His current book project, How Development Feels, retheorizes the concept of development given the emergence of transnational diasporic networks, the increased use of digital technologies, and human rights discourses that, together, influence how social change can and should occur. In representing the experiences of those in his study, his monograph is broken down into sixty “frames,” each of which includes an image that drives the discussion. The writing of this ethnography is thus also an attempt to textualize the digital. Shankar is also working on a documentary film about the history of scientific racism, based on a critical re-excavation of the Morton Skull Collection. One of the largest collections in the United States, it became the basis for racial categorization and racist ideologies. Shankar is a board member of the Society for Visual Anthropology. As a media maker as well as a dedicated pedagogue, he encourages teachers and researchers to think with multimodality, making the audiovisual part of research design as well as classroom instruction.
Mark Westmoreland is Director of the Leiden School of Visual Ethnography at Leiden University, and previously served as coeditor of Visual Anthropology Review. With particular research interests in the interface between sensory embodiment and media aesthetics in ongoing legacies of contentious politics, his work explores the epistemological possibilities and productive frictions at the intersection between art, activism, and ethnography. His current book project, Catastrophic Images, shows how experimental documentary practices play a crucial role in addressing recurrent political violence in Lebanon. As a corecipient of a research grant from the Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences, another new project focuses on the cultivation of radical political aesthetics and the generative potential of video activism in the wake of the Arab uprisings. His work explores the production of alternative visualities in the contemporary Middle East as crucial and generative sites for addressing recurrent political violence and enacting new conceptual frameworks for understanding the region.