November 14th 2006   •   Visual Research Conference
105th Annual American Anthropological Association Meeting

Illustrating Identity: Lecture (PDF Format) - 172K Adobe Acrobat File
Illustrating Identity: Handout (PDF Format) - 142K Adobe Acrobat File
Illustrating Identity: Slides (PDF Format) - 16.9M Adobe Acrobat File
Illustrating Identity: Slides (PPT Format) - 14.8M PowerPoint File
Illustrating Identity: Slides (SWF Format) - 8.8M Shockwave Flash File

Body piercing and photography are two instances of the human manipulation of visual media: one is a topic of anthropological study, and the other a tool.  Using photography and ethnographic research of the contemporary western practice of body piercing as an example, this presentation explores the ability of photographs to exhibit the embodiment of personal and communal identity.   The research not only uses visual media as a means of anthropological study, it also focuses on the use of what may be the most 'natural' or at least universally human visual media, the body. The creation and demonstration of identity is an actively visual process.  We relate to each other and to ourselves through our bodies, and thus our bodies become the objects of our expression, the visual media of our identity.

Much of the photography included in ethnographic texts is appended as a means of granting authority to the researcher or as an attempt to help the reader visualize the site and subject of research. Aside from the ethical concerns of this approach, as a methodology it is limiting in that it does not allow the audience to experience the photographs as a separate dimension of the study. Most ethnographies transition from words to images without facilitating the transition of the user from the position of reader to that of viewer.  This limits the extent to which the photographs may serve as a deeper and alternate agency of communication and understanding. The strategic use of photography as an instrument and exhibit of research should be regarded as essential rather than supplemental to the anthropological study of visual media.


University of California Irvine

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