Made To Be Seen

I’ve just been browsing through Made to Be Seen, a new-ish collection of essays from the University of Chicago Press edited by Marcus Banks and Jay Ruby.  Although its subtitle is Perspectives on the History of Visual Anthropology, don’t let that put you off: it has some fascinating material that’s relevant to anyone interested in thinking about visual culture.

This is because anthropologists so often understand the specificities of visuality as a kind of social practice.  And read together, several of the essays exemplify rather different versions of that approach.  For some contributors, visuality ‘as a social practice’ is about the very act of seeing being “a social activity, a proactive engagement with with the world, a realm of expertise that depends heavily on trained perception and on a structured environment,” to quote Cristina Grasseni’s chapter abstract.  The collection’s introduction explores the academic discipline of anthropology itself as one sort of ‘structured environment’ that encouraged particular ways of using specific sorts of images (a history traced in Arnd Schneider’s chapter by looking at anthropologists and others experimenting, not always successfully, with new visual technologies and methodologies).  Here, the ‘social’ is understood more in terms of particular institutions and organisations and the things they do and do not do, allow and ignore.  Then there is Elizabeth Edward’s discussion of emergent ‘vernacular’ photographies, which suggests a somewhat different, more overdetermined relation between forms of social organisation and the use of visualising technologies, which is also implicit in Sarah Pink’s discussion of the arrival of digital technologies in Anthropology-world. Faye Ginsburg, meanwhile, concentrates more on the politics of conflicts over specific visualisations… but you get my drift – all the chapters have something interesting to say to readers who might never think of themselves as interested in the history of visual anthropology, but who are interested in visuality as a social practice (and who are interested in how to conceptualise that approach).

Made to be read, I would say.

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