CFP: Digital Media and Visual Ethics at the American Anthropological Association conference 2014

I’m excited to announce that we’re planning to host an in-person and online event on digital media and visual ethics in conjunction with the next American Anthropological Association conference in Washington, DC, 3-7 December 2014. This is a bit of an experimental adventure for the Society for Visual Anthropology – and an extension of our long-running visual ethics panels – so we’re looking forward to developing it and watching it evolve over the next 9 months and into the future.

Details on the event are below. The deadline for proposals is 5 April 2014. Please email your proposals to me, and don’t hesitate to contact me with queries.


Organizers: Sara Perry, Terry Wright & Jonathan Marion

More than ten years ago Gross, Katz and Ruby published Image Ethics in the Digital Age, a pioneering volume whose topical concerns – privacy, authenticity, control, access and exposure, as related to the application of visual media – are arguably just as salient today, if not more so, than in 2003. The ethical dimensions of image use within digital cultures are necessarily fluid and complex, driven by practical needs, institutional frameworks, related regulatory requirements, specific research and intellectual circumstances, not to mention individual and collective moral tenets. The nature of visuality itself has also been extended via digital technologies, therein further complicating our interactions with and applications of visual media. Ethical practice here, then, tends to be necessarily situated, depending upon recursive reflection and constant questioning of one’s research processes, objectives and modes of engagement.

This session aims simultaneously to expose practitioners to, and build a resource base of, visual ethics ‘in action’ in digital contexts. It relies upon two streams:

(1) an online forum hosted on the Society for Visual Anthropology’s webpages where, prior to the AAA meetings, contributors will submit short descriptions of the ethical dimensions of their in-progress or recently-completed visual/digital research. These will provide fodder for more extensive debate in:

(2) an open, live-streamed presentation and discussion session at the AAA meetings in Washington, DC in December where various contributors to the blog will present either on-site or via Google Hangouts, and contribute in real time to reflections/direct commentary on the online forum itself.

The former will provide a stable space within which ethical debates can be added to and developed in the lead up to, during, and after the 2014 meetings. The latter offers a concentrated opportunity to channel the collective wisdom of participants (both at the meetings and online) into the negotiation and rethinking of ethical visual practice in the digital world. 


For those interested in participating, please provide a brief description (max. 150 words) of the particular scenario or issue you wish to contribute to the session as soon as possible, and by 5 April 2014 at the latest. You will also need to indicate whether you plan on presenting in person or via Google Hangout at the AAA meetings in December. Decisions will be made by 10 April, and contributors will need to register for the conference via the AAA’s web-based system by 15 April. All correspondence should be sent to Sara Perry.

The session will take the form of a series of brief, 10-minute presentations by participants, culminating in an extended period of group discussion and debate. Contributors will be expected to submit content for the webpages by the beginning of September 2014.

Blogs as exhibitionary media

My senior-level undergraduate course on Visual Media in Archaeology has been running this term—the second time I’ve taught it since I started at York in 2012. As per last year, my students are working on the production of independent blogs, and whilst I previously left the specifications for those blogs quite broad (the students simply had to tell a story about a subject of their choice), feedback from last year suggested that the brief needed to be more tightly focused.

This year, then, I redesigned the task to centre upon the creation of public blogging campaigns to promote objects, sites, archaeological features or figures of the students’ choice for an audience who would otherwise know little or nothing about them. As you can see, the students have taken a variety of approaches, and I am truly impressed by what they’ve accomplished so far, for reasons that I articulate further below. Some are using their blogs as modes of inquiry into larger archaeological and anthropological ways of thinking (My Student House, One Nation Under CCTV), archives (The Pursuit of Mitfords, The Wonderful World of Dahl), and intellectual and methodological practices (The Archaeology of Painting, Virt Arch). Some are exploring the characters of historic figures (Turpin Time, Diary of a Wimpy King)—and/or are constructing their own such characters in order to comment on and narrativise about material remains (The Cloud Man of Peru) or heritage sites (Legend of the Connacta). And still others are interrogating the histories of different buildings (The King and his Manor), towns (Toton Histories), museums (The History Shop), human material remains (What’s this Mummy Doing in Bolton?) and historic documents (The Bill of Rights 1689).

For some, this marks their first independent experience in doing class work that goes beyond traditional essay-writing. The project, therefore, has not always been easy, because live, creative production for the public, that draws upon more media than simply the written word, is exposing. Indeed, it is experimentation in the sense that Tim Ingold (2011:15-16) uses it: “to do our thinking in the open, out-of doors…[to] place the investigator, in person, right in the midst of things.” As such, any mistakes are made obvious, and everything is laid bare to scrutiny and criticism on a scale that none of the students have experienced before.

But this project is important, I would argue, because to borrow from Darren Newbury (2011), it teaches us to care. Especially as regards visual media, we are often only taught to deconstruct and critique other people’s outputs—a caustic form of practice that might hone our argumentative eyes, but that simultaneously leaves us blind to the complexities of making. Ingold (2011:224) puts it nicely when he says that the “spectator who stands at a distance, in order to make an objective study, is observationally blind.” In other words, to truly understand a type of practice—to truly see—we have to DO; we have to both look and act; we have to observe and participate because, as per Ingold, one is conditional on the other. It’s dubious, then, to teach criticism in the absence of teaching creation—we couldn’t possibly carefully and conscientiously conduct (and comprehend the implications of) the former without an intimate familiarity with the latter.

I am very proud of my students, and I’m lucky to have such an engaged and engaging group to work alongside. I’m not sure that every teacher would say that they thoroughly look forward to their upcoming classes—but I do, because it’s never quiet; it’s never untimely or peripheral to current events; it never lacks in debate or informed dialogue. I hope you’ll consider joining in on our journey by providing your constructive thoughts on the students’ efforts and encouraging them with their projects by commenting directly on their blogs and associated Twitter and social media sites. These have been risky endeavours for the students, but it’s also opened up spaces for them to push their expertise further—to create, to do, to care. I’ve been at the American Anthropological Association conference in Chicago this week where Maria Vesperi (professor and editor at Anthropology Now) said it nicely: to produce for public audiences is how you learn–you write to let go. It’s in this release, then, that real knowledge-making happens.

You can access our aggregate site here:

Ingold, T. (2011) Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description. London: Routledge.

Newbury, D. (2011) Making arguments with images: Visual scholarship and academic publishing. In Margolis, E., & Pauwels, L. (Eds.) SAGE Handbook of Visual Research Methods, 651-664. London: Sage.

Experimenting with archaeological presentation in class work

Visual Media in Archaeology @ York – webpage screenshot

I’ve designed and am currently teaching a new third-year undergraduate module at York called Visual Media in Archaeology.  I wanted the class to allow students an opportunity to interrogate the intellectual and practical consequences of archaeological visualisation, but also to give them a chance to experiment with their own forms of production for various audiences.  In light of logistics, I decided to assign them the task of each creating their own blog on which they were to craft a narrative about an object or site of their choice.  I’ve been inspired by efforts like My Life as an Object and A Rock’s Story and York’s own Richard III Museum’s fictional Richard III Twitter feed: I wanted the students to think about how archaeologists tell stories, about what kinds of stories we can or could tell, about what stories we don’t or might not want to tell; and I wanted them to have the freedom to construct the narrative however they wished—fictional or non-fictional; image-driven or not; loose in structure or tightly woven; etc.

Several of my students have permitted me to blog about their blogs, and circulate links to the latter here (see below).  Whilst York is unique in having students put together an exhibition at the close of their first-year undergrad fieldwork season, for most of my third-years, these blogs represent their initiation into independently-authored, highly-public forms of presentation.  The group exhibition at the close of Year 1 is fundamentally different to these blogs for both obvious and not-so-obvious reasons: the former is a group effort (meaning a collective of individuals is accountable for the output, as opposed to just one person), it’s based at a specific site (in King’s Manor) on a specific day (usually a Wednesday at the end of the summer term) for a specific audience (students, staff, other interested locals), and its brief is very specific (using a particular medium of presentation, with a defined amount of text and image space, on a fixed subject).  Conversely, the independent blog is unwieldy, accessible to a large and completely undefined audience, and it subjects its creators to a level and degree of exposure whose consequences are hard to predict.

We have talked a lot about the implications of making work visible and critique-able by others via the web, and the potential fallouts of laying bare your ideas and self in an open forum.  These debates aren’t new, but they’ve been on my mind lately not only because of some questionable experiences I’ve had to deal with in the last couple of months (I’ll blog about those another time), but because of a talk that I was completely captivated by last week at the American Anthropological Association conference.  I immediately returned to York and told my students about it, as it entailed the anthropologist and blogger Barbara King making a case for the ‘unafraid blogger’—someone who uses blogging as a form of journalism; who was prepared to accept that unfinished posts are not inherently disreputable or worthy of attack; who would try to resist the urge to take immediate offense to critique; and who would push the boundaries on traditional measures of success.  Barbara gave several fascinating examples of her own varied experiences in blogging for (she talked, in particular, about this post and this post), and suggested that the commentary engendered by blogging stood at the “wild edge” of engagement.  Given that ‘wild edge’, one might instinctively want to run away from the process of blogging, but as I understood Barbara, the blog’s wildness is the very thing that we might capitalize on—embrace and experiment with.  In accepting its unpredictability, we are forced to rethink our work and ideas and our engrained ways of doing things, and out of that acceptance might come something extraordinary.

Below are links to 6 of my students’ blogs.  One of the students has already won a competition via her blog, and the students still have a couple of weeks left to develop and hone their content before they give their final presentations in December.  I post these links in the hopes that you’ll browse through the students’ work and, if you’re so inclined, comment – constructively – on what they’re experimenting with here.   This is their first time being exposed to the ‘wild edge’, and I appreciate you taking the time to participate productively in the ever-evolving process that is blogging.

Confessions of a Christmas Bauble

Student Life at the JBM Library York

A Complex Curiosity

The Incomplete Life of Dinosaurs

A Penny for your Thoughts (Children’s Blog)

The Diary of a Crystal Skull: What I Saw Today…