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.

Ethics and the display of human and non-human remains

I have been remiss in posting updates recently, as I’m attempting to wrap up various projects whilst enjoying my last few weeks in Southampton. As a recap, in mid-November I participated in the 110th annual American Anthropological Association conference, where I co-chaired our Visual Ethics Roundtable and officially took up my 3-year position on the Society for Visual Anthropology‘s Executive Board. The roundtable was quite successful, something that I feel confident in saying given that Jonathan Marion and I have hosted these events for the past five years straight and thus have been witness to their many highs and lows. We had nearly 50 attendees, including very well-established and emerging scholars and practitioners. Whilst Cordelia Eddy (New School) was unable to contribute due to last minute detractions, Jeffrey Ehrenreich (University of New Orleans), Adam Solomonian (University of British Columbia) & Mabel Sabogal (University of South Florida) gave provocative talks that then culminated in more than 30 mins of group debate.
Screenshot by me of AAA blog post about 2011 meeting in Montreal
The following day Jonathan & I were involved in a special event session on the role of visual anthropology in the AAA’s new draft ethics principles. We’ve fed back a bit of information to the AAA ethics task force which may or may not now have an impact on how visual media and methods are addressed in the final version of the principles. We’ll see. In brief, our primary input includes:

(1) the need to identify visual media as one suite of tools among anthropologists’ many tools which demand ethical consideration in our everyday professional practice; and

(2) the imperative to approach visual media with the same due diligence for academic integrity that anthropologists apply to text.

This ethics-oriented work has especial relevance for the exhibition at the Wellcome Collection that I’m helping to curate alongside a team from the Wellcome itself and Portsmouth University. I’ve mentioned the exhibition elsewhere, but it launches in just a few months’ time (29 March 2012 to 17 June 2012), and its title – Brains: The Mind as Matter – hints at the nature of the material to be displayed; namely human and non-human animal remains in assorted forms, plus associated paraphernalia. The objects include real brains in jars or other containment units; brains on film, in photographs, in illustrations, and as 3D models; brains mediated by artistic intervention; and related representations of how people and animals have been variously probed, preserved and manipulated in the name of ‘culture’ and brain science.

The ethical dimensions of such an exhibition are large and incontrovertible. To this end, I gave a presentation in late September at a half-day workshop organized by the Petrie Museum on the respectful display of human remains. Curators from a variety of major institutions in London (e.g. the Hunterian/Royal College of Surgeons, Natural History Museum, Museum of London, Grant Museum of Zoology) attended and/or delivered their own presentations, and there was a bit of time for concerted discussion of best practice. Certainly, there is a relatively substantial academic literature on this topic, and in fact I saw a fascinating session at the AAA conference attending to some of the same issues. But one point I’ve taken away from the workshop is that there is a developing movement (or at least a sentiment) among exhibitions professionals to reclaim or reassert curatorial authority when it comes to sensitive or controversial display subjects. In other words, such professionals typically have the intellectual tools available to produce conscientious and critical displays, and this expertise should not be completely undermined or dismissed in ever-increasing attempts to democratize the exhibition-making experience. Indeed, a couple of examples presented at the workshop spoke precisely to the problems of attempting to cater to certain audience interests ahead of others, as well as ahead, in some cases, of the judicious opinion of curators themselves.

I would say that, in my experience, the more meaningful displays of ethically-loaded objects are those that are well-contextualised, that use both visuals and text to jar viewers out of simplistic interpretations of the subject matter, that weave displays together into a larger critical narrative; and that attempt to trace – or account for the lack of tracing of – consent from brain/object donors. These are strategies that we are trying to employ within the Brains exhibit.

Another point about the exhibition which makes it so pertinent to me is its total variance from our work at Çatalhöyük where we operate on a shoe-string budget driven by local interests and ad hoc tools.  These exhibitionary environments make for great comparative case studies.

Anyway, I’m about to start a related brain project with Richard Wingate at King’s College London which aims to assess student and professor experiences in handling real brain material. I’ll post about that in the future. Otherwise, I’m busy prepping for the move to York in January (including writing a few new module proposals), and finishing off digital humanities work at Southampton, along with a major study of first-year Humanities students’ experiences at the university.

I’ll hopefully post again before the end of the year – in the meantime, my friends and colleagues Alice Watterson & Cat Cooper are hosting an interesting session on visualisation at the upcoming CAA 2012.  The call for contributions is still open, so consider applying!

American Anthropological Association 2011: Visual Ethics Roundtable – CFP

Screenshot by me from the Society for Visual Anthropology's website:

On behalf of the Society for Visual Anthropology’s Ethics Committee, Jonathan Marion and I are co-organising and chairing our 5th (!!) annual Visual Ethics Roundtable at this year’s American Anthropological Association meetings on 16-20 November 2011.  The meetings are being held in beautiful Montreal, in my home country of Canada, and although it’s only March, the deadline for submitting contributions is fast approaching: 1st April.

Here’s the CFP, which has been circulating for the past couple of weeks.  Please get in touch if you have any questions or if you have a case study that you’d like to share at the conference.

Traces of the Image: A Roundtable Discussion on Visual Ethics

Sara Perry (University of Southampton) and Jonathan S. Marion (California State University San Marcos), on behalf of the SVA’s Visual Ethics Committee

This roundtable discussion, organised on behalf of the Society for Visual Anthropology’s Ethics Committee, seeks to continue the SVA’s now five-year-old tradition of nurturing debate and critical reflection on the ethics of anthropological imaging. Building on this year’s conference theme of “Traces, Tidemarks and Legacies,” we aim to explore disciplinary trajectories of ethical practice regarding picture creation, circulation and consumption.  Of particular interest here are questions concerning both long-term effects of, and short-term shifts in, value systems and moralities associated with visuality:  How have histories of anthropological practice impacted on our contemporary management of imagery?  How are shifting visual technologies and intellectual paradigms disrupting or rearranging our ethical priorities?  Where is representational authority situated in unstable, multiply-occupied/authored anthropological contexts?  How do we anticipate and negotiate future relations with pictorial materials?  And what legacies are our current approaches to image ethics likely to leave behind?  The intent of this roundtable is to give practitioners an opportunity to discuss the ethical implications of in-progress or recently-completed visual research, and to draw upon the collective input of roundtable attendees to plan for or rethink our visual responsibilities.


For those interested in participating, please provide a brief description of the particular scenario or issue you would be interested in contributing to this year’s discussion as soon as possible, and by April 1st at the latest. All correspondence and any questions should be sent to Sara Perry and Jonathan S. Marion. Please note: As per AAA participation rules, presenting as part of a roundtable counts as a person’s one “major” role, the same as giving a paper or poster.