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.

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…

Anthropology, Archaeology, the British Curriculum and Sunny San Francisco

AAA 2012 – Our Visual Ethics Roundtable

I’ve arrived in San Francisco for what is my favourite scholarly event of each year, the American Anthropological Association annual conference.  This conference is certainly the most major of any that I typically attend, as it hosts upwards of 6,000 people – 6,000 anthropologists no less! – all populating the corridors and meeting rooms of the local Hilton or other such hotel (usually two hotels given the number of attendees).  It is also the place where I’ve listened to some of the best papers I’ve ever heard delivered at a scholarly gathering.  Last year, I sat in on a talk by Kathryn Denning who interrogated Gunther von Hagens’s new Animals Inside Out exhibition (which I saw in London a few months ago at the Natural History Museum), and his entrepreneurial foray into selling human and non-human animal body parts on the internet.  The year before I heard Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh give a completely spell-binding and, at once, disturbing account of the questionable development and curation of the 9-11 Memorial Museum.  Before that I attended a keynote speech by Alison Wylie on the epistemic productivity of collaboration — her talk fundamentally impacted the trajectory of my PhD, and provided critical testimony to why archaeologists (and other specialists) should be prioritising collaborative research.

These papers are ones that I have incorporated directly into my teaching, and which have stimulated some of the greatest debates that I’ve had with students and colleagues.  They are a witness to the power of anthropology as a discipline, I think, because they suggest the potential of anthropological theory and method to question common behaviours, expose slippery practices, rethink our intellectual agendas, and reshape the world around us—both in the past and in the present.  With that in mind, one of the great shames of the British educational system would appear, from my perspective, to be the divorcing of anthropology from archaeology in most university curricula.  I’m fortunate enough to work on a programme at York whose focus – cultural heritage – demands a broad-based interdisciplinary scholarship attending to the very research that animates anthropology: human culture.  However, not everyone is so lucky.

It seems a disservice to British students and budding archaeological practitioners that their exposure to anthropology is typically collapsed into a couple of theoretical lectures and a few assorted citations on course reading lists.  Having said this, I’m simultaneously struck by the creative practice that underlies a lot of the work being produced by British academic archaeologists.  There is a culture of experimentation, critique and openness to redesign that seems quite distinctive to the UK system.  Whilst there is also a sense of hostility towards such culture (cue previous posts about the ‘real archaeologist’), British archaeology has an element of the anthropological spirit that is otherwise often missing from the syllabus.  Various factors obviously work to facilitate this culture—institutionalised events like the Theoretical Archaeology Group meetings; the terrain of Britain itself and its concentration of departments of archaeology (which allow many people to meet up and toss ideas about more quickly and easily than in larger countries)—factors which hark back to Wylie’s point about the epistemic promise of dialogue/exchange.  Arguably the siloed nature of academic archaeology has also frustrated people to the extent that they’ve purposefully pushed on the boundaries of the discipline.  There seems to be a lot of potential and infrastructure here, then, to elaborate the nature of our practice by more explicitly and purposively drawing anthropology into our university programmes.

At the AAAs this week, I’ll be taking over the reigns of the position of Treasurer for the Society of Visual Anthropology (hence I have to attend a lot of business meetings), and I’ll also be chairing our 6th Visual Ethics roundtable.  I’ve posted the details of the roundtable below, and it’s worth noting that archaeologists (British and North American!) are typically highly underrepresented at these events.  There’s no reason why this should be the case, and I’d like to change the demographic in the future, especially to help to break down cultural anthropologists’ own misguided assumptions that archaeologists don’t confront ethical issues that demand interrogation.

Given that this is also our 6th year, it would be worthwhile to start experimenting with the format of the roundtable in the future, and so I’m keen for suggestions on opening up and changing its nature.  I say this now because the minute that we finish the session on Friday afternoon, Jonathan and I will begin to plan next year’s event.  We’re already looking for contributors – the CFP will be circulated in the new year and the conference is, very excitingly, set in Chicago! – so please get in touch if you might be willing to participate.


Friday, November 16, 2012: 4:00PM-5.45PM

Hilton San Francisco – Continental 5

This roundtable discussion, organized on behalf of the Society for Visual Anthropology’s (SVA) Ethics Committee, seeks to continue the SVA’s now six-year-old tradition of nurturing debate and critical reflection on the ethics of anthropological imaging. Building on this year’s conference theme of “Borders and Crossings,” we probe anthropologists’ ethical negotiations with image creation, circulation, and consumption within and across disciplinary boundaries. Of particular interest is the iterative and unstable nature of image use—the navigation of visual value systems and moralities across time, space, cultural and institutional context, particularly when circumscribed by programmatic ethical review models. How have histories of anthropological, scientific, and related social-scientific practice impacted on our contemporary management of imagery? Where is representational authority situated in unstable, multiply-occupied/authored anthropological contexts? How are shifting visual technologies and intellectual paradigms disrupting or rearranging our ethical priorities? How do we anticipate and negotiate future relations with pictorial materials? What legacies are our current approaches to image ethics likely to leave behind?

Launching the roundtable, Esperanza attends to the implications of mass-produced ethnic artworks, using a case study of a Balinese community that has profited from the production and sale of African masks, Native American totem poles and Australian dijeridu, to name a few. She highlights changing ethical debates surrounding mass-produced ethnic art and the dilemmas involved in conducting fieldwork on this business, which often calls upon the ethnographer to translate, acquire sources and provide feedback for artisans/handicrafts producers who seek to learn “new” designs and aesthetics.

Johnson next problematizes her use of photographs and video in traditional knowledge research, primarily with Canadian First Nations. Her concerns are two-fold: (1) the difficulty of imagining and securing consent for photography and its potential future uses; & (2) power relationships: Who holds and can deploy the imagery? How can sharing this power be maintained over long periods? Where or how should images be archived? What about implicit contracts with the original subjects of the image, who may be deceased? Zane then contemplates the place of fiction filmmaking in anthropology via reference to his fieldwork on the Eastern Caribbean island of St. Vincent. Here, outsiders taking photographs of locals is placed in the same category as slavery; i.e., taking value without giving equivalent value in return.

Turning away from visual documentation of human subjects, Zane discusses his experiences in adopting fiction filmmaking to negotiate power imbalances between indigenous people and Western

Finally, referring to videographic work in Ruginoasa, Eastern Romania, Rus reflects on ethical conflicts related to the documentation of intangible heritage in rural community life, particularly the filming of violent ritual. Rus questions the role of the anthropologist who records events which result in severe injuries, hospitalization and even traumatic cranial fractures, probing his obligations both to the community itself and to the police.

Taken together, 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.


Sara E Perry (University of York) and Jonathan S Marion (University of Arkansas)


Sara E Perry (University of York)


Jonathan S Marion (University of Arkansas) and Sara E Perry (University of York)

Roundtable Presenters:

Jennifer S Esperanza (Beloit College), Leslie Main Johnson (Athabasca University), Wallace W Zane (California State University and Santa

Monica College) and Alin Rus (University of Massachusetts, Amherst)

Hopefully see you at the AAAs this week!