Course offering explores how peoples and cultures are represented through art, photography, film and digital media
In today’s globalized world, where media representations shape social and political spheres, a critical understanding of visual culture is of significant importance.
Returning this fall, students at UBC’s Okanagan campus can enroll in Visual Anthropology and New Media (ANTH 252), an undergraduate course offered by Department of Community, Culture and Global Studies.
Designed to introduce students to the field of visual anthropology and the history of film, photography, and art in anthropological research, the course aims to provide students with a well-rounded overview of conceptual and practical methods. Students will critically evaluate how anthropologists, documentary filmmakers, and artists represent peoples and cultures through film and media.
We spoke with assistant professor of anthropology Fiona McDonald, who is leading the redesign of the course, about what visual anthropology is, what might surprise students, and who should enroll in the course.
Q: What is visual anthropology?
FM: Visual anthropology allows us to explore cultures and ways of being in this world through the creation of film, photographs, visual and performative arts, as well as new digital tools that allow us to open it up to explore sensory ethnographies beyond the visual. It is a subfield of cultural anthropology that is rich with methods and theories, and ripe for experimentation and collaboration.
Q: What first sparked your interest in visual anthropology?
FM: Visual anthropology kind of sparked me you could say. During my PhD, I was fortunate to have amazing supervisors who were trained by Alfred Gell. Alfred Gell was a British anthropologist who theorized the role of art in culture and the transformation of social worlds through visual culture. I was hooked from there! My supervisor Susanne Kuechler allowed me to explore the field of visual anthropology to its limits and in that process, I met a lot of filmmakers and documentary photographers. Plus, it has allowed me to curate exhibitions at the intersection of art and anthropology.
Q: Why the interdisciplinary approach in redesigning the course?
FM: There is an interdisciplinary focus to this course, because I am an interdisciplinary researcher. I have degrees in Art History, Indigenous Studies, and Anthropology. And I work mostly on collaborative projects as part of an interdisciplinary team. Plus, what is critical is that students in the course are likely coming from various disciplines here on campus and their diverse expertise is critical. I want us to harness this diversity of disciplinary and cultural knowledges together to explore new methods and share collaborative results.
Q: What might surprise students enrolled in this course?
FM: It is hard to anticipate degrees of surprise people can have, but what I hope surprises students is their journey in learning how much they personally have to offer to visual narratives of our various cultures and our lived realities here in the Okanagan valley through all of our sensory knowledge. Plus, I hope students are pleasantly surprised that while we are learning theory and methods, that we are also having fun creating contributing to shared knowledge.
Q: Who should take the course?
FM: The best answer is: Everyone! This course is designed to welcome innovation and experimentation that is rooted in critical thinking, and is an introduction to the subfield of visual anthropology. Whether a student is in engineering, sciences, related social sciences, humanities or the arts, this course opens up the space to convey knowledge through visual means in the media-rich world we live in today, and it is important to consider the way visuality and new medias are affected by our own position, locally and globally.