Image as Method: Conversations on Anthropology through the Image

This article is part of the following series:

What follows is a series of conversations conducted after the recent Image as Method symposium, which took place on May 4th and 5th, 2015, at Columbia Universitys Heyman Center for the Humanities, organized by Brian Goldstone. The symposium featured numerous presenters and commentators: Diana Allan, Vincent Crapanzano, Robert Desjarlais, Angela Garcia, Gökçe Günel, Michael D. Jackson, Julie Livingston, Stuart McLean, Natasha Myers, Anand Pandian, Elizabeth Povinelli, Hugh Raffles, Stephanie Spray, and Lisa Stevenson. Rather than summarizing the event or attempting to reproduce every presentation and commentary, below I follow a few conceptual paths made at the symposium through conversations with Brian Goldstone, Stuart McLean, Anand Pandian, and Robert Desjarlais, who, each in his own way, describes an alternate way of thinking through the use of the image in all of its forms (visual, literary, photographic, phantasmagoric, etc.), as an invitation, a marking out of some elsewhere within anthropology itself.

The interest in images for anthropology has grown rapidly in recent years. This shift towards the imagistic has nonetheless come in many different forms. From the recent surge of ethnographic films invested in sensory experience and the haptic forms of visuality, to photo-ethnographic works and a literary anthropology whose aim is, in part, to think and write imagistically, anthropology finds itself at a threshold where images are no longer complementary, illustrative, or indexical to larger frames of thought, but instead themselves have value for thinking and doing anthropology.

While the critical interest in images has seen a renewal, anthropology has a long tradition of thinking imagistically. As Anand Pandian points out, for Malinowski, anthropology was experienced cinematically as his fieldwork encounters unfolded in moving picture speed. Similarly, Richard Baxstrom and Todd Meyers in their forthcoming book, Realizing the Witch, write, Indeed, among Malinowskis many achievements, his active, quasi-cinematic writing style still stands out as one of the most striking and valued elements of his work nearly one-hundred years later (147). More than anthropologys own history of thinking with and through images, there is a philosophical current that carries these sorts of pursuits forward in unexpected directions. As Brian Goldstone notes, Theres the philosophical genealogy running from the proto-cinema of Platos cave and the emergence of the Cartesian dreamscape, to the early Wittgensteins so-called picture theory of language and the Deleuzian image of thought. And as much as images forge their own philosophical grammar, they are heavily implicated in the contingencies and uncertainties of the everyday. Images, like the everyday, reveal themselves as fraught and clouded, never fully decoded, or in Roland Barthess words, they are messages without a code (1977: 17), continuous messages that demand invention as much as grasp.


Andrés Romero (AR): Brian, first and foremost, thank you for putting together such an exciting event that presented an impressive lineup of scholars, all doing cutting-edge work on questions that relate to thinking through images and with images, and as you noted, images “as what we do; image as method” — hence the title of the symposium. I wanted to ask you about how the symposium came to be. In other words, from what types of conversations was the symposium a product of and a continuation of?

Brian Goldstone (BG): I guess the idea for the symposium came about through the realization that my own increasing preoccupation with the life of images in anthropology — their capacity, in some cases, to do and say and show certain things that a more recognizable mode of inquiry might not permit — was resonant with the aims and sensibilities of a range of recent works; and this in a manner, moreover, that seemed to go beyond the various circumscriptions, be they thematic or area-focused, that so often manage to prevent such otherwise disparate works from being brought (thought) together.  More concretely, I had been having an ongoing — and, for me, incredibly fruitful — conversation with Robert Desjarlais about his poignant and unsettling photographic memoir, which he had just finished, and — in tandem with encountering such books as Lisa Stevenson’s recently published Life Beside Itself (which is where the title of the symposium was taken from), along with all the fantastic stuff that was emerging from places like Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab — it made me think that an event of this sort might be worthwhile.  Finally, the symposium was an excuse to bring together, in one place, some (though certainly not all!) of the people whose work has meant the most to me.

Andrés Romero, Girardot, Colombia, 2015.  All rights reserved © Andrés Romero.
Andrés Romero, Girardot, Colombia, 2015. All rights reserved. © Andrés Romero.

AR: Part of what I felt the symposium managed to do (which you also noted in your lecture) was to expand an understanding of what the image is, or could be, in the sense that images take on different forms — beyond the visual image. In fact, ‘the image’ could take form through many of the interconnected registers (that are associated with sensory experience): the sonic image, the thought-image and dream-image, the memory-image, and, as Vincent Crapanzano reminded us, the literary image, just to name a few. One of the questions you posed as part of the description of what this symposium set out to do was, “What would an imagistic — as opposed to a more conventionally discursive or didactic — anthropological mode of knowing necessitate?” I wanted to ask you if you could expand or even attempt to answer this very question.

BG: Well, in terms of how I would answer the question of what an imagistic anthropological mode of knowing might look like or necessitate, I guess I’d have to say that the presentations and commentaries at the event were — as I very much hoped they’d be — themselves responses to such a question.  In fact, I was blown away by the power and rigor of the particular “anthropology” that was on display at the symposium, with each of the participants confirming, in their own very distinct ways, two related intuitions that provided the impetus, or aspiration, for the event. 

The first is that, if a symposium such as this is going to be compelling, at least for me, it will be so to the extent that it says something about images — or, more aptly perhaps, does something with images — that is more than, or perhaps simply different from, what media theorists or art historians or philosophers are going to say about them.  To be sure, this event wouldn’t have been conceivable without a serious engagement with such works, both canonical and more recent ones, beyond anthropology proper, and indeed much of this broader intellectual reservoir was drawn upon throughout the course of the event. 

But the most interesting moments came, I think, when a thought or a passage from, say, Benjamin in the case of Lisa’s presentation, or Deleuze in the case of Beth’s, Anand’s, and Stuart’s work, or Blanchot in Bob’s, became otherwise, something else, in their proximity to the materials (ethnographic, cinematic, photographic) in question — even or especially if this “other” potential wasn’t always articulated or explained as such.  And this brings me to a second intuition, which, to borrow a phrase from Lisa’s book, is the proclivity of certain images to “express without formulating;” their tendency, that is, to “drag the world along with them,” as she also puts it.  For me, this way of naming the force of images (and it’s important to emphasize that by “images” we were by no means confining ourselves to the visual, but rather trying to think images in much more capacious way to include, for instance, dreams, sounds, particular linguistic forms, modes of writing, etc.) helpfully articulates the elusive, often ephemeral and difficult — but also, because of this, intellectually compelling — character of a more “imagistic” anthropology, of “image as method.”

AR: Stuart, a running theme in a lot of your works is the question of the in-between, given much emphasis in anthropology on “liminality.” And yet, as you note in Transcultural Montage (2013), the in-between has often been treated as a void between phenomena that becomes definable only by the conceptual categories from without. Pointing to the ways in which material processes and their potential to generate “unpredictable affects” often become evaporated at the expense of pre-existing conceptual categories, you note: “…it is society as an assumed structure of relationships and classifications that is prioritized as providing an explanatory framework for understanding the liminal, as we are led away from the elusiveness of the liminal itself and back to the (allegedly) more stable and knowable terrain of social relationships and cultural significations” (2013: 61). Could you comment on your various engagements with the liminal and how your work seeks to expand such frames? Additionally, your understanding of montaging extends beyond the sonic, visceral, textual and cinematic understandings into a space and time where montaging is actually a mode of engagement and sensibility into the world — a sensorial attunement that seeks to be aligned to the very immanence and “generative instability” (2013: 59) of phenomena outside of pre-existing domains of signification. Could you expand on the relationship between montage as mode or method to think with, and perhaps even experience the so-called liminal?

Stuart McLean (SM): The between has certainly been an abiding preoccupation of my work and will I’m sure continue to be so, not least because it seems to me to have profound implications for the way in which one approaches a whole range of questions and subject matters. Brian Massumi puts it very succinctly when he talks about the challenge of trying to conceive of a “being of the middle” rather than just a “middling being.” The tendency usually (in anthropology and elsewhere) is to talk about the between in terms of a lack, a void, an absence. Obviously there are different ways of formulating this and it’s possible even in these terms to talk about the between as generative — as I think Vincent Crapanzano does in his Imaginative Horizons book. I’m also interested though in trying to understand the between not as an absence but as an overflowing, superabundant plenitude — and as such, of course, no less resistant to definition and classification. I think that’s why I was attracted to the image of Thingvellir in Iceland and the rift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, where magma keeps welling up from the depths and pushing the two continents further apart. It made it possible to visualize betweenness in very material terms (and as materially productive and consequential) rather than simply with reference to symbolic classifications and their temporary suspension.

I should also say that I have found Victor Turner’s various discussions of liminality extraordinary suggestive. The difficulty is that, for me, he often seems to lack the courage of his own most interesting insights when he gets around to discussing concrete examples (like the lion-human figure in Forest of Symbols) and the explanations offered end up falling back on an assumed framework of social relationships, classifications, society as a “structure of positions,” etc. I’m interested though in the challenges that liminality might pose to that kind of thinking (and I think Turner is also interested in these challenges most of the time). If anything needs to be explained, as far as I’m concerned, it’s the possibility of appealing to notions of historical context, social relationality, and so forth as a means of understanding the world. What decisions about what to include or exclude are implied in making such an appeal and might different decisions reveal a different world?

Filippos Tsitsopoulos. Art Hobler Gallery. Zurich. 2014. Performance and Video Installation.
Filippos Tsitsopoulos. Art Hobler Gallery. Zurich. 2014. Performance and Video Installation.

I would certainly see my interest in montage as linked to my attempts to understand and write about the between as much more than a matter of classificatory ambiguity. I see montage as a practice of the between in this expanded sense — not just a method of cinematic or literary composition but a way of engaging the world that might be equally applicable to, say, thinking about genetic mutations or geological processes. I think you’re right then to say that a lot of my work seeks a performative as much as a conceptual engagement with montage. This comes partly out of a conviction that the between should be approached as a site of experimentation rather than something to be theorized and explained. It’s also informed by my sense that perhaps anthropology’s most radical potential to intervene in the world is not so much a matter of documenting existing actualities as of performing into being new realities, enacting new ways of being human (or other than human) that result from various kinds of encounters across difference.

My interest in montage also grows out of my long-standing fascination with what I take to be an unjustly neglected mode of anthropological writing — namely, the comparative essay. It’s become so much an article of faith in recent years — certainly in American anthropology, less so perhaps in Europe — to assert that anthropology equals ethnography, as though the discipline’s claims to distinctiveness and value consisted entirely in the deployment of a particular method and, by extension, the production of particular kinds of texts informed by that method. Ethnography, however, doesn’t account for all that people calling themselves anthropologists do or write. Some of the most influential works written by anthropologists have not been ethnographies at all but works of comparative scholarship drawing on material from a variety of sources — think of Mauss’s Essay on the Gift or Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger. More recently, there are works by Tim Ingold and Philippe Descola that I would include in this category, too. I’m interested in revisiting this form of writing both as a potential means of engaging different and perhaps wider audiences and because it seems to offer a range of intellectual and writerly possibilities that are easily foreclosed if the ethnographic monograph in its various contemporary guises (multi-sited, collaborative, etc.) is taken to define the horizon of anthropological thinking and writing.

I should add that I’m not in the least interested in appealing to the kinds of grand, preconceived explanatory frameworks that are invoked in the works of many nineteenth-century comparativists like Tylor (and that Boas rightly criticizes in his essay on “The Limitations of the Comparative Method in Anthropology,” setting the scene for twentieth-century anthropology’s subsequent turn toward ethnography). What interests me are the juxtapositions and leaps across time and space that one finds in some comparative anthropological scholarship. In a single paragraph of Primitive Culture, for example, we can travel from China, to South America, to the Western Isles of Scotland, to the Malay peninsula, to Bulgaria and so forth. At such moments, it seems to me that Tylor’s writing overspills the stadial theory of social evolution that he appeals to as an explanatory framework for ordering these diverse particulars and we glimpse instead a different set of possibilities, one that bears strong affinities to the principles of montage — that is, the juxtaposition of heterogeneous elements, the play with gaps and intervals as simultaneously linking and separating the elements that are juxtaposed. What appeals to me about this is the possibility of generating new connections and associations rather than simply documenting ones that are assumed to already exist, suggesting not only a multiplicity of possible human worlds, but also the prospect of unpredictable and mutually transformative encounters between spatially and temporally disparate people, places and things.

This leads me to a more serious objection to the contemporary tendency to identify anthropology with the practice and writing of ethnography. To claim that the task of anthropology is that of documenting the existing world — even when this is done with meticulous attention to nuance and detail (what Michael Fischer calls the “jeweler’s eye” of the ethnographer) — risks, I think, enshrining a normative empiricism that absolutizes existing actualities as the unchallengeable horizon of what might ‘count’ as reality. It involves, in other words, a too-ready acceptance not only of hegemonic criteria of ‘interest’ and ‘relevance’ but also of a kind of ontological status quo. It seems to me that to restrict ourselves too narrowly to the task of describing the actual is to settle not only for an unnecessarily impoverished account of reality but for one founded upon the pre-emptive foreclosure of other possibilities. I think that one of the great contributions of the scholars associated with what has sometimes been called the “ontological turn” has been precisely to re-open the question of what ‘counts’ as reality and for whom — although it’s somewhat disappointing that thus far at least most of them don’t seem particularly interested in pursuing the writerly implications of their theoretical arguments.

For me, the montage-inspired comparative method that I’ve explored in some of my own work is another way of keeping open the question of the real — a way of evoking a sense of reality as open-ended and unfinished, as comprising not only the actual (which might accord with commonsense notions of what reality is) but also what Bergson and Deleuze call the virtual — an additional, no less real dimension of unquantifiable potentiality, a power to self-differ that is immanent to the material substance, the “stuff” of the world, but irreducible to any of its actualizations. To affirm this — and it is I think finally a matter of poetic affirmation as much as anything else — is to hold open the possibility of what both the anthropologist Beth Povinelli and the poet Myung Mi Kim have called the “otherwise.” This seems to me to demand an engagement with writing as a material practice involving the enactment of new realities rather than simply the descriptive reporting of existing ones (a view that always seems to risk flattening the real to a particular set of currently dominant definitions). If ethnography continues to be cited as indicative of anthropology’s engagement with the actual, existing world, then I would suggest that comparativism, in theory if by no means always in practice, offers one way of combining such a commitment with an acknowledgement and experimental conjuration of an unbounded multiplicity of worlds-in-becoming.

AR: At the Image as Method symposium, you delivered a very moving, colorful and engaging presentation that was certainly a montage on its own, consisting of disparate phenomena that allowed for various affects to surface — which, I would add, were produced for the audience to think with the vibrancy of sensation and perhaps the exhaustion that comes with some encounters (I’m reminded of Anand Pandian’s presentation where, following Gilles Deleuze, he called for a move towards thinking with sensation). Your paper traversed many registers that engaged with the work of surrealist Swedish poet Aase Berge and the work of the artist Filippos Tsitsopoulos, among others. Your paper also consisted of a montage between Oxford English Dictionary definitions, Shakespearean prose, daydreams, thought-images, and viscerally-charged images — images galore. In the commentary section, you talked about your approach between images and text as having the potential to produce an explosion. Could you talk about your presentation more generally and what you set out to do, and perhaps expand on this idea of the explosion caused by images?

SM: I suppose my presentation at the Image as Method symposium, which was based on a section of my current book project, was an attempt to engage some of these questions via a juxtapositional working with (or thinking with in Anand’s sense) both visual and poetic images. Part of what I was trying to do was to explore the generative possibilities of putting different kinds of things together while acknowledging at the same time a certain density and opacity on the part of the materials with which I was working — that is, a certain capacity to exceed or refuse or thwart my efforts to make use of them in a particular way. Take the OED definitions, for example. The point for me was not just to contrast the dictionary definitions with the more expansive associations evoked by the other texts and images discussed but also to foreground the dictionary definitions themselves as material presences in the presentation, to let their thingness usurp any purely explanatory and classifying role.

There seems to me to be something similar going on in Aase Berg’s extraordinary poetry. On the one hand she’s continuously drawing attention to [the] materiality of language as a medium, but on the other her words are incredibly, densely charged with meaning — to the extent that it produces a kind of signifying overload that can’t be reduced to any kind of readily summarisable informational content. Like Filippos’s work, as I understand it, part of what the presentation was attempting to evoke was a sense of processuality, of transformative potentiality, of a latent capacity to differ lying before or behind a world of apparently fixed and stable forms. I suppose the explosion referred to would be something like the unleashing of such a capacity — which could be emancipatory, or scary, or comical or all three (and more).

AR: As you were working through your presentation, I was reminded of your article “Stories and Cosmogonies” (2009). In this article, among other things, you’re invested in questions of creativity and metamorphosis in relation to the craft of storytelling. You make note of the ways in which [creation] storytellers are not simply those who recount the past, but in fact, they are those who insert themselves in the process of extending such accounts into the present, and perhaps, re-birthing such accounts into being by invocation. You write: “Both native and anthropological stories — indeed all stories — could be understood less as representing a world external to themselves than as participating in and extending the self-making of a world of which stories are both a product and an integral part” (2009: 223). In other words, it appears that your work views storytelling and anthropological writing not as just representations of the worlds they encounter, but as having the potential to actually express those very worlds. I wanted to ask you to expand on this notion of expression in relation to anthropology and writing. Additionally, could you talk about this process of expression as it unfolds in “generative instability” (to borrow your phrase), and what can such experimental pursuits open us to, in terms of knowing and experiencing the worlds we study?

SM: As to storytelling, I’ve certainly tried to think about the relationship of stories to the world in other than representational terms — perhaps more in terms of consubstantiality. Luctetius, for example, likens the letters composing his own verses to the atoms composing the physical universe: text and world are fashioned ultimately from the same material substance. In the book manuscript I’m currently completing (provisionally titled “Fictionalizing Anthropology”) I try to envision anthropology’s role in terms of what Deleuze calls “fabulation” — not so much the re-presentation of a world assumed to be already given ‘out there’ as the creation of fictions (in Geertz’s etymological sense of a fictio, or ‘made thing’ perhaps) that intervene in and modify the world by acknowledging that they are already embedded in and carrying forward the processes of the world’s own self-making. I consider anthropology to be a discipline that deals not only in encounters between differently constituted human worlds but also with the interfaces between those worlds and the other than human materialities by which they are at once constituted and carried beyond themselves. For this reason I see anthropology (along with art and literature, and for similar reasons) as inescapably at the forefront of contemporary struggles to imagine and bring about a different, more just, more sustainable world — a project of ontological poesis rather than comparative ontology, if you will. That’s also one of the reasons why I take issue with “anthropology = ethnography,” a view that risks reducing anthropology’s contribution to that of a kind of more rigorous, better researched investigative journalism. Anthropology is much, much more important than that!

AR: Anand, in your paper, “The Color of Sensation in Indian Cinema,” and in your forthcoming book, Reel World: An Anthropology of Creation — an ethnography that asks us “what happens to life when everything begins to look and feel like cinema” — one of the things that you are very attuned to is the ways that Tamil filmmakers (and the filmmaking practices they attend to) moved through an uncertainty that often was described by your interlocutors as ‘anything can happen at any time’. The radical contingency of cinema, as you noted during your paper (I’m paraphrasing), is an invitation to think with the visceral force of image and sound in its uncertainty, in its open-endedness in that sense of not knowing where it would go, even as it was already taking you somewhere. In other words, and as I interpreted your paper, to think with images, to allow sensations to surge and to think with sensation, one gets the impression of a fundamental shift in the register for taking us elsewhere — experientially and theoretically. Could you comment on these ideas of thinking with sensation and uncertainty, and what kind of promise this shift might have for anthropology?

Anand Pandian (AP): What I have in mind here is the relationship between thinking and feeling, thought and sensation. We often fall back upon the idea that good thinking, clear thinking, is something that happens best at a remove from the world and the sensory tumult of its impressions. But one of the things that is most interesting about anthropology, as a field science, is its commitment to think with the flux of experience, to grapple with the press of things as they come. This commitment, it seems to me, serves also as a kind of invitation to allow those sensations into the substance of our thought, an invitation that can be met with concrete and hospitable response in the very body of what we write, by breaking down the line between fieldwork and writing, between what happens and our accounts of what has happened. Cinema has helped me think, in other words, about anthropology’s stake in the world at hand, and the various means that anthropology has at its disposal to convey this stake and its significance.

AR: One of the running themes that kept resurfacing in the various discussions that took place at the symposium was that of images haunting us — caught in the affective hold of such images. As part of your commentary, you talked about this hold, or hauntedness, that images possess as the “excess” of images, and noted that the question often becomes “what is it that we ought to do with such excess?” Reel World, I feel, appears to grapple with such questions, as it embraces such excess and sensory experience in a way that its writing attempts to give form to, and to display some of the force generated by, the sensorial encounter, not just as a representation of the encounter but as a way that is expressive of the encounter itself. Could you comment on the task for anthropology, bringing what you call the “generative excess” (2012) to the fore?

AP: As I tried to suggest above, the challenge we face here is one of confronting more squarely what is actually at stake in anthropology’s mission to, as Tim Ingold has put it, do its philosophy “out of doors.” Do we go out into the gusting tumult of what is happening outside to seek out things and deeds that we will intend to bring back into the safety and quiet of more familiar domiciles? Or, does the endeavor seek instead to trouble the very distinction between inside and outside that academic knowledge depends upon too often? I take seriously the idea that the work we do in anthropology is something like the work of a channel or a medium. If we are indeed carrying over ideas, impressions and indeed images from one domain into another, seeking to think and work with them in all their forcefulness, then it seems to me that we have to find ways of conveying this force through our own media of expression. Experiments with writing in a more sensory and viscerally unsettling register is one way that we can try to do this.

AR: Bob, many people at the symposium spoke about the image taking possession over the individual, or about the excess of the image. Could you comment on this excess that images carry?

Robert Desjarlais (RD): Quite often images in anthropology have been thought of as documentary, in that the images, like photographs, serve to depict some kind of ethnographic situation. Now, I think more and more people are becoming aware of the ghostly quality of images. And still, we don’t even have the language to talk about these kinds of things. I found this the case recently when I was in Athens, Greece, and became interested in the graffiti and street art covering many of the surfaces of the city. With many of the images found there, I’ve been thinking about a lot of them as ghosts. Because — and I don’t know if it’s the same in Detroit — but you have a lot of images of faces embedded in the walls; they could either be stencils, photographs, or drawings — they’re almost hovering in this kind of underworld. They are almost frozen in a temporality that is distinct from everyday life, and also distinct from the time when they were inscribed on the walls. It’s almost as if they were frozen in time and forgotten by their authors, in a way.

And so you can be in the metro or subway and you just see these faces in the corner of your eye and realize that these images are not just descriptive but have a haunting quality that can possess us. And again, these are not just pictorial images that possess us; they could be in word or writing, or recurring in our everyday lives. Another example that comes to mind: when I was in Athens I remember taking the train to a suburb outside of the center and I would briefly see a man, begging in a very busy street intersection, as many cars were passing by. He had no legs; both of his legs had been cut off both at the knees, and he was there with long jeans on, while walking on his knees, and dragging the lower portion of his jeans along… It was a striking image at this busy intersection, and that image sort of took hold of me, sort of possessed me in a way. I wanted to go back and try to photograph him. I remember that I saw him for a couple of days, and when I thought of photographing the scene, I no longer saw him there.

Robert Desjarlais.  From "Photos in My Lost Hours."  All rights reserved. © Robert R. Desjarlais
Robert Desjarlais. From “Photos in My Lost Hours.” All rights reserved. © Robert R. Desjarlais

But it is these kinds of images that are not strictly ‘conceptual.’ They embody a lot of different dynamics and you could say they affect us in a way, and this suggests the strange quality that photographs and images have. They are kind of ghostly.

For a while images in anthropology were largely being treated as cultural objects. I guess the main model was the linguistic/semiotic model, in that images signify something within a cultural world, such that anthropologists tended to think of images under a semiotic model of ‘signifier’ and ‘signified.’  But I think recently people have been getting at the more inchoate aspects of images. For example, with Lisa Stevenson’s presentation, we encounter the image of the raven that she spoke of, the one the person encountered in her dream; no one really knows what this image meant, if its appearance signifies something at all, or anything altogether. Similarly, I think people are now trying to get at those uncertain, inchoate modes of images, rather than just analyzing them in a semiotic way. People are realizing that the semiotics of images are often very unclear and quite murky. And that there is often a very powerful affective force to images, as well.

AR: Speaking of the uncertain quality of images, I wanted to ask you about something you have talked about as the anthropology of phantasmagoria in relation to images.

RD: Right, a phantasmography, if you will. I think there is so much going on in everyday life, as I understand it, that it’s almost multi-dimensional in a way — there is so much that invokes imagery, so much that invokes possibilities, interpretations, and narratives. If you just walk down the street, you see so much, you imagine so much, you interpret so much, you question so much. And none of it is really all that sure.

We give narratives to things, we create these phantasms of possibility. If you think about anthropology, so much of its focus is on the empirical: what’s clear, what’s tangible, and what can be said for sure. I think that’s kind of anemic in a way, compared to how we actually experience our lives. There’s so much going on — there’s so many layers of fantasy and the fantastical qualities of everyday life — and so I have been thinking about how one can write about that, because it presents a challenge anthropologically. If we are trained to attend to what’s empirical and what one can provide evidence for, what about all these other modes of thought that are much more elusive and much more ‘non-empirical’ in a way? The method that I had been developing in that critical narrative is to draw on my own imaginings — because at least I can speak to that — and show how these things play out in so many different ways, and how they shift through time as well. So, for example, you have one imagining or one phantasmagoria one week, and then it shifts into something else the next, and so there is this complex history of imaginings as well, which I think we can pay attention to.

AR: At the symposium you talked about the ways in which photography tears the subject from itself — in fact, this was more or less the title of your presentation. Could you talk about this idea of images tearing us, the viewers, from ourselves?

RD: Well, okay. That’s a good point. Actually, I missed the chance to respond at the symposium when Vincent Crapanzano had asked where the title came from. I should have mentioned that it comes from a passage of Foucault’s in an interview (from some Italian journalist whose name I forget). The journalist asked Foucault what his relationship to phenomenology was, and Foucault’s answer I have found helpful. He says that a lot of phenomenology looks at the everyday — it looks at the commonsensical understanding of human experience — and I think he was probably referring to, in most cases, Merleau-Ponty, Husserl, and thinkers within a more classical tradition of phenomenology. Like that. Foucault goes on to say, however, that what interests him more are the thinkers who basically implode the everyday — who come to the limit of experience (and he mentions people like Bataille and Blanchot) where in effect you are torn from the self, where the prototypical understandings of everyday life and its sensibilities get ruptured in some type of way. They get exposed for what they are and you are sort of torn from your certainty of life. You are torn from what you assumed to be true, what you assumed to be the case, and you meet certain limits of comprehension. So drawing from that phrase, I talk about the ways in which photography tears the subject from the self. Because when you look at an image it can look so clear-cut at first glance. But the more you look at the image, the more complicated it gets, the more multiple it gets, the more elusive it gets, and the more phanstasmographic it gets as well. We tend to have this ontology about the image, where we think that the image is something stable, standard, and ontologically real, but it’s really not the case.

AR: In my own work I’ve been grappling with questions of representation and what forms of life could be rendered imagistically, and particularly thinking of those in contexts of violence and abjection.

[At this point in the conversation we turn to the work of French photographer Stanislas Guigui who has produced a few galleries about people in the ollas of downtown Bogotá where I conduct fieldwork. The images render life at the limit of experience in a very Bataillean frame, and some of the bestial elements, as Guigui himself puts it, of human experience amidst violence, drug addiction and abject poverty.]

RD: One thing I like about this work, in looking at it for the first time now, is that Guigui is very upfront about his imaginary, and he is pushing the envelope on it. What I like about that is that it’s refreshing because with so many anthropologists there’s a kind of self-righteous quality for what they are doing, as if they feel they are providing a kind of care for the informant. But to me, at least, it’s becoming more problematic to be representing people who are suffering or who are really poor. There is a kind of aesthetics of suffering in anthropology these days; indeed those are the books that sell the most, and there is something that doesn’t quite sit well. Why is this happening? I think people may like suffering — they like to portray and read about suffering — as long as they are not the ones suffering themselves. This is something that I was trying to say at the end of my presentation, when discussing the photographic image of what appeared to be tourists taking a photograph next to a partially-blind beggar in Paris, as well as the rift I had about the thought that, if I had met this individual again, I would have wanted to interview him, to learn more about his story, and his blindness. I note how I would have been tempted to develop a whole new anthropology of suffering. This was my own commentary on people who have made careers out of the suffering of other people. In effect, I wanted to articulate a more open and problematic presentation of that, one that raises these kinds of questions, rather than something that hides or glosses over these problematiques.

Stanislas Guigui, Atras del Muro, 2002-2009. Left to Right: Nero Worker, Brujo Loco and La Negra. © Stanislas Guigui
Stanislas Guigui, Atras del Muro, 2002-2009. Left to Right: Nero Worker, Brujo Loco and La Negra. © Stanislas Guigui

And so, in considering Guigui’s photos, I find here that they are not just about representation or documenting life. They are evocative. They’re almost a phantasmagoria of these “souls in hell” (the title of one of Guigui’s galleries) and while I am sure these people may not fully identify with the ways they are being represented, I think they could relate to the images in which they are involved, if that makes sense. Because they know that these images — these phantasmagorias — are circulating in their lives, in terms of how other people see them or how they might invoke themselves in certain moments. I don’t know. It’s interesting. It’s provocative. It’s appealing just now because it’s direct. It’s more open to this question of representation. And I like the subjective quality, that he’s saying this is how he sees it, how he imagines his photographic subjects.



Barthes, R. and S. Heath. 1977. Image, Music, Text. Fontana Press.

Baxstrom, R. and T. Meyers. Forthcoming. Realizing the Witch: Science, Cinema, and the Mastery of the Invisible. Fordham University Press.

Desjarlais, R. Forthcoming. Photos in my Lost Hours.

Desjarlais, R. “Photography Tears the Subject from Itself.” Paper presented at the Image as Method symposium.

Goldstone, B. “Monstra, Astra: An Introduction.” Opening Lecture presented at the Image as Method symposium.

McLean, S. 2009. “Stories and Cosmogonies: Imagining Creativity Beyond ‘Nature’ and ‘Culture’.” Cultural Anthropology 24(2):213.

McLean, S. 2013. “All the Difference in the World: Liminality, Montage, and the Reinvention of Comparative Anthropology.” In Transcultural Montage. Ed. Suhr, C. and R. Willerslev. Berghahn Books.

Pandian, A. 2012. “The Time of Anthropology: Notes from a Field of Contemporary Experience.” Cultural Anthropology 27(4):547-571.

Pandian, A. Forthcoming. Reel World: An Anthropology of Creation. Duke University Press.

Stevenson, L. 2014. Life Beside Itself: Imagining Care in the Canadian Arctic. University of California Press.


Andrés Romero is a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at Wayne State University. His research interests include the anthropology of the senses and the experience of place in relation to violence and displacement in Bogotá, Colombia.

Brian Goldstone is Justice-in-Education Fellow at the Heyman Center for the Humanities, Columbia University.

Stuart McLean is Associate Professor of Anthropology at University of Minnesota.

Anand Pandian is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Reel World: An Anthropology of Creation (Duke University Press).

Robert Desjarlais is Professor of Anthropology at Sarah Lawrence College.


Image + Text engages the landscape of graphic illness narratives. What can the production of comics and other graphic forms tell us about issues of embodiment, biopolitics, or biomedicalizaton? How do our relations of collaboration and translation as interlocutor, ethnographer/artist, or ethnographer and artist work to express subjective and intersubjective moments in complex social worlds that are fraught with illness and power relations embedded in a search for well-being?

2 replies on “Image as Method: Conversations on Anthropology through the Image”

I have written and drawn, in graphic form, two 33 page “comics” based on my own field work experiences. One is of my time at the takeover at Wounded Knee in 1973 and the other is of my HIV prevention work in the 1980’s with transvestite prostitutes in Cd.Juarez, Mexico.I would appreciate any ideas on how to share these texts.

I have written and drawn two 30+ page graphic memoirs based on my anthropological observations during the takeover at Wounded Knee,South Dakota in 1973 by the AIM Indians. The second is based on my work on HIV prevention, in the 1980’s, in Cd. Juarez, Mexico.
I would like very much to share these with a larger audience.
Do your readers have any ideas?

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