Toward an integration of psychological, medical and visual anthropology

There is an opportunity for psychological anthropology to break new ground, to come up with new ways of knowing and representation, to connect our research with a larger audience, and to make our research both more understandable and relevant to not only the relatively restricted one of our fellow colleagues, but to more and different groups both in and out of the academy. This opportunity is occurring now, and if we as anthropologists don’t seize it, we risk being left behind or having our material expropriated. This opportunity is the use of video to tell our stories.

The reason this is occurring now, in the last decade and a half, is because of the confluence of many factors, but perhaps the most overarching one is technological. With the advent of digital media and the ease and low cost of its associated technology, video is being increasingly used in anthropological research. Compared with a previous generation, where filming subjects was prohibitively expensive and therefore was seen as not only unusual but even as a death blow to one’s career, anthropologists today frequently film their subjects. However, they often lack a clear rationale just how and in what ways this material will be utilized. In addition some of the fundamentals of visual literacy, at minimum, are being sacrificed due to the lack of knowledge and experience with the basics of cinematic techniques and approaches.

This blog redresses these deficits by exploring the complex issues involved in ethnographic filmmaking as it applies to issues relevant to psychological and medical anthropology. This blog is not about the use of video and film solely for the purposes of research. While the blog may certainly deal with topical research issues, film can be used to highlight and lay bare the central issues salient to research, rather than video used as a medium or tool to extract data from, which the most common ways researchers utilize film. The differences between using video for research purposes; for short teaching film for educational purposes; for traditional ethnographic film; and finally for documentary film will all be explored, debated and analyzed.

It is our hope that ongoing discussions on the history and development of both film and anthropology will be continuing themes here. This will certainly in include a discussion of some of the “greats” of ethnographic film, such Timothy Asch, Robert Gardner, Jean Rouch and most importantly John Marshall, but also the less well-known filmmakers of the last several decades. In addition, filmmakers that exist at the margins of the field, but made and continue to make important contributions, will be explored. These are not necessarily anthropologists or even ethnographic film-makers per se, but those who have an interest in our field and whose work intersects in interesting ways. We invite filmmakers and anthropologists with related interests to both explore and contribute to this blog.

In addition to reviewing past ethnographic films and exploring contemporary film work, the purpose of this blog is to explore ethnographic film as it applies to issues and topics central to psychological and medical anthropology. For example, psychological anthropology is particularly suited to the making of powerful films because of its emphasis on subjective experience and phenomenology, which intersects well with themes of conflict and character development so necessary for good narrative construction and storytelling. However, the representation of issues central to psychological anthropology are difficult, because by their very nature many (but certainly not all) of these issues of psychological and thus, not readily visible. Different methods to represent these, and the implications in utilizing different narrative voices, stylistic techniques, and pacing and rhythm will all be explored, debated and discussed.

From a topical basis the blog can cover issues as diverse as mental illness and deviance, healing, trance and possession, trauma and social violence, and gender and sexuality, all of which areas Elemental productions has worked. But these are just a few of the areas in which blog posts can be oriented. We eagerly await guest posts on other topics of relevance.

In addition to these topical foci at the intersection of visual and psychological anthropology, more directs issues relevant to producing ethnographic films, such as project development, filmmaking ethics, relationship issues with subjects and the management of film making process in a professional manner will be explored.

From a more technical perspective, the blog will also explore the basic technical and aesthetic language of ethnographic film—issues of composition, lighting, audio, camera use, shooting, editing and post-production. We are lucky at Elemental because in addition to very talented in house editors, cinematographers, graphic artists and producers we have developed a diverse series of relationships with musicians, writers, cultural experts, psychologists, and many other people with many skill sets to draw from.

The blog is organized into five loose category headings, which are: anthropology, filmmaking, ethics, reflexivity, and notes from the field.  Many posts will include multi-media components, including original photo-essays, short video clips, behind-the-scenes footage and more.

We have a relatively egalitarian structure at Elemental—each team member is free to voice their interests, raise concerns, and contribute in many aspects of each production. Given this, the blog is open to their posts, to give their insights on the theorizing, producing, promoting and distributing ethnographic films within the domains of psychological and medical anthropology. We look forward to hearing not only from the anthropologists on board, but from the shooters, editors, producers, artists, musicians, local collaborators and subjects of the films themselves.

Robert Lemelson

Robert Lemelson is an anthropologist and documentary filmmaker whose work focuses on the relationship of culture, psychology and personal experience in Indonesia. He received his M.A. from the University of Chicago and Ph.D. from the department of anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles. He was a Fulbright scholar in Indonesia, exploring the relation of culture to mental illness and has worked for the World Health Organization. Lemelson's area of specialty is Southeast-Asian studies, psychological anthropology and transcultural psychiatry. He is currently an adjunct professor of anthropology at UCLA and a research anthropologist in the Semel Institute of Neuroscience at UCLA. He is also the president of the Foundation for Psychocultural Research, who funds programs and initiatives at the intersection of social and neuroscience.

1 Comment

  • Reply December 18, 2013

    Mary Ellen Johnson

    great ideas here!! I always thought “ethnographic” film got a bad name within the discipline when it could be such a useful tool to reach population both within, and outside academia. neat stuff

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