The idea of beauty vs. reality (as discussed in class) is very interesting AND quite disturbing at the same time. In visual representation, we are very much prone to disregard beautiful work of photography as non-ethnographic or non-anthropological. This has been the case with the criticisms of Riefenstahl’s photographic work on the Nuba of Sudan. Her artistic representation of beautiful bodies and aesthetic decorative elements worn by these bodies is regarded as non-anthropological because it gives a perfect romantic/exotic picture of the Nubian people. Thus, what is photographically perfect and beautiful is seen as non-realistic, formalistic, framed, “aestheticized”, and most importantly, false or damaging representation of a people or culture. On the other hand, we have realistic, contextualized, substantive and “ethnographically true” representations. For example, the BBC documentary on the Nuba claimed to be anthropological (made with the help of an anthropologist) and undoing the “damage” done by Riefenstahl to the Nubians. Hence, presenting a more realistic and contextual picture of the same people.
As our discussion in the class involved the debate about choosing the romantic/beautiful representations over the ones that have more real content, I have been thinking, is the distinction between these two forms really that of beauty and reality? Is there anything as absolute beauty or absolute reality? And even more importantly, is there any absolute distinction between the two? How do we perceive what we see as beautiful, artistic, aesthetic, or realistic to be so? It all boils down to what we perceive as the “reality” to be represented by Ethnography or Anthropology. Our perceptions, inevitably, are conditioned; not only by the disciplinary boundaries, but also by the very basic, and crucial scales and standards of reality and beauty we use to make sense of the world around us, since we begin to actively perceive it. My take on this would be, there is no art or beauty absolutely separate from reality, and there is no reality that is absolutely not aesthetic. It is we, who define a particular representation to aesthetic or not, and arrange them on a spectrum with two criterion as the extremes. There is no absolute “ethnographic truth”, and there is no absolute “photographic skill or art”. In fact, Riefenstahl’s photography is as prone to biased representation as the BBC documentary is. The possibility of false or incomplete representation is present in both cases, only in different forms. In fact, every representation is somehow incomplete and biased. There is no complete representation of reality as such. It is only different dimensions that we explore from different perspectives, none of which is any more reliable (or doubtful) than the other. Therefore, as Edwards has aptly put, we need to go beyond the boundaries to reap the potential of the visual forms of representation, especially photography. The potential of photography, according to Edwards, lies in the transcending the boundaries of formalism, expressionism, realism, and even ethnography and anthropology. Beauty and reality are thus not the opposite ends of the spectrum, rather they are inter-woven and integrated dimensions of the same inter-subjective representation.
Riefenstahl’s photographs do offer some ethnographic insight into the culture, as does the BBC documentary. Only with the BBC documentary we get to see a bigger/collective picture of the culture, but the narration and the explanation of that culture makes it a unique inter-subjective statement, a single interpretation being represented, and not THE reality, in any way. Mead expressed the same point calling it “disciplined subjectivity” which involves the emotional response of the observer, intertwined with the subjects of observation. As Jackins notes, every vision is distorted, only thing that can be done is to document the distortion and acuity in the records. Following from Mead’s point, we can also see that the visual representation reveal as much about the subjects as about the emotional response of the observer. An observer who presents perfect, artistic images, as Reifinstahl did, might have an inclination towards the artistic forms. Similarly, an observer who documents more content and substance in a non-formal representation, might have a personal inclination towards this methodology and representation.
Jackins also pointed out the differences between Mead and Bateson’s different inclinations and different styles of working. This, definitely, does reflect in one’s work, making the representation a picture of both the observer and the subject, regardless of the explicit presence of the photographer in it.
Watching the documentary on Nuba reminded me of onother documentary that I watched in my course on Introduction to Anthropology, in my undergraduate program. I would like it to share it with all of you, not sure whether any of you has watched it already. “Shamans of the Blind Country” by Michael Oppitz (1981) documents the rituals of magic and exorcism among the Shamans of the West Nepal, living in mountains.
This is a very interesting film, though I could find only an excerpt of it on-line. The film documents the lives and rituals of the Shamans in the more in-formal way, and is accompanied by a narration which is very much a contextual explanation of the rituals and social and economic life of these people. We can see the parallels between the filming of Nubians, or Balinese and this film. It is very interesting to see how the action, expressions, casualties, and details are captured and how the visual representation is an inter-subjective account of what we see and what we hear (see) through the film-maker’s eyes!
Link for the movie excerpt: http://vimeo.com/3198388