Recording the Exotic : Visual Anthropology Has Come a Long Way Since the Filming of ‘Nanook of the North’

Timothy Asch, director of USC’s Center for Visual Anthropology, sees a not-too-distant day when new anthropological research will be published complete with accompanying films, stored on a 3-inch videodisc in a pocket inside the book jacket.

Asch, who co-produced with anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon a series of ground-breaking films on the fierce Yanomamo Indians of South America, sees a number of ways in which his science will benefit from the explosion of video technology, which puts ever-more-sophisticated cameras into ever-smaller and easier-to-use packages.

“The type of knowledge and expertise that anthropologists have could, in collaboration with ethnographic film makers, turn into a tremendous resource,” Asch told an audience at the 12th annual Symposium of Man held recently at Cal State Fullerton.

The use of film to record non-Western cultures is nothing new, stretching back at least to “Nanook of the North,” Robert Flaherty’s famed 1921 docudrama about an Eskimo family. Since the ‘20s, cultural anthropologists have often turned to film as a way to record the people and cultures they study.


But sound synchronization in the field was not practical until about 1960, and film equipment has until recently been cumbersome and difficult to use under the often-trying conditions that greet anthropologists. Advances in film and especially video technology, developed primarily for the entertainment industry, have revolutionized ethnographic film making, Asch said.

As director of the USC master’s degree program in visual anthropology, Asch is training film makers who will collaborate with field anthropologists to record data that was once the exclusive domain of notebook and sketch pad.

One advantage to recording a culture on film or video is that several scientists can view the same piece of data, rather than having to rely on one person’s observations, according to noted ethnographic film maker Patsy Asch, Timothy’s wife. In some instances, the ability to repeatedly view a film is another advantage, as in the case of dance kinesics or studying intricate rituals.

But most importantly, the films often serve as a final record of many tribal cultures that are being decimated by the destruction of tropical forests and by other encroachments of civilization.


“The tribal world is disappearing at a staggeringly high rate, one that is accelerating on a day-by-day basis,” said Chagnon, another of the panelists. A professor at UC Santa Barbara since 1984, Chagnon’s 25 years of studying the Yanomamo has formed the basis of one of the best-known case studies in cultural anthropology, one that is found in most introductory textbooks.

Chagnon, who concentrates on Yanomamo tribes in southern Venezuela, said he has seen changes in the culture each time he returns (13 visits, totaling 50 months). The Yanomamo of northern Brazil, meanwhile, have been virtually wiped out in recent years, since the discovery of gold on their land in 1987 attracted more than 40,000 prospectors virtually overnight.

The Yanomamo of southern Venezuela, meanwhile, may have a better chance of survival precisely because the films of Tim Asch and Chagnon have given them a place in the public consciousness, Chagnon believes.

“There are groups like the Yanomamo and the bushmen (of southwest Africa’s Kalahari Desert) who have become very, very significant in the minds of lots and lots of people,” Chagnon said. “Because they have been documented in a very positivistic, straightforward, scientific way, (that) can now be used to help them to survive the destruction that is going on. . . . They have become symbols. They represent the tragedy of all other tribal people in all places on Earth.”

Apart from Chagnon’s assertions on the potential political uses of ethnographic film, other panelists raised doubts about its scientific importance.

“I don’t think that technology is going to save us,” said Jay Ruby, an anthropology professor at Temple University in Philadelphia and editor of the journal, Visual Anthropology. “CD ROMs and 8-mm video and high-resolution television are not going to help us think.”

Rather than training more people to make movies, Ruby suggested teaching students how to analyze and interpret filmed data. “I think we’re drowning in a sea of images, and I’d like to argue that we take fewer pictures and start thinking more, because I’m very bored with continually seeing basically the same lame ideas on the screen,” Ruby said.

“I work with some students who are just technological wizards but don’t have a single thing to say,” Ruby said. “They’re all dressed up with nowhere to go.”


One panelist, John Homiak, is an archivist with the Human Studies Film Archives at the Smithsonian Institution. More than 5 million feet of film and video are stored in the archives, Homiak said, but he thinks the resource is woefully under-utilized.

That is largely because most anthropologists want to make their name with their own field research, Tim Asch said, rather than by studying the research of other anthropologists. But, he added, the collected films and videos will take on more importance as time goes on and the tribal cultures recorded for posterity continue to be diluted and sometimes obliterated.

Imagine, he said, if there existed a film record of an Aztec sacrifice, or of a vintage performance of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” at the Globe Theatre. It may be 100 or 200 years before the archives are truly utilized.

“You have to go for the long term,” Asch argued. “It’s important to take visual anthropology seriously.”