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Being a visual anthropologist

Updated: Oct 5, 2023

by Lye Tuck-Po
2 September 2023
(hopefully this will be the first of many articles on the subject. Please leave a line below if you would like to hear about any topic in anthropological photography)

I'm often asked about my photography "how-tos" (how do you do it? what kind of cameras do you use? do you follow a theme or do you just take photos as you find them? etc etc). The questions haven't abated in these fifteen years so it's time to dust off (meaning revisit and revise) an old article I wrote on the subject.
This article is especially for anthropologists and other seasoned fieldworkers. I'm not going into a heavy discussion about the power relations inherent in "capturing" images of the Other; for that you'll have to turn to one of the media anthropology blogs (see John Postill's, for example, though I have no idea whether he addresses power relations or not). These are just some tips and words of advice from someone who "went digital" in 2005 (relatively late).
First off, I should confess that I go through peaks and troughs — sometimes I go for years without any love for what I'm doing. I just take out the camera and ... shoot. I think the last time (meaning the most recent) I felt any love of photography was in Myanmar (2017) and George Town, Penang (2019).
Bagan, Myanmar, 2017

That said, I've survived taking a DSLR (digital single lens reflex) to the field. I now use a full frame camera, the Nikon D750. It's got all the bells and whistles that I've barely explored. It also shoots video. I also have a Sony mirrorless camera, which is compact and easy to use, but has too much many of the bells and whistles locked in for me (meaning I like a camera that is fully manual). But the main second camera I use is the one on my mobile phone, a Blackview rugged phone.

Taking a selfie with the Sony mirrorless camera in 2014

(1) If your camera is a small point-and-shoot (PS), chuck it in your bag along with notebook and take it everywhere with you.
(2) If it's not a small PS (e.g., a relatively chunky DSLR like my Nikon D750), chuck it in anyway, which leads to:
(3) Find a sturdy travel bag / camera bag that can hold camera, spare batteries, spare memory cards, notebook(s), pens, purse or wallet, and other odds and ends.

Some of my equipment laid out the desk in Cologne, Germany, 2015. Most of this stuff goes to the field with me
A standard rusksack or bookbag works, but I personally don't like having to unshoulder and rummage for the camera when I'm in a hurry. I now use either a shoulder bag or Lowepro backpack. To me field photography means being able to respond quickly with the camera. When I'm walking in the forest with the Batek, I'll have the camera slung around the neck and someone else will carry the rest of the gear in the camera bag. I make no apologies; after all, I pay them for carrying services!
(4) Rainproof everything. Especially if your field is in the wet humid tropics and renowned for its hydrological richness. Always have a few air-tight plastic bags at the ready (ziplocks, to use the brand name). Also useful for dusty conditions. In Cambodia I always kept my DSLR wrapped even when inside the bag. Lots of river-crossings in shallow boats, see, and lots of dust in the dry season.

A boat that we hired for a survey trip along the Stueng Saen, Cambodia, August 2005

(5) Cameras can be intrusive and disruptive. It's a tradeoff between taking pictures and going with the flow. Except when you're ordered to take photos by the people, as has happened to me several times, both in Malaysia and Cambodia. I think my Cambodian friends considered me a cheap source of commemorative images but, hey, I didn't mind.
(6) Digital cameras need charging (the camera doesn't, but the battery does). It helps to have electricity. Where there's none, it's worth looking into installing solar power. I had a PV system in Cambodia and was happy with it. So did I in Sarawak and in my current work with the Batek.
Testing my mobile solar power system at home, 2015. The fold-over solar panel (hanging on the rails) connects to the battery, which is then used to charge the iPad.
(7) For my photographic taste, I'd want a good camera, a DSLR in the "prosumer" class at least, but size and weight are important considerations if your fieldwork involves a lot of mobility (especially if you have to walk a lot). So far I haven't suffered too much with my cameras: had a car in Cambodia, and when not surveying by car, used motorbikes, bicycles, and boats. Didn't walk that much, which had deleterious effects on my weight. Now, using a full-frame camera, I've just got used to it.
(8) Impact factor: the bigger the camera (and the lenses), the bigger your marker of wealth. That can cause all kinds of symbolic problems: are you rich or poor, are you an anthropologist or photographer, can you be all of these things and accepted by the host community? (Actually, forget "poor": if you can travel to a remote area for fieldwork, you'll never be poor by local standards.) No easy answers here. Just something you have to deal with on a case-by-case basis. Hopefully your charm will disarm all comers. Basic rule of thumb is: don't try to be what you're not.

Some of my camera lenses, 2015

(9) Lenses: in Cambodia I mainly lived off the kit lens, the 18-70mm. That had the flexibility I needed: no need to change lenses all the time. Changing lenses can be a real pain in the field, especially when things are happening quickly and you need to be shooting, not fumbling with lenses. I tend towards the "all-in-one" school of thought; I want a lens that does (almost) everything I need it to, so I don't have to travel with a lot of glass and face the hassle of changing lenses all the time. In Sarawak, I gave up. I switched to the full-frame camera because of low light in the interiors. You'll want to do some research and find the lens(es) that best meets your field requirements. The basic point is: it's not the camera, it's the lens that makes a real difference to your images. If you're happy with both, you'll have a sweet time.
(10) Be prepared all the time. I'm thinking of memory cards here. I've just discovered that it takes me 4 days to use up a 2GB card (with fairly continuous field shooting). What if you're in the middle of a forest trek when your card fills up and you haven't got anymore? Memory cards are cheap nowadays. Stock up and keep the spares with you at all times.
(11) Download images as often as you can. In Cambodia I downloaded every evening to my laptop: with host family members looking over my shoulder, I was able to annotate images with their help immediately after downloading. It's also safer to do it this way: you never know if the camera or memory card might seize up in the field (not that this has happened so far, touch wood). It's also good for reviewing fieldwork progress: the metadata on images gives you detailed information on time spent on particular activities (if you're documenting continuously) and if you find at the end of the day that an important photo didn't turn out so well, you can re-take while you're still there. Reviewing daily hauls also helps you to improve your photographic skills, of course. Plus the images give you all kinds of new things to talk about with your hosts.
(12) In the end, it all comes down to who you are and what you want of the camera. If you're not really keen on photography but have to do it because "we're anthropologists and we're forced to take pictures for documentation", you might make do with a compact PS. If your field stint is short (1-2 weeks), and you're pretty convinced that all your shots came out perfectly, then get something you're comfortable using, invest in a sack of memory cards and batteries, and just haul the whole load home when you're done. But for the sake of people who have to look at your images when they buy your books and listen to your lectures, I do think it's nice to spend a bit more money on equipment and aim a little higher! (I always groan at conferences and seminars when the photos are terrible. I can't focus on the subject of the talk)

I'm sure I've got loads more to say on particular topics (like how to take pictures of people) but different people do things differently. This post just covers the main issues I've dealt with. If you want to get into the nitty gritty of shooting and post-processing (nerd-talk), well... that's for another day, perhaps!

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