The Multimodal Turn in Visual Anthropology


JL: Looking at the long list of films you have been working on, I have the impression that a lot of them are actually departing from visual anthropology to multimodal anthropology. There have been some texts about this turn in the American Anthropologist, with a first text (Gerald Collins, Durington, and Gil 2017) and a second one (Takaragawa, Smith, Hennessy, Alvarez Astacio, Chio 2019), written as a response by several members of the Terminalia collective. But there are more manifestos, rather than precise genealogies, of how multimodal anthropology emerged from visual anthropology. There are three films that, for me (Larcher 2022), really bring the multimodal in a practical way to the conversation: Voices of the Rainforest (2019) by Steven Feld; Zawawa: The Sound of Sugarcane in the Wind (2017) by Rupert Cox, Angus Carlyle, Kozo Hiramatsu, and Atsushi Nishimura; and, lastly, Expedition Content. Because, for all three of them, the description of the environment is made first by the sounds and after that by the images. Steven Feld's film is all edited as a playback film-concert, so the description of the environment is in the soundtrack first, and then there are the images. Rupert Cox and Angus Carlyle describe the history of the environment through sounds. And of course, Expedition Content, for all the reasons we mentioned. These are turning points in the way to compose a film through audio, each of the films proposing a different way.

HW: My anthropological education didn't cover a lot of visual, oral, and aural aspects of culture and social life. I remember that the only book I read during my master's education mentioning recording techniques or their analytic possibilities was Alessandro Duranti’s Linguistic Anthropology, with a chapter in which he argues for the superior possibilities of multimodal ethnographic materials (Duranti 1997: 113–115). So, I was thinking that, before this conversation, we would bring three quite different positions into this discussion. Ernst, you are an anthropologist specializing in sound; Jonathan, you are a media anthropologist; and I’m a political anthropologist who might be described as media and sound curious. But as you described, Jonathan, the focus on multimodality in anthropology is a very recent development. It's actually quite surprising, considering the age of these technologies. There has been a certain naivete, or can we say naturalism, like in the discussion at the beginning of Expedition Content, in anthropology’s relationship to media. I was certainly taught to treat fieldwork recordings as evidence of a context, if not of speaker intentions.


EK: You’re referring to the conversation that begins the film, what we call the “photography lesson” with Eliot Elisofon. That conversation stuck out to us so much when we first heard it: he articulates this idea of “making a film for scientific purposes,” and that it should follow “naturalism, if we could use that word.” There seems to be so much continuity with how people are still thinking about it, which is almost comical. But I totally agree with you, Jonathan. I very much welcome this multimodal thinking, both in terms of a reconsideration of the relationship of our senses and of the different media recordings that are possible and, more importantly, a change of the relationship between researcher and research and this idea of responsibility, collaboration, and collective goals in what we try to accomplish in doing any kind of media work at all. And, more broadly, to consider ethically what the anthropological enterprise is about, and in doing that, allowing for a kind of re-listening or reconsideration of what the role of, say, audio or video is. What is the relationship between the two in that new context, where it’s not just the anthropologist writing about the subjects or something like that, where, ideally, it is more about collaboration and about doing things for reasons that are not just the anthropologists’ reasons. That ethical move is really important. We use the phrase multimodal anthropology almost tongue in cheek in the beginning title card of the film. I mean, it was to draw some continuity between the old way of doing, what came to be called Visual Anthropology, and current work, now that the Visual Anthropology section was renamed Multimodal Anthropology in the journal of the American Anthropological Association [American Anthropologist]. So we use that term in order to draw the connection, in an uncomfortable way, between what they were doing and what our goal is for multimodal anthropology.

Steven Feld, Voices of the Rainforest (2019), Courtesy of Bosavi People’s Fund.

Rupert Cox, Angus Carlyle, Kozo Hiramatsu and Atsushi Nishimura, Zawawa. The Sound of Sugarcane in the Wind. Courtesy of Rupert Cox.