Despite the flourishing of various interdisciplinary experimentations in recent years between anthropology and the creative arts, there is still not an agreement among scholars on how art should be integrated within anthropology, with many critics coming from the fields of both art and anthropology regarding the use of art as diminishing anthropological research (FOSTER, 1995; EL GUINDI, 2011). These critiques point out the risks that such contemporary artistic approaches have in reducing the role of classical ethnographic methodologies. The present paper suggests that it is from these critiques that anthropologists can start reviewing this practice and benefit from the expressive potential of art. While reading some of the many critiques to the use of art in anthropology, I have noticed some recurrent themes. Firstly, they often refer to an anthropologist that does not produce their own artistic work, and to a separate artist that works for the anthropologist to express the ethnographic material. Secondly, the two phases of the research are not integrated, namely those in and out of the field. When considering visual anthropological practices, in fact, we should first take into account the context in which the production occurs. We need then to distinguish between visual productions made during and after the fieldwork research. However, there is not agreement among the scholars on how the fieldwork material should be elaborated and converted in order to produce and express the research insights (TINE, 2017; MAC DOUGALL, 1997; BANKS, 2008). Specifically, this article addresses two questions: What can the use of painting add to the research and how we should to do it.
In order to address these questions, I have developed the concept of the 'art-tool method', as a medium between the feelings that people express and the physical form that these have, displayed through visual behaviours, such as body practices, gestures and prossemics.Between the feelings and the form, there is the anthropologist's understanding. This is the idea that needs to be expressed through words and images. Consequently, art within ethnographic speculation should not be merely a "photographic” tool. In fact, what can be seen still has to be discovered and explained.The result should be a “window to the world” that combines many perspectives, amongst which we especially consider the vision of the people observed. Specifically, this essay is divided in two sections: a theoretical reflection on the premises and advantages of painting in anthropological research, and a practical experiment. The first section offers a proposal for the use of painting within anthropological outcomes as an important tool for representing the feelings of the researcher and of the people observed, as well as mediating between their perspectives. Additionally, the proposed visual essay, entitled ‘City Life’ is a visual exploration of human life within the modern globalised world, focusing on nature and consumerism through dark surreal images. The exploration of the possibilities of expression offered by artistic practice can be a great way to explore the sphere of perception and interpretation, that deeper world of meanings and understandings, that is the real heart of anthropology.
I.II Why a visual research?
Visual methods can add an important aspect to social research. In fact, as Margaret Mead  has taught, the first impressions that we have in the field are eminently visual. This is because in the beginning we do not have the linguistic and cultural competencies to be able to understand the different aspects of a society. These first impressions do not need to be a limit to the understanding process, but rather represent an important part of the ethnographic material. Reflections upon these initial impressions can lead to some illuminating insights. According to Mead, it is due to the high coefficient of alterity that the “first impressions” linger in the mind. Anthropological knowledge can derive from “cultural shock”, a disorientation caused by contact with diversity. By considering daily material and artistic objects such as the city structure, the clothing, the tendencies, the gestures, the prossemics and all other elements that we first observe, we can detect the specific vision that has shaped them. This is the vision that is built from the culture and it forms the cognition of the world. From this observation, we can move forward to the exploration of the political, social, religious and existential background of a culture. This is reflected within the human world and its objects, its art, the people’s conception of the body and perhaps most importantly, within the vision that these people have of life.
However, after the acquisition of data, producing images, whether by painting or other creative means, is a critical aspect because through the nature of creation a narrow selection of reality is defined. We can further add a textual elaboration of a theory to this visual production, being careful to clarify that the images and words within the proposed work of practical visual anthropology are not connected by a logical or hierarchical relationship, but rather a complementary one articulated in a way that the author considers right to convey their research insights. Specifically, the visual method becomes an excellent tool to analyse situations in which the visuality is more meaningful and “thick”, than the verbal. For example, rituals, spatial disposition and segregation, and emotions have strong visual elements that are diificult to express textually. In these cases, symbolic meanings are fundamental, and a visual approach can observe them better. Consequently, the evocative and symbolic language of visuality can better understand and express these topics.