Week 10 The Act of Killing

Although, I had the chance to watch The Act of Killing (2012) during a film festival in Budapest (“Ha Érteni Akarod a Világod”, 2013), I have to admit that I’ve been hesitating to write about it. I can’t figure it out if it was the overwhelming 115 min during which I kept repeating to myself “this can’t be real” or when I tried to make myself believe that in the end the filmmaker will intervene saying that the movie is just a macabre re-construction of imagined mass-killings attributed to some patients from a mental institution. And yes, he intervened in the end. I don’t know but this intervention kind of ‘crushed’ me and made me re-consider my experience of watching this movie.


That is why, besides finding it very disturbing in content and event, it left me with the impression of a multi-layered documentary, very powerful and complex in its text, so a bit overwhelming when attempting to read it. Additionally, I would say that it constitutes an excellent visual material that seems to incorporate all the concepts that we’ve been familiarized with during the entire course (reconstruction, fiction of reality, rhetoric of metaphor, observational cinema, direct cinema), so, that is why I finally decided to write my last entry for the Visual Anthropology course on this movie. But I will choose not to enter in the summative content but just to make some observations related to the power of camera’s positionality and its role, while taking as an illustration certain scenes that I consider representative.

Briefly, the movie, as the title suggests, is about the reenactment of the act of killing, so we are dealing from the beginning with the idea of a re-construction, which challenges a former Indonesian death squad not simply to remember their murders but to impersonate their victims in a horrid (re)play of killing. So, as in Jean Rouch’s cinema vérité, the play is developed by real persons – not actors, but I would go further and say that what makes the entire experience of watching really devastating is the fact that the role of the victim is played by the executioner itself. This means that the camera is more than participant and intervenient, catalyst or social observer, as it appears in Rouch’s vision. Oppenheimer’s camera becomes a tool of empowering this play of the murder’s corporeal image (McDougall, 2006)[i], namely the play with the layers of representation, of what is real and what is truth. In this regard, we witness scenes with fake decapitations or burking cheered by the so-called actors, who are enjoying themselves, for instance, in shocking acts of necrophagia while being dress up in horrifying drag, to the extent to which we can’t distinguish anymore between pure dementia, acting or reality. They all appear to be “surreal as well as hyperreal” (MacDougall, 2006, 155) by mimicking the indexical truth of their memories. In the same time, there are two scenes that I find memorable because, as the camera acts out, the reenactment seems so real that gives you the impression that you are facing a live murdering. One is when one of the killers’ victim is a random guy subjected to an interrogation while he is tied up of a chair and the killer plays so well his role of executioner that you get the feeling that the guy will be burked for real without any chance of intervention, as the camera acted out. So, when I watched that scene I truly asked myself why the filmmaker is not doing something to stop this atrocity, when I realized that maybe this is happening for real without any possibility of reverse action. The other reenacted scene, which I found the most powerful from my point of view, is the one in which the entire village is burned out for real. Keeping in mind that in both scenes the real executioners are playing their lifetime roles, what makes these scenes shockingly authentic and proves the „actors’ ” naturalness in their reaction is the burst into tears of their victims and their damaged state of mind. For example, in the burning-village scene, one of the actor-victims is the daughter of the murderer and she remains in a state of temporary shock because her father has played so well his role that she actually experienced the feeling of being on the point to be killed. He is proud of the reenactment but he is concerned that his crying daughter will embarrass him and will ruin the entire performance.

By acting out, the camera’s intention is not to blame the murderers or judge them, it does not prescribe a moralizing role, but is more concerned to understand objectively the fiction of reality and the killers’ mentality, so to say, the camera appears also in the position of a confessional tool having a revelatory mission. As in Rouch’s Chronique d’un ete, it appears that Oppenheimer uses the same angle of psychoanalysis, the subjectivity/confession standpoint but it makes it more intimate than Rouch by an interesting twist of real/fiction layers, creating the perfect atmosphere for confession: the killers are able to watch the footage, see themselves reenacting the killings, or acting/playing on a television screen, so they can judge their performance by relating it to reality through retrospection. What the audience receives is a beautiful superposition of frames (the frame of the frame): the past, the reenactment and the evaluation of the killer himself. The revelation in this film is represented by these psychoanalytic scenes, when the killers confirm openly their murders, as in the scene were they are invited in a TV show, but they aren’t able to go beyond the frame of the acting, as the camera empowers them to go further on a maniacal level. So, instead of taking responsibility for the murders, as the metaphor for revelation would imply, it becomes an outrageously morbid talent show, where the murderers reach, what we might call, reconciliation with their killings by performing the song “Born Free”: their rationalize their murders through this idea that they committed crime but sent those people to heaven and their victims should be thankful for this.

The Act of Killing

The most emblematic scene for camera as a confessional tool I find the one, when the murderer almost burst into tears while watching himself playing the victim and reenacting the moment of dying, and he says that he felt in that moment what his victim felt. This is one of the key moments in the movie because it is for the first time when the filmmaker breaks with the rule of absence and intervenes, in the end, responding to his subject that he couldn’t have felt what the victim felt because he knew that he plays the dying, meanwhile his victim knew that s/he was dying. If during the entire movie, Oppenheimer is not harsh with his subjects, he really gives them space and freedom to manifest themselves in their dementia, retrospection or (re)imagination of their self, he is not limiting their behavior in any way, as Rouch, he lets them react as they would do in real life. I think in this final scene, when he intervenes, he tries to suggest that the whole play of reenactment has a revelatory purpose for the actors themselves: they are not just playing murderers, but they are real murderers. Although, I don’t believe Oppenheimer is interested in a reaction from his audience, I tend to think that this intervention aims to remind the audience that the movie is about a re-construction of a real act of killing that if it’s unsuccessful acknowledged by its executioners, at least it has to be accounted by knowledgeable active viewers.

[i] MacDougall, D. 2006. Photo Hierarchicus: Signs and Mirrors in Indian Photography. In MacDougall, D. The Corporeal Image: film, ethnography, and the senses. Pp. 147-175. Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press.

Week 9 Play and Revelation: Rouch’s Chronique d’un été and Mads Brügger’s Ambassador

In this film, the anthropologist, Jean Rouch, and the sociologist, Edgar Morin, explore the ground of cinéma vérité by playing with different instances of the camera, and introduce from the beginning the motive of truthful playing in front of the movie camera. Starting from this point, namely, how natural and sincerely one can act, the entire film appears as a space of reflection upon the position of the camera that one would argue tends to act out.


In contradiction with the prefigurations of the direct cinema, in Rouch’s vision, the focus seems to reorient from just participation to full intervention. This means that in order to make people react as they do in real life, considering that the movie is very experimental with Rouch ascribing roles to normal people not actors, the camera becomes an observation catalyst of transformation, as it happens in the outdoors scene, at the table when Mary Lou reveals that she is an ex-prisoner of a concentration camp or the indoors scene when they discuss the Algiers war. Nevertheless, the movie is constructed from two main standpoints: firstly, we have to deal with an experimental movie because of the play, specifically it can be claimed that the movie is an etno-fiction because of the open script that explores this central motive of acting naturally or challenging the naturalness in front of the camera. This leads to a second point of view, which is the revelation, meaning that the camera is entitled with a mission, alternating in each ‘chapter’ of the film between the role of a confessional tool, the one of capturing the truth or simply the catalyst in conversation.

Referring to play, it can easily be observed that Rouch was much concerned with improvisation also from the so-called actors, as they appear to do more a play of non-play: on one hand, they are not actors so without knowing how to play in front of the camera, they are supposed to act naturally and respond to filmmaker’s challenges; but on the other hand, under the challenge of being in the spotlight, it might make them learn by doing how to act “naturally” to the extent in which they cannot tell anymore, as in the ending scene, if they were acting or not. The experimental feature of the film is given also by its internal structure because the movie appears to be kind of chaotic, there is no fluidity between different chapters, no narrative line that unites all parts, the only thing that seems to give an overall cohesion is the camera as a challenge factor in providing human reactions.


Although, this veils the entire film under a state of incertitude if in the end the film fulfills its purpose of being innovative and experimental in relation with the characteristics of ‘no-actor’s and ‘no-script’, I think for Rouch this is not the final aim as both him and Morin were interested more in human reactions, and how the camera as a psychoanalytic tool, succeeds in providing this.

images (1)

Mads Brügger’s Ambassador (2011) tackles the same matter of play: being director and in the same time main character, he goes undercover as a Liberian diplomat, what might be called ‘in-the-making’, in Africa to reveal the corruption in the diplomatic title brokerage and the black market of diamonds. What is naturalness in front of the camera is the fact that the people involved in the story are real persons, not acting but behaving and reacting in real life, which aligns this movie in the general lines of direct cinema. A meaningful aspect of the construction of the movie refers to the dual position of the camera. On one hand, we have a hidden camera, which works as a confessional tool that is not acknowledged by the participants, for instance, when different important people reveal valuable information about how to do business in Africa, while taking a seat in the ambassador’s office; and on the other hand, we have an acknowledged camera that is in the field, openly capturing the truth, which makes it in the same time participant and intervenient (for instance, in the scene with the pygmies’ dance). I found the movie problematic from an ethical perspective, because the camera as a catalyst reaches an extreme by jeopardising the director and othe people’ life , nevertheless I find it interesting and worth watching from this play and subjectivity/confession angles.

Week 8 Observational Cinema: Tim Ash, Maysles Brothers, Frederick Wiseman

This was by far my favorite session in the Visual Anthropology class because of the screenings’ ‘marathon’ that began from the same start line: the debate around cinéma verité or the observational cinema, understood mainly as direct cinema or being without a narrator’ voice.


First, we watched the “Ax Fight” by Tim Ash, which I found interesting from a structural point of view, such as the film’s construction in 4 parts or analytical levels. The first part presents an incident, a fight that takes place under anthropologist’s eyes and which appears to be chaotic. The camera is in the field, documenting without any control over the ‘event’, so we have an overall ‘raw’ image of what is happening unexpectedly. The second part is the same event but narrated by Ash, who explains the conflict in the context of Yanomamo culture, so we have the intervention of the anthropologist who structures the event. The third part offers a detailed diagram and kinship scheme that explains further the nature of the conflict and how it got solved in the context of family bonds and political systems. And in the fourth part, the event is presented again but this time we watch an edited version (such as, edited sound, no kids yelling at anthropologists), meaning that we are dealing with a re-construction of the real and the issue of objectivity of fiction or partial anthropological truth comes into light. So, from all these four parts, it can be argued that only the first one can be related to as cinéma verité because the anthropologist is caught in the middle of the event without a clue about what is happening and in the same time, being uncontrolled and unable to narrate, the camera tries to draw a meaning from it.


After the “Ax Fight”, we watched some extracts from Salesman by Maysles Brothers, which I found extremely interesting from the perspective of close-up, which have this role of offering clues and also from the perspective of slow motion that illustrates the camera’s narration. With these techniques, a particular way of observing emerges that is attributed to the camera itself. It is entitled to contour from the given clues the bigger picture, the puzzle, which refers to some aspects of the American life in the 60s, such as the business of door-to-door Bible selling. The camera is socialized into the context, the young woman listens politely, the salesman is pitching her, the filming is not acknowledged as if it is part of the action and this gives the entire movie an emotional texture. Further, it can be argued that Maysles Brothers succeed in more than documenting the action but transform the camera in a social observer.

diego alva 4

Furthermore, I was introduced to Frederick Wiseman’s style by watching fragments from “Titicut Follies”, another example of observational cinema in which the narrator is absent and the camera is given the privilege of observing the degrading conditions to which patients from Bridgewater Hospital are subjected. I find it amazing that the camera directly reaches the American social institution by simply being present and reveals its absurdities by using close-up technique, which becomes really confusing: for instance, the scene when the doctor discusses with the inmate-patient (in the courtyard or in his office), the close-up, apart from maintaining a certain tension of the event, tends to sweep away the social statuses, the limit between who is who, you are not aware anymore of who is the craziest one, you do not perceive during the discussion the power relations between the institution and institutionalized.

Speaking about the latent moralizing tone of the camera, it makes me think of a recent documentary style, such as The Yes Men (2003) and The Yes Men Fix the World (2009), which is part of an activist culture, entitled tactical media. The Yes Men are known as an activist duo, who impersonates entities such as politicians or corporation representatives and are undermining their authority publicly through mass media and using subversive actions such as spoofing, fake interviews, conferences with the purpose of exposing corporative lies, putting pressure or simply mocking ‘the giants’. For instance, one of the famous interventions is related to the case of Dow Chemical Disaster, when one of the guys from Yes Men appeared live on BBC, as a Dow spokesman, and took full responsibility for the Bhopal Disaster.


Week 7: Forest of Bliss and the Rhetoric of Metaphor

Forest of Bliss left me with mixed feelings: the beginning shocked me, the slow and meticulous motion of the scenes made me anxious, the imagery overwhelmed me, the lack of subtitles grieved me, nevertheless, this would suggest one straightforward thing that I was able to be a knowledgeable active viewer engaged through the openness of the camera. Building on this, I would agree that what Gardner successfully achieves in this movie is a “beautiful visual exercise, an exploration of imagery” (Moore et. All, 1988)[i], specifically, he detaches from the usual devices that extend the visual information in the documentary tradition and we are left to become knowledgeable through experience and through “text” (Banks, 1992)[ii], meaning the event or the action content of the film.


These devices, to which Moore (1988) is referring, are the presence of a narrator, subtitles for the dialogue, or audio material from interviews, but are in fact perceived as limits of visual representation; in exchange, Gardner resumes to the language of the film (the montage), which he finds sufficient enough to express the event and enable the viewer to experience the authentic participation to this event . He appears to promote the “un-deviceable” documentary , with no translation, no commentaries, being “left to figure the film out for ourselves from the images”(Moore, 1988, 1).

As part of the language of the film, Gardner comes up with a montage device, the “visual revelation”, letting a later sequence explains an earlier one, for instance when the ladders are revealed to be funeral stretchers (Ibid, 2). But without employing the traditional devices, it appears that the “ethnographicness” (Banks, 1992) of this movie is debatable. One (Moore et all, 1998) would argue that the film is not an anthropological document because of this openness of the camera, is an observational film, not an ethnographic one because we cannot figure out the intentionality of the director and, in the same time, the reaction. Banks (1992, 116-7) argues that the ethnographicness of a film is defined by three elements: the aspect of intentionality in ethnographic movie, intentionality of the director (writing); the event or the action content of the film (text) and the reaction (reading).

But I would say that the aspect of intentionality in the film is introduced by the quotation from Yeats’s translation of the Upanishads:

“Everything in this world is eater or eaten, the seed is food and fire is eater”  shapeimage_1

As in Dead Birds, it appears that Gardner structures metaphorically his movie under the ‘rhetoric of a metaphor’[iii]: the film opens with the image of a dog being killed by an enemy dog pack which relates to the “person-like” identities as an up-setting image (Moore et all, 1988). Starting from this point, we can’t claim that the movie is not anthropological or ethnographic, because firstly we have the aspect of intentionality explained above. Then, there is the text or the event which is very rich in visual representation of different religious rituals of purification and cleansing, and could easily make from this film an ethnography about this contradiction in terms of purification-sanitation, and sanitation and filth from a western perspective. I know that the movie is more than this and I think Gardner is not interested much in the reaction as in the process of writing of and the text. He aims at making from this visual feast” (Chopra, 1989) an experiential knowledge for the viewer and gives him the opportunity to experience the visual without frames imposed by the director, but only under the influence of the metaphor introduced at the beginning or make a sense of that quotation as being a metaphor while enjoying this “journey between extremes of praise and blame” (Ostor, 1989).

[i] Moore et. All, 1988. The Limitations of Imagist Documentary. A Review of Robert Gardner’s “Forest of Bliss”. Society for Visual Anthropology Newsletter 4(2):1-3. Including reviews by J. Parry (1988), R. Chopra (1989), A. Ostor (1989), J. Ruby (1989).

[ii] Banks, M. 1992. Which Films are ethnographic films? In P Crawford & D Turton (eds) Film as ethnography.pp. 99-115. Manchester : Manchester University Press.

[iii] Mischler,C. 1985, Narrativity and Metaphor in ethnographic film. A critique of Robert Gardner’s Dead Birs. In American Anthropologist, 87: 668-682.

Week 6: The Fiction of Reality. Through Vertov’s ‘Kino-Eye’

Watching Vertov’ Man with a Movie Camera for the second time, I found it strangely ethnographic in the sense used by Vaughan (1992)[i], namely, Vertov in the position of a “cine-anthropologist”, but paradoxically not because of his neutrality in documenting (“Documentary and its obsession with realism”)  but more because of his structure of reality through editing and montage.

I’ve never looked at Vertov’s work through the power of montage, which inscribes a certain language of the film, a dynamic that Vertov calls the “art of movement”, and in which man is excluded as a subject and the film is more focused on the “poetry of machines”. This means that the final work is actually not an ethnography about the ‘contemporary man’ but an ethnography about contemporary man in relation with the mechanical labor, with machines, what I might call an ethnography about “the rhythm of machines”. In order to organize the movement and its elements on the screen, Vertov uses the montage and creates the intervals or transitions that compose the motion or the “kinetic resolution”. He aims at transforming the cinema in the art of inventing movements.

But being selective and structuring the real through editing, doesn’t essentially suggest a (re)construction of the real? In this sense, it can be clearly accounted for a “fiction of objectivity” (Nichols, 1991)[ii] or a fiction of reality because we don’t have to deal anymore with realism in its pure sense, “the presentation of things as they appear to the eye and the ear in everyday life” (p. 165), but with another type of objectivity, which relates to reality not only in terms of topics and characters but also establishes a new rule in organizing the image, scene and story. This is what Nichols refers to as neorealist perspective that we can encounter also in Vertov’s work, and through which the represented reality succeeds in evading the control of the filmmaker under a formal effect in representation produced with the techniques of editing and montage.

Kinochestvo is the art of organizing the necessary movements of objects in space as a rhythmical artistic whole, in harmony with the properties of the material and the internal rhythm of each object.

Extract from Vertov’s Manisfesto –

This harmonious relation between man and machine/objects reminded me of a documentary entitled Manufactured Landscapes (2006)[iii], specifically, I have in mind the beginning scene of the Chinese Factory landscape, where the camera slowly shapes the space of the workplace that appears to be endless. Or the close-ups scenes (17:34)[iv], when manufacturers assemble with great care electric panels or other objects that can be look at from an opposite perspective with that of Vertov’s, namely, man’s ability to control this movement of objects, and its ability to control himself, man as an automatom, as part of the machine.

Also, a different response to what can be the “movements of objects in space as a rhythmical artistic whole”, I post a video which I really like and I find it entertaining and relevant in the end of this discussion on the “the art of movement”.

Sound of Noise – Music for One Apartment and Six Drummers


[i] Vaughan, D., 1992. The aestehics of ambiguity. In P Crawford & D Turton (eds) Film as ethnography.pp. 99-115. Manchester : Manchester University Press.

[ii] Nichols, B. 1991. The Fact of Realism and the Fiction of Objectivity. In Representing Reality: issues and concepts in documenting. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Pp 165-198.

[iv] Online on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FQnl93FfNlo  (last access 12/04/2013)

Week 5: Ways of seeing. Photo Wallahs

MacDougall’s text opened up many viewpoints on photography’s ‘play’ with the ways of seeing. Specifically, imagined as a mirror that doubles us, photography is considered a form of representation that lacks mediation but still, it becomes hard to tell if the represented self is the real lasting one or just temporary that re-identify us. Within these lines, MacDougall mentions two types of photographies: a first one that represents us but, according to popular clichés, also ‘steals our souls’ while it captures our spirit; and a second one, that does not take from us but it allows to add something to our-selves, to stage and to manipulate the representation.


The film “Photo Wallahs” exemplifies very much this second type of photography: on the top of Gun Hill in Mussoorie, in the Himalayan foothills, photographers make “emotions flow out in photography” by dressing and encourage middle-class tourists to play someone else, to break social boundaries and perform in front of the camera a character: bandit, Arab sheik, peasant etc. Apart from wiping out initial social statuses, the photographers actually play with the reflection of the different mirrors that they set, to the extent that photography is not interested anymore in representing the ‘truthness’ or the social self, but its function is to release the inner feelings, through the use of costumes and objects. This is what MacDougall was arguing in The Corporeal Image (2006)[i] that “every image increases us and attests to the possibilities within us” (p. 148), meaning that photography does not limit or set boundaries of ourselves but empowers us, enlarges or erases existing boundaries as ‘costume photographers’ are setting the stage, prepare the clothing and provide the right positions.


Nevertheless, the film gave me the impression that this play in the ways of seeing can become kaleidoscopic through presenting various layers of representation. For instance, in the movie the artist Bishmber Dutt paints photographs received from his clients which  become something else: they are processed like a color painting, which opens up not only the possibility to play with layers of representation but also with layers of truth or what is real. Although, these portraits are real because they represent real people, but being painted alters them and moves them to another level of reality, “they are surreal as well as hyperreal” (MacDougall, 2006, 155) by mimicking the indexical truth of photographs without having to be ‘truthful’ or indexical.

These practices in Indian photography and the discussion around the layers of representation and truthfullness made me re-consider Eugenia Maximova’s photographs[ii] on the ‘cemetery culture’ in Ukraine and Moldova as an interesting case to discuss in the frame of photographic (re)production. The article about her photographs labels the headstones as ‘kitsch’ decoration art but, pushing it a bit beyond, I see them as creating an identity which is packed in the representation from the gravestone. Aren’t these photographic representations an example of self performativity, as in ‘Photo Wallahs’? Or, as in Dutt’s painted photographs, aren’t they the hyperreal portraits, which play with the reality layer, being first a photograph of the photograph and secondly, telling a story that we cannot actually decide if it is about a real self, a social or constructed one?


[i] MacDougall, D. 2006. Photo Hierarchicus: Signs and Mirrors in Indian Photography. In MacDougall, D. The Corporeal Image: film, ethnography, and the senses. Pp. 147-175. Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press.

Week 4: The Language of Photography – Whose Language?

70-09-03-TomaP-02I have always tended to envision photography (the visual) and language (the verbal) in terms of a relationship, rather as an exchange in the sense given by Victor Burgin, in which photography is a „complex of exchanges between the verbal and the visual” (in Mitchell, 1994: 282-3[1]). While taking for granted that the visual is undoubtedly a „bearer” of the verbal, I have never thought of the visual as a purely objective transcript of reality because it seems to me a naivity to account the possibility of a frameless context of producing, reproducing and reading images. There is no such thing as objectivity in the visual representation of reality as long as the camera is defined through intentionality, so to say, while there is always positionality in viewing and representing, it is almost impossible to imagine the visual liberated from the mental structures of the viewer, and from the frames of „the shooter”. Even if the image is not supported by language, photography is language, as Barthes argued, a „message without a code” but I would rather say a „message with a code” but whose code? Particularly, while imaging the relation between photography and language in terms of a struggle, the antithetical part of this relation would not refer to questioning the status of photography as language, but rather whose language in the context of multiple positionalities?

Tough Journey

While browsing through the POYi (Pictures of the Year International) the 70th Winners list[2], namely the Portrait section, I’ve had a deja-vu related to our class discussion on the relation of photography and language. „Can we really see a photography in use which is not accompanied by language?” or can we read photographs in a „frameless” manner, without any caption, de-contextualising the visual, liberating it from conventions? Do we really have a case when the picture is sufficient? And the answer for this question popped up in my mind while looking at this portrait „The Communism” (3rd Place) http://www.poyi.org/70/09/03.php. And at „Tough Journey”, one of the Awards of Excellence http://www.poyi.org/70/09/ae01.php.

What do you read in these photographs without looking in the description and without knowing the background story of these people? And if you manage to read beyond conventions, is it your way of reading (the language that you deciphered) consistent with the language of the photgrapher?

[1] W.J.T. Mitchell, 1994. The Photographic Essay: Four Case Studies. In Picture Theory: essays on verbal and visual representation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 281-328.

[2] On POYi website, the displaying facilitates the reading of a photograph without the caption, although you have the title hint, the description of each photograph is not visible at first sight, it appears in the bottom of the page.

Week 3: Between exoticizing and documenting: photography as ethnography?

“To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder – a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.”

00002492 Susan Sontag, On Photography

The usage of still photography in ethnographic fieldwork tends to be perceived as a challenge to the disciplinary boundary mostly because it enables anthropologists to oscillate between what Margaret Mead would define as scientific fidelity and aesthetic sensitivity. What I find inspiring in this duality of still photography as an ethnographic instrument is related firstly to a sort of honesty in recording superficial aspects of a subject and further in recreating the real image of an object, in representing what things really are (this-is-how-it-was), in other words, reclaiming the authenticity of cultural representation.

On the other hand, it presupposes, as a (visual) medium, a linkage to the aesthetic style which empowers the observer to control the aesthetic spectacle, or the cinema of attractions, meaning that photography becomes a visual metaphor: it communicates not only the visual truth but also it´s capable of unravelling the meanings of cultural beings. By representing this-is-how-it-is implies an expressive approach that can conflict with the purposes of the photographic use: the observer employs photography in order to explore and document what lies before his lens not to overwhelm the content. But to another extent, the aesthetic tendency of the photographer (ethnographer) can fulfill and substantiate the nature of things. But how much self-expression should the (photo)ethnographer include in the photographic process in order not to subliminally murder, as Sontag put it, the casual complexities of a culture/community?

In October, 2012, at the Museum of Ethnography in Budapest I had the chance to attend an exhibition entitled „Casa Mare” (translated “The Big House”) by Frank Gaudlitz[i], which I believe is related to our discussion on this challenge that photography is subjected to, namely, to reconcile the medium for the visual truth with the expressive representation and visual interpretation of the same truth. Furthermore, it reflects an example of how to stage through photography an ethnographic setting.


This exhibition comprises a collection of color photographs taken by Gaudlitz in Eastern and South Eastern Europe, such as Transylvania, Maramureș and Dobrudjia in Romania, Southern Hungary, Republic of Moldova and Vojvodina in Serbia. What defines them as ethnographic material is that they present people full-figure, in the most prestigious room of their homes, surrounded by different objects, pictures in the background that constitute interiors of everyday life, and in the same time, illustrate their cultural identity and social status. I find this exhibition relevant for a further discussion because although the photographer tried to capture realistically his subjects in their authenticity, such as the natural light, the colors of their homes, their personal objects, actually the photographs were staged in the sense that Gaudlitz lets his subjects prepare for his arrival, they have put their best clothes and had the chance to choose and arrange their room as they wish. The issue of staging is two-folded because on one hand, the purpose of the photographs is not shadowed by this so to say ‘preparation’, they are still vehicles of cultural identity, reflecting the specificities of a certain culture and modernity’s distortions. But on the other hand, how much of what is prepared reflects the everyday life and the realism or the casual complexities of their culture?