Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Should stock photos be used in visual anthropology?

Visual anthropology focuses on the visual, that is some image either still or moving, that serves to illustrate some ethnographic thesis as a complement or substitute for written text. I must admit that sometimes I find many of my posts here on this blog to be problematic because they are only text. Albeit many such posts are of the announcement variety, but still I wonder if I should offer up some photo as eye candy.

I have thousands of my own original images stored in my iPhoto files, but sometimes I don't have an image that "works." What to do? One temptation is the internet and its oh-so-many-photos-at-my-disposal. But what about copyright issues? one might ask. Can a blog, even one that is academic in nature, freely take images from the internet and use them as the blogger/author wishes. Perhaps, but of course with proper citations and source information and the willingness to remove such images if the original author/photographer/illustrator/filmmaker objects to its use. But this seems like a lot of hassle.

Enter stock photos - images on the internet available for free or for a price that can be used anyway the blogger sees fit. I was excited to see a recent posting on Presentation Zen with a list of sources for free stock photos (also, check out the comments for even more suggestions from PZ readers).

Link to Presentation Zen post "10 links to cool, high-rez images"

So now that we have millions and millions of images at our disposal, the questions are, what do we do with them and how do we use them? (Unfortunately the PZ post doesn't take up these questions.) For presentations it might not be so problematic to include a somewhat related visual as a background or to cleverly illustrate a (power) point. Can we do this in visual anthropology? Or how about academia in general?

Recently there was an interesting article in Slate about a medical journal using a photo to illustrate its story about HIV-positive foster children in Harlem. The problem (for which they have apologized) is that the photo that appeared in the story was that of an orphanage in Ethiopia, an image that can be purchased at iStockphoto. This was not explained in the original story. Why was this photo used? Do authors have such a creative license to illustrate a scientific, academic and/or ethnographic text?

Check out the article:

Taking Stock: Every picture tells a story, sometimes the wrong one.
By Jack Shafer

Link to Slate article, Taking Stock

The bottom line here, I feel, is to be weary of stock photos. They are convenient, too convenient. As a visual anthropologist, why not take and use your own photographs? It seems like everyone has a digital camera at their disposal, even if it is on their cell phone. Taking your own photos brings you closer to the research (which is what anthropology is all about anyway). Taking your own photos and understanding what they are allows you to include important context. The use of images in visual anthropology is not about making something look good or attractive (although these things should not be completely ignored). It's not about throwing in an image at some point to break up ugly text. How creative, original or artistic is the use of stock photos anyway? Presentation is important, but first and foremost we can never forget the purpose of visual anthropology, that is the visual representation of culture. With representation comes responsibility and ethics. Convenience is a poor substitute.

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