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Pictorial Lives: Explorations in Personal Anthropology

Richard Chalfen
Department of Anthropology
Temple University
Philadelphia, PA 19122 USA

Fall Semester, 2002

Several introductory questions include: Why should cultural anthropologists be interested in the study snapshots, family albums, home movies and home videos? How is "culture" connected to visual communication? Why are personal pictures important to the study of human cultures and their symbolic environments? How do ordinary people use their cameras to communicate information about themselves to themselves? How do ordinary people construct versions of their lives, create evidence of human existence as well as maintain identities and cultural presence in their family albums? How can we understand these pictorial forms as "stories" that are told across generations? How are human lives transformed to be preserved and remembered in snapshots, home movies and home videotapes? How do these picture collections contribute to (or even construct) our memories? How do these examples of “Home Media” compare with other versions created with spoken and/or written words such as oral histories, diaries, journals, memoirs, autobiographies, biographies?

During this Spring semester, we will critically review the anthropological relevance of written forms such as biography and autobiography and then compare these spoken/written models to modern pictorial traditions--still photography, film and videotape. The course will introduce the notions of Home Media and Home Culture and seek to integrate such topics as personal narrative, storytelling, family folklore, construction of personal knowledge, creation of social and collective memories.

Equally important, students will do their own original research projects and short studies of personal and family photography from the perspective of visual anthropology. Results will be recorded in written journals, on videotape and/or on your own internet home page.

Please Note:

This semester we will be giving more attention to several parts of the syllabus that provide opportunities for you to gain and practice skills that will help you in post-Temple days. The syllabus for Anthro. 237 has been re-designed to provide more of an experiential focus. We will be emphasizing an engagement with life outside the University, in the “halls and byways” of everyday life, and always related in some way to American visual culture.

Exercises in the form of “Journal Entries” have been designed with specific questions in mind. You will explore problems in the everyday, taken-for-granted life of ordinary people, people who become consumers and collectors of personally realized views of family life. In turn, we will be asking questions about the common practice of organizing pictures for private display -- when ordinary people become image archivists and story-tellers through their constructions of family albums, just to mention one example.

Through a series of fieldwork assignments, you will be able to practice and enhance interpersonal skills including establishing rapport with strangers, interviewing, small group communication and presenting project results to a class audience. Second, you will gain familiarity and experience with the internet and mobile technology including digital cameras, palm pilots, portable scanners, among others, all in connection with improving your abilities to collect data, document results – in short to gain a greater sense of computer expertise.

You will find places in the syllabus where you will master the essentials of Blackboard programs, manipulation of the Internet, web page construction and use, smart-cart use, data collection and analysis, among others. You will be encouraged to design and implement your own internet home page as a location to house your images and work.

Most of the required reading and fieldwork is easily related to potential employment in the work worlds of advertising, marketing research, museum studies, design and even more directly to image-related industries of camera and film/video manufacture and use. Thus an additional objective is to develop a portfolio of image-related skills and products that demonstrate how you can relate your interpersonal skills with a familiarity of the modern, electronically based, computer-driven world. Many details will be given during the first week of classes.

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Required Readings

Readings for Anthropology 237: Pictorial Lives
Workbook for Anthro. 237: Pictorial Lives – Assignments for Journal Entries
These packets are available from Docucare, located at 900 North Broad Street
(call 215-235-8740 before going to ensure availability and stated cost).

Bohannan, Paul and Dirk van der Elst
1998 Asking and Listening – Ethnography as Personal Adaptation.
Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.

Langness, L.L. and Gelya Frank
1981 Lives--An Anthropological Approach to Biography and Autobiography, New York: Chandler and Sharp.

Chalfen, Richard
1987 Snapshot Versions of Life, Bowling Green, OH.: Popular Press.
1991 Turning Leaves--The Photograph Collections of Two Japanese American Families, Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico

Moran, James M.
2002 There's No Place Like Home Video. University of Minnesota Press

Citron, Michelle
1999 Home Movies and Other Necessary Fictions. Univ. of Minnesota

Zimmerman, Patricia
1995 Reel Families – A Social History of Amateur Film. Indiana Un. Press

Recommended Texts


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To contact Richard Chalfen, email: rchalfen@temple.edu