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Phillip Vannini, ed. The Routledge International Handbook of Ethnographic Film and Video.

Nadja Valentinčič Furlan
Bibliographical reference

Phillip Vannini ed. The Routledge International Handbook of Ethnographic Film and Video. Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2020. 379 pp.

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1My first impression was that The Routledge International Handbook of Ethnographic Film and Video was the third broad-based overview of visual anthropology, so I requested a review copy. However, I had to adjust my impression to some extent when the publisher published the book on the online application Bookshelf. Nevertheless, I still take the monograph Principles of Visual Anthropology (Hockings 1975, reissued in 1995 and 2003) as a point of departure, as it has greatly contributed to the establishment of visual anthropology as a special subdiscipline, and is probably the most frequently cited book in this field. Its sequel, Memories of the Beginnings of Ethnographic Film (Engelbrecht 2007), is a valuable testament to important figures and methods of visual anthropology and its development. The Routledge International Handbook of Ethnographic Film and Video was edited by Phillip Vannini, who specializes in social and cultural geography, cultural studies, and sociology, having used film for the first time while researching Canadians living without electricity (Life Off Grid, 2015), as he writes in the introduction (Vannini 2020: 9). Despite the title, the book is not designed as a systematic handbook (cf. e.g. Cross-Cultural Filmmaking: A Handbook for Making Documentary and Ethnographic Films and Videos, Barbash and Taylor 1997), but as a collection of articles with a strong emphasis on empirical experience. However, it differs from the first two books in a number of ways.

2The most obvious is the changed paradigm of the reference points for ethnographic film and the target audience. Principles of Visual Anthropology established visual anthropology and ethnographic film in relation to 'written' anthropology, to the history of film and to the television mediascape – David MacDougall wrote that we all had been formed by watching TV, and even visual anthropologists had carried part of this legacy with us into ethnographic filmmaking (1975: 115). The new volume takes the sovereignty of ethnographic film and visual anthropology, as well as other visual social sciences, for granted, and the main reference points are the internet mediascape and ethnographic film festivals. Vannini deliberately invited relatively young authors, many of whom had not yet been born when the first monograph was published, and the book primarily addresses the new audience that grew up with the internet and unlimited connectivity (Vannini 2020: 4). All of the articles feature the authors discussing topics related to their visual projects and practices. Another difference is that Principles of Visual Anthropology addressed both main areas of visual anthropology – analysis of visual culture and visual media on one hand, and visual ethnography as a practical part of researching social phenomena and transferring knowledge on the other, while the new book, true to its title, contains little discussion of visual analysis not resulting in film/video, or of photography. Similarly, there is no focus on the history of visual anthropology and ethnographic film – the book is primarily aimed at expanding the boundaries of ethnographic film and video creativity in all possible directions.

3The collection is characterized by a postmodern emphasis on openness and potentials. The editor believes that young filmmakers and video producers are more interested in making, watching and enjoying films and videos than in antiquated discussions about the value and methods of ethnographic film, so the book avoids definitions, canons, recommendations on style limitations and definite answers, opening up to multidisciplinarity, diversity of art forms and scientific methods, to various assemblages of authors, film subjects and collaborators of all sorts, to the latest media and technologies, and to the diversity of production processes (Vannini 2020: 4). Multidisciplinarity was already present in the 1975 monograph, however, in this volume, it is substantially expanded. In addition to visual anthropology, it covers psychological anthropology, sociology, history, geography, cultural studies, pedagogy, media studies, environmental studies, and women’s and gender studies, which often employ the methods and approaches of visual ethnography and ethnographic film in slightly or considerably modified ways.

The Book

4The book features 29 articles, or chapters, divided into six parts, plus an introduction and a conclusion. Despite book’s principled opposition to definitions, Vannini‘s introduction is followed by P. Kerim Friedman's article “Defining Ethnographic Film”, which acts as a reference point for the rest of the book, and therefore I will discuss it in more detail. Based on the practical needs of planning the Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival, Friedman (2020: 14–23) has defined four frameworks or approaches of ethnographic films: ‘ethnographic film as a record’ (after Heider 2006 [1976]), ‘ethnographic film as a text’ (after Ruby 1975), ‘ethnographic film as a sense impression’ (after Taylor 1996 and MacDougall 2006) and ‘ethnographic film as relational practice’ (after Ginsburg 2018). I find this division useful so I will apply it in this review, however, in my view, it is neither practically nor theoretically well-founded, as Friedman takes the first two frameworks from the historical development of visual anthropology, and the latter two from a recent article by Faye Ginsburg, using the ‘aesthetics of accountability’ of relational documentaries to criticize the ethics of sensory ethnography, emphasizing that she focuses exclusively on films made in the last decade (Ginsburg 2018: 39, 43, 48). Since Taylor (1996) and MacDougall (1998, 2006) saved ethnographic film from logocentrism, stressing the autonomy of film as a capable medium for knowledge production with its own specifics and rights, today the notions of ‘film as a record’, which limited cinematic language at the expense of ethnography, and ‘film as text’, which subordinated cinematic language to textual practices and models, have hopefully been transcended. The question therefore arises as to whether such films are still being produced nowadays, while we definitely see that the sensory and relational approaches are flourishing. Friedman provides much better theoretical and historical substantiation of films using the sensory approach than those using the relational approach. He acknowledges the long tradition of reflection on the relations between the researcher and film subjects, yet here I miss the contributions of Jean Rouch (1975), David MacDougall (1975, 1992, 1998), and Faye Ginsburg (1995a), to name only a few. Personally, I would chronologically rank the relational film as having appeared before the sensory one, grounded on shared anthropology and the participatory method (Rouch 1975; MacDougall 1975), collaborative film, subject generated film (Ruby 1991), and indigenous media (Ruby 1991; Ginsburg 1995a; 1995b). Faye Ginsburg (2018: 39, 48) notes that relational documentary applies an unprivileged camera style’, much like MacDougall stated for observational and participatory cinema, and in fact for ethnographic filmmaking of the late 20th century in general: we feel the researcher behind the camera, his corporeality, and his relationship with the film subjects (MacDougall 1998: 203–205). Sensory films are based on observation, haptic visuality, aesthetics, and the ‘privileged camera style’ (Ginsburg 2018: 39, 48). The latter has always been characteristic of Hollywood fiction films: the camera freely moves around the space, the influence of camerapersons on events is not visible, nor is their relationship with the film subjects (MacDougall 1998: 201). I will come back to the relational film at the end, after brief reviews of the individual articles.

5Part 1, “Practicing the Art and Science of Ethnographic Film and Video”, contains, in addition to Friedman's, five more articles on the historical, theoretical, and conceptual contexts of ethnographic film and video production in the 21st century. In the article “Theorizing in / of Ethnographic Film”, Jenny Chio discusses the relationship between filmmaking and theory making, as well as aesthetic and theoretical similarities and differences between observational films and films of sensory ethnography – according to her, in the latter, more emphasis is laid on soundscapes and non-human subjects. Stephanie Spray, in her article “Filming the Other”, reviews the history of ethics in ethnographic film, claiming that while any film production is an act of objectification, its collaborative and democratic approaches can also be an act of caring for Others and of possible political transformations. Sensory, artistic, aesthetic, and experimental approaches are addressed by Christopher Wright in “The New Art of Ethnographic Filmmaking” (advocating digital democracy and experimental art introduced to people in the field), by Robert Willim in “Beyond Ethnographic Representation” (focusing on non-representational theories and methodologies, ‘art probing’, and combining digital and material cultures), and by Samuel Gerald Collins and Matthew Durington in “From Ethnographic Media to Multimodality” (addressing joint authorship, connected modalities, photography, sound, and the anthropology of design in the so-called transmedia).

6Multidisciplinarity is best expressed in the second part of the book, “Applying and Extending Approaches and Methodologies”. Sociologist Asta Cekaite presents interdisciplinary ethnomethodology, which analyses social life and embodied practices of social actors from a bottom-up or emic perspective. Kathleen M. Ryan and David Staton’s interactive documentary (i-doc) in the field of oral history is based on ethnofictions (after Rouch), available together with acted interviews; the viewer becomes the interactive editor. Robert Lemelson and Annie Tucker discuss visual psychological anthropology – semi-structured conversations combined with acted scenes and expressive music that emphasize emotions and subjectivity. Sociologist Charlotte Bates presents the practice and the use of intimate autoethnographic video diaries, where research participants, e.g. children with rare diseases, film their everyday actions and reflections. Historian and filmmaker Molly Merryman focuses on feminist and queer theories as well as on democratic and inclusive approaches to women and LGBTQ+ topics in visual media.

7The third part of the handbook, “Developing Genres and Styles”, starts with Peter Biella’s exhaustive review of interactive media or i-docs, with extensive references. Biella argues that we replace technologies with new ones when enthusiasm regarding them fades, yet on the other hand, the constant change of formats, technologies and operating systems may make the interactive platforms obsolete or even inaccessible (2020: 148). Alexandrine Boudreault-Fournier addresses ‘anthropology in sound’ (2020: 159) and acoustics, claiming that film soundscapes contribute significantly to a multi-sensory film experience (2020: 153). Lorenzo Ferrarini discusses documentary hybrids that mix the documentary and the fictional without a clear demarcation of what is faction and what fiction. He argues that in times of fake news, hybrids help to develop critical spectatorship (Ferrarini 2020: 170), and also that they should be distinguished from ethnofictions, dramatized filmic re-enactments and mockumentaries (2020: 164). Kathy Kasic (2020: 173) defines sensory vérité, derived from Rouch’s cinema vérité, as a genre that combines the sensory and relational approaches: ambiguous sensory ethnography is fused with interviews or voiceovers inserting the views of film subjects or filmmakers (2020: 175, 181). Cultural geographer Anne Harris introduces the nonrepresentational strategy of ethnocinema (the term is derived from Rouch’s phrase cine-ethnography), which emerges as a group work with collaborative methods and DIY ethics decentralizing research practices (2020: 183).

8The articles in Part 4, “Working with Others, are mostly situated in the sphere of ethics and relational film. Paul Wolffram sees respect, integrity and trust as the foundations of an ethical attitude towards people in the field, regardless of the methods, techniques and technologies used. The article “Participation, Reception, Consent and Refusal” by Arjun Shankar is based on a photographic project with Indian teenagers, questioning the duration or permanence of informed consenting, further uses of visuals in other cultural settings and their possible different reception by audiences according to western canons of pleasure and aesthetics. Jasper Chalcraft and Rose Satiko Gitirana Hikiji first review the history of collaborative post-production in ethnographic film and indigenous media, then focus on their film about a Congolese artist’s performance in Sao Paulo that criticizes Brazilian racism. In her article “Filming with Nonhumans”, Sarah Abbott examines post-human theories and the practice of filming animals, trees and spirits, thus expanding anthropological epistemology and ontology.

9Part 5, “Working with Tools and Techniques”, contains four articles on the advantages and limitations of mobile video ethnography. Katrina M. Brown and Petra Lackova rethink footage and videos produced using wearable cameras mounted on glasses, caps, clothes, animals, or various means of transport. Adam Fish deals with very popular birds-eye points of view recorded with drones either for research or activism purposes. Mark R. Westmoreland delves into immersive 360° video filmed by special omnidirectional cameras, in the context of visual ethnography and humanitarian journalism. Steffen Köhn’s discussion of web contents recorded on-screen on mobile phones, computers or tablets that become ethnographic field materials may have saved research options in the time of Covid restrictions. The authors discuss the relevant theoretic bases, the specifics of human and other species’ visions, and present selected cases of video productions. In particular, Westmoreland (2020: 257–259) provides a thoughtful elaboration on methodological and technical issues (the specifics of editing a seamless image, the reproduction of full 360° images on head-mounted displays), as well as ethical dilemmas (360° video evokes a feeling of surveillance). The syntagm ‘improper distance’ denotes the viewer’s split attention, listening to intimate testimonies while ‘turning their backs’ on the film subjects and researching the 360° space. The author boldly endeavours to hack the medium using it differently than planned in the manufacturer’s presets in order to bring it closer to methods and ethics of visual ethnography (2020: 260–261).

10Part 6, “Distributing and Circulating”, is aimed primarily at students and beginners in ethnographic film and video. They can consider how to circulate their film to general or specific audiences via festivals, conferences, internet platforms, public media, and specialised distributors, such as Documentary Education Resources, or even indigenous media, e.g. Isuma.TV (a general review by Harjant S. Gill; an alternative and more critical interpretation by Ethiraj Gabriel Dattatreyan). Catherine Gough-Brady’s article on video-based research as an integral part of master’s or doctoral research is addressed to students and their supervisors in the still generally rather logocentric academic world. Carlo Cubero critically reviews the role of ethnographic film festivals, seeing them as curated gatherings and networking, expanding the possibilities of anthropological cinema, and not simply showcasing the latest ‘state of affairs’ or even setting the future research agendas of visual anthropology (Cubero 2020: 319–320). Regarding the historical development of ethnographic film festivals, the book contains no references to the longest-running ethnographic film festival, the Festival dei Popoli (The Festival of the Peoples) in Florence, first held in 1959 (Chiozzi 2015: 79; Iervese 2016: 151).

11The “Conclusion” includes a transcription of a roundtable titled « Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Ask an Ethnographic Filmmaker but Never Had a Chance To”, featuring the ten filmmakers who contributed to the book, discussing visual research, scripts, financing, ethical reviews, film subjects, cameras, tripods / monopods / hand held cameras, microphones, lights, film crews, editing, pre-screenings to film participants, festivals, distribution, and more. The final article in the conclusion is Paul Stoller’s tribute to the late film bard Jean Rouch, whose work has clearly inspired at least a quarter of the book’s authors.


12The Routledge International Handbook of Ethnographic Film and Video is a collection of solid and a few excellent scientific articles, as well as some handbook-style contributions in Part 6 and in the conclusion. Some of the articles partly overlap (e.g. two on the distribution of ethnographic film and video), and a lot of attention is paid to ethnographic film festivals, probably because they have become strategic arenas for both ethnographic filmmakers and enthusiastic viewers all over the globe. As is common with edited volumes, it is difficult to cover all areas of application – ethnographic film and video could also be discussed in the fields of folklore, linguistics, cultural heritage, ethnographic exhibitions and applied projects. Anglophone references predominate – relatively few articles and books originate from Scandinavian (e. g. the NAFA and Intervention Press series), German, French, Spanish, Slavic, South American and African sources.

13Some historians and sociologists ‘discover’ concepts and methods, not knowing they have been introduced by visual anthropologists (e.g. ‘shared authority’ on pages 96-97, ascribed to historian Ronald Grele 2006, although Jay Ruby had already discussed it in 1991; cf. also Rouch 1975). The editor could have drawn the author’s attention to various early articles on visual anthropology, thus also increasing the book’s historical accuracy. After all, Rouch’s Rule 3 reads: “Open your ears and listen deeply to your Elders” (Staller 2020: 351). As the book is focussed on the expansion of ethnographic film and video, it does not provide a balanced overview of ethnographic film and video in the 21st century – in the book, sensorial approaches prevail, while relational approaches are still strongly present in practice. Thus, young readers can also benefit from reading Paul Henley’s open-access book Beyond Observation: A History of Authorship in Ethnographic Film (2020).

14It is quite possible that in the course of time, the label ‘relational’, as in ‘relational documentary’ (Ginsburg 2018), the ‘relational frame / approach’, promoted by Friedman, Wright, Boudreault-Fournier and Harris in this book, or simply ‘relational film’, will make its way into visual ethnography as an umbrella term. Due to dynamic development, the concepts of participatory film (MacDougall 1975; Rouch 1975), collaborative film (Ruby 1991; Bayre, Harper and Afonso 2016), subject-generated film (Ruby 1991), indigenous media (Ruby 1991; Ginsburg 1995a; 1995b) and participatory video (White 2003; Gruber 2016) overlap. In participatory and collaborative film, the camera and editing equipment have mostly been in the hands of researchers who have respected and considered opinions and rights of the film subjects. In the last three decades of the 20th century, visual researchers often helped to empower indigenous peoples and disenfranchised social groups by providing video technologies and production knowhow, as a result of which today, indigenous media and subject-generated films are produced mostly independently. At the turn of the millennium, participatory video arose, in which the filming and editing are done by community members, while the film itself is still produced under the auspices of researchers, agencies or organizations.

15The Routledge International Handbook of Ethnographic Film and Video is likely to be a source of inspiration for new generations of social scientists, while other researchers will gain insight into new methods, genres, practices, media and technologies, and also become acquainted with current authors. I believe we will continue to choose methods, approaches and technologies mainly according to the research topic and objectives, as well as the expected positioning of films and videos in collections, exhibitions, websites, festivals, study agendas and applied projects. Time will tell which new methods, genres, media and technologies will flourish in the coming decades, and which articles will be most frequently cited.

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Electronic reference

Nadja Valentinčič Furlan, Phillip Vannini, ed. The Routledge International Handbook of Ethnographic Film and Video. Anthrovision [Online], 9.2 | 2021, Online since 30 June 2023, connection on 14 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Nadja Valentinčič Furlan

Slovene Ethnographic Museum, Department of Ethnographic Film

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