Guest Post: Is your department’s website #anthrosowhite?

[Footnotes is proud to present the work of Bryonny Goodwin-Hawkins and Hannah Gould. Goodwin-Hawkins is deep hanging out in a geography department, as a postdoctoral researcher at Aberystwyth University in Cymru Wales. Gould is completing her doctorate at the University of Melbourne, Australia.]

Amid new scandals, anthropology’s old reputation as a discipline of white heroes in pith helmets has bubbled back into debate. Not that – at least for so-called ‘minority’ scholars, and those of us consciously living in not-really-post-colonial nations – issues of who gets to do anthropology and who is still an object have ever gone away. Like the appropriation of a Māori word by a feted North Atlantic circle, the use of black and brown otherness to celebrate (white) anthropology remains in plain sight online. We’re talking about anthropology departments’ websites.

Despite the buzz for public anthropology, ‘pop anthro’, and open access experiments, institutional websites are collectively perhaps anthropology’s biggest – but least critically analysed – online interface. “This is what we do,” department websites tell future students. “This is what you do,” they purport to say of the staff they represent. And they say it, usually, with imagery.

We’ve been on a mission to investigate which kind of imagery gets the ‘anthropological’ imprimatur since, a few years ago, we stood in front of a photo competition display at an anthropology conference and felt … despair. Our own thoughts about what we saw were echoed in mutterings around us. “Poverty porn,” ventured a few. “Racist,” some dared. Yet objectifying images of other bodies were so wearyingly familiar we felt we’d almost grown up with them in the discipline. We’d seen Dori Tunstall and Jennifer Esperanza’s call, on Savage Minds, to decolonise anthropology textbook covers. We’d also seen similar imagery on department websites – and so rarely anything there that reflected our own research. Bryonny studies contemporary Britain and the industrial revolution; Hannah works at the interface of death and the digital. Look at department websites, however, and it seems we’ve forgotten to float on a canoe downriver at sunset.

We got methodical with our grumbles. We found which of the reigning 200 ‘top world universities’ had anthropology departments, went to their websites, and scraped the images. We ultimately analysed around 1,000 photographs.

What anthropology department websites show

We saw some themes straight away, like the tropical landscapes that make doing anthropology look like a luxe holiday. Others were less obvious. Anthropology’s apparent hand and foot fetish took us by surprise, until we figured out that cropping off heads is a way around ethics and copyright permissions (images of material culture seemed to serve a similar purpose). Most departments highlighted fieldwork far from their own shores. Though only one African university made our sample, the African continent was among the most common photographic locales. And, while US and UK universities dominated the group, fewer than fifty images could be pinned to the two. Many of these showed internal ‘others’, like Irish travellers, or urban dystopia – think post-industrial Detroit.

Faraway fieldwork would be less problematic but for the ways faraway people are shown. 700 images depicted people – who are presented as anthropologically interesting in limited ways. 250 images – nearly a quarter of the entire sample – had people in ‘traditional’ costume, with a further 65 showing naked or painted bodies. Even religion seems remarkably wearable: women wear hijab, monks wear saffron robes, and shamans wear masks. In Reading National Geographic, written twenty-five years ago, Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins observed,

“The eye of National Geographic, like the eye of anthropology, looks for cultural difference. It is continually drawn to people in brightly colored, ‘different’ dress, engaged in initially strange-seeming rituals or inexplicable behavior. This exoticism involves the creation of an other who is strange but – at least as important – beautiful.” (1993:89-90)

Amongst all these othering images, we found just 70 photographs of anthropologists identifiably at work, less than 20 showing visibly non-white anthropologists (most of whom, interestingly, were women). We spotted the note-takers, the posers, and the ‘squatters’, crouched down beside other people’s “third world exotic” (Lutz & Collins, 1993:90) actions.

Website images suggest that the people anthropologists study are ‘third world’, because when the camera isn’t lingering on colourful exoticism, it finds poverty. Joel Robbins alleges that anthropology is stuck on the ‘suffering subject’; the subject on anthropology websites may be suffering materially, but keeps smiling. Especially when children were included, we were reminded of the now-outdated NGO campaigns roundly critiqued in development studies.

Finally, exclusions spoke volumes. It’s now often said that anthropology is as busy in medical laboratories, multinational companies, and metropoli, as it once was on remote islands. We found only two images showing digital ethnography, two of finance, less than twenty-five depicting medical anthropology, and only four referencing the all-too-contemporary refugee crisis.

Why (oh why)?

We turned our analysis into an article now in-press with Focaal. We also talked about the topic with colleagues at our own and other universities. Between reviews and conversations, two explanations for our findings emerged. The first, rather than explain the images, questioned our positional reading of them. Anonymous reviewers pointed out that current visual theory understands images as polyvalent, and by coding them on content, we were shutting down the other meanings they might offer for different audiences and contexts. We were also reminded that the position of an image matters: where it is placed, what it is juxtaposed with. (Juxtapositions within the same image, incidentally, were usually of tradition and modernity, like an Egyptian pyramid beside a luxury hotel.) We acknowledge that, as a pākehā New Zealander and white Australian, our own interpretive frame is specific, and limited. But we were – and still are – uncomfortable about theory being used as a kind of absolution here.

The second explanation we heard was less about anthropology than the university. Many websites are controlled by university marketing departments, whose views on anthropology’s ‘unique selling potential’ can be blinkered. One senior faculty member at a university in our sample shared his frustration with marketing. At his request that images of tribal others be swapped for those that actually represented department research, he was told, “But that’s sociology!”. Again, though, we need to avoid allowing institutional blame to absolve anthropologists of our own responsibilities. Many images in our sample were identifiably contributed by staff or students. The neoliberal university, guilty of many sins, did not make one homepage-featured anthropologist put on ‘ethnic drag’ and pose in a comically exaggerated warrior stance. Let us also be blunt: if we cannot muster the influence to change how anthropology is represented by our own institutions, then disciplinary dreams of having sway beyond those institutions really are magical thinking.

Departments, we have a problem

So, what to do? We don’t want to lay down a ‘right’ kind of image. But we do as anthropologists need to confront that images matter and we have a problem on our websites. We’d encourage readers right now to click through to their own department homepage. Does it represent what you do and the discipline you want to be part of? Ask around. Start the conversation. Make change.

Of course, as recent events have underlined, taking down images from a website cannot change the entrenched structures that affect who can do anthropology and how. We certainly wouldn’t want to see a kind of ‘black cladding’ of websites, with nothing changing underneath. Yet if we view websites as signifying some of contemporary anthropology’s enduring hang-ups and boundaries, then change really might begin at the homepage.

[Editor’s Note: The authors have chosen not to include example photographs or screenshots, rather they would like you to critically review the website of your department or a department that you know of.]

3 thoughts on “Guest Post: Is your department’s website #anthrosowhite?

  1. Thank you both for opening this conversation. I am frequently thinking about the ethics of ethnographic photography (and my own, in particular). My research takes place in three working class neighborhoods in Dakar, Senegal, so where people appear in my photography, they are People of Color; where material environments appear, they are dusty and rusty; paint peels from the walls; automobile maintenance is often improvised. I’m not interested in photographing the exotic nor the impoverished (neither of which are terms that the local community would use to describe my photos), nor am I interested in objectification. I work closely with the people that I photograph, I show them what I photograph, sometimes I give away prints, sometimes I pay with cash. There is a lot that goes on behind every one of my photographs that is not evident when they appear on a department website.

    Anthropology department websites are, probably above all, advertisements, if not arguments. The problem, I think, is that department websites very often extract not the photographic subject (or collaborator) from their environment, but the photograph itself from its ethnographic context. These photos are put on display for people (often high school students, undergraduates) who are less likely to have the kind of critical analytical training that might distance them from a superficial appreciation for the exoticism of certain photos. This is less a question about photography for itself (e.g. what a photographer is trying to do or say with their work), and more a question about the “afterlife” of photography (e.g. how it is taken up by what audience).

    In my opinion, the problem of the department website (and, I would add, department photo contests, which almost never judge photos in the rich context of ethnographic photography but more often as aesthetically-pleasing street, landscape, and portrait photography) is symptomatic of a larger problem in North Atlantic anthropology about who can do research where. If we continue to disrupt the classical model of White Anthropologist in Brown Location, or the classical model of Researcher-from-Here doing Research-Over-There, then the products (i.e. the photos) will continue to shift in their subject matter.


    1. Yes, you’re absolutely right. One of the issues we do engage with in the longer article is just that way you describe images getting shorn of their contexts. An image might have been made with all sorts of relationships, empathies, connections and messy realities, but once it ends up on a website it becomes mobilised as ‘anthropological’ in a way that potentially leaves out a lot of that content-behind-the-content.

      Photographic empathies, if I can call them that, were partly what the reviewers who drew on visual theory were reminding us of. But I’m not sure if those contributing or uploading photos are as aware of how they could be received as they are of how they were made. We noticed how often images were presented without any kind of guidance in the text (and something like “we’ve written a homepage blurb and now we need some pictures” is probably the sum of it). Given that public perceptions of anthropology are often still stuck on ‘studies tribes in Africa’ or ‘Margaret Mead went to the Pacific’, websites can be flirting dangerously with fulfilling preconceptions.

      I would hesitate a guess that some consciousness of the quandary lies behind the trad/mod juxtapositions and images of stuff like graffiti. It’s the “See! Not tribes! Contemporary and hip!” thing. But then you can end up marking some places/cultures as remarkable for having modernity in them, or pull a classic rural:urban dichotomy move in which you show the stuff that contrasts the most with the interpretation you’re debating.

      In all honesty, I don’t know what the way out is. Even screeds of interpretation won’t get read (and I think there’s a bunch of research on how long people look at a page online). But I do think that talking about how we get represented and how we represent others is a conversation we need to keep having.


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