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How voyeuristic is visual anthropology? (Chenchus)

Anthropology as a field of study has only materialised within the last century. Studying visual and material cultures from around the world teaches different countries about each other. Within the field of ethnography, however, there has been a historical tendency for westerners to make ethnographic film which, rather than simply observing and discussing other cultures, sensationalises them for home viewing.

This was the case until very recently, and is now recognised as a historic form of ethnographic film which has been parodied, as discussed previously on this blog. However, the voyeuristic nature of historical films does not completely discard their usefulness. Although the Chenchus in this film are animalised in a way that, from a 2014 perspective, is intrusive and unfair, the filmmakers made useful headway into researching uncontacted tribes. This is an incredibly important field of research. So that uncontacted tribes, particularly those who violently reject contact with the developing societies around them, might maintain their distance and lifestyles, it is vital that we learn their movements and habits in order to allow them to live undisturbed. In a world where privacy is increasingly difficult to come by, respect for these tribes is of the utmost importance.

But in general, in 2014, when making an ethnographic film, how voyeuristic is it? Is there a tendency towards superiority? Does ethnographic film not usually highlight the problems in a particular society and culture, and does this not only heighten a sensation of alterity (“otherness”) in those who watch on a screen far away?

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