Stories of ANU anthropology research told in pictures

Image by exhibition participant Anthea Snowsill.
Wednesday 12 September 2018

Twenty seven anthropologists from ANU are showcasing their fieldwork through photographs in a month-long exhibition.

The Colours of Anthropology: A Visual Anthropology Photography Exhibition features photographs taken from sites all around the world in the many and varied situations our anthropologists find themselves in as they go about their research.

Master of Applied Anthropology and Participatory Development student Diana Tung’s research has taken her from the Pacific Islands to Venice, Italy. Her photographs, taken during six months she spent in the Floating City, speak to the issue she’s investigating: how communities and aid agencies approach climate change and environmental issues in the Pacific compared with the heart of Europe.

On a basic level, the level of global attention is very different, Diana says. 

“There’s something to be said about how Venice is valued for its beauty and art and historical significance,” she begins. “You could argue the same for the Pacific, but for some reason it’s not as valued and that difference is very interesting.”

Diana raised the subject of the corruption. She referred to the illegal siphoning of millions of dollars from the major construction project MOSE (Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico, or “Experimental Electromechanical Module”) intended to save Venice from inundation. 

“In Venice, there are so many resources being continually invested in the city even though the science and evidence says you’re fighting a losing battle,” Diana says.

“No matter how much corruption goes on, there’ll still be people donating to Venice because it’s seen as this unique city and should forever exist. It needs to be preserved at no matter what cost.”

But with the Pacific, she asserts, “there’s the idea that if there is sea level rising people should just leave.”

One of her photographs are of Italian artist Lorenzo Quinn’s sculpture of two enormous hands emerging from the Grand Canal and seemingly bolstering the historic Ca' Sagredo Hotel.

“Photography is a medium a lot of people automatically gravitate towards,” Diana says. 

“I think when we’re conducting research in anthropology or academia in general, it’s important to have a variety of ways to communicate with audiences.”

School of Archaeology and Anthropology PhD candidate Sophie Pezzutto’s two submissions to the exhibition include a photograph she took and one taken of her – on the red carpet of an awards show dubbed the ‘Oscars of porn’.

Sophie, who is currently based in Las Vegas, is conducting an ethnographic study of the transgender porn industry, which she says is the first study of its kind in the history of anthropology. Specifically, she’s researching how “being in porn as well as being trans (both of which significantly complicate dating) intersect with understandings of love, relationships, monogamy, and family”.

“As a trans researcher in the humanities, I decided to take up this historic opportunity and contribute to this emerging canon of work on trans issues by trans people,” Sophie says. 

“On a personal level, it has also been an amazing opportunity to engage with the broader trans community and get to know other trans people living different and in many cases less privileged lives to mine.”

In going about her research, Sophie has found herself in some amazing experiences and surreal environments. She’s on the far right in the photo from the anthropology exhibition labelled ‘AVN’, or Adult Video News. It captures a moment of her night as the “date” of one of the performers at the awards event. 

“[These events] function as a rite of passage for newcomers in this industry, signifying their status as "porn stars",” Sophie says. 

Her other photo was taken on set at a porn shoot. She says she chose that photo because it was the only shoot she’s been to where everyone on set was trans: in front as well as behind the camera. 

“It was trans porn made by trans people for trans people and not surprisingly the best shoot I've been to in terms of ethics and conduct.”

In spanning research from transgender sex workers to sites of memory in Afghanistan, the breadth of the Colours of Anthropology exhibition is apparent.

Fellow School of Archaeology and Anthropology PhD candidate Shamim Homayun is examining the relationships between community and landscape in Afghanistan, and how these relationships have been shaped through the war which began in 1978 and continues to this day.

Shamim has found that one of the most valuable ways in which he has gleaned meaningful material for his research has been by walking with people.

“Afghanistan is a place where people walk long distances, and walking shapes the way people see the world around them,” Shamim explains. 

“Afghans call this 'chakar,' something like a stroll, or an outing, to get fresh air or go sightseeing.”

He asks his participants to take him to places that are important to them. They’ve led him to important shrines and landmarks; graveyards, abandoned fortresses and archaeological sites which have been used in recent fighting. The visual or sensory cues the landscapes often serve as useful prompts for his participants to talk about their personal experiences, beliefs and values, and to reflect on the changes that have gone on around them.

“As an anthropologist, this teaches me how people see and experience landscape,” Shamim says.

Shamim was motivated to pursue this topic of research from the stories he heard during his upbringing, told by his father, other family members, and older Afghans.

“When I first went to Afghanistan, I discovered these ways of practicing Islam and shrine veneration were often quite different to the more 'sanitised' practices I learned at mosques in the west,” he says.

As someone who grew up in various western countries, he was also struck by how the way he viewed the world was different from that of his relatives back in Afghanistan, and yet also different from Afghans who had migrated to America decades earlier.

“I wanted to learn about these differences, to understand why people who were so closely related to each other could have such vastly different values and ways of seeing the world,” Shamim says.

"I still haven’t quite got the answers," he says, “but through my research I’m getting there.”

“One thing I’ve learned is that there is no simple dichotomy between 'traditional' and 'modern' – that both have a strange way of weaving together, of reinforcing each other. My family back home is not simply traditional, and I’m not simply a product of modernity.

"Anthropology opened my eyes to this, that the ways we are socialised into particular cultural worlds is far more complex and interesting.”

The Colours of Anthropology: A Visual Anthropology Photography Exhibition, organised by ANU anthropology students, was curated by ANU Bachelor of Visual Arts (Hons) student Annette Liu. It runs from 14 September to 12 October in the ANU Australian Centre on China in the World Gallery.

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Updated:  27 September 2018/Responsible Officer:  CASS Marketing & Communications/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications