A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
Dec. 9, 2010 Volume 41 / Number 3

Anthropoloigst Brian Brazeal tests a new high speed lens in preparation for fieldwork photography in India.
Photo: Brian Brazeal

Digital Age Dawns for Visual Anthropology

Generally, when making an ethnographic documentary, an anthropologist has to choose between either a costly, high-quality film that requires a film crew and often advertisements from sponsors, or a lower-cost film of lesser quality, which may detract from the overall anthropological impact. However, thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Major Research Instrumentation Program obtained by anthropology professor Brian Brazeal, the gap between quality and cost is rapidly narrowing.

The grant for $286,646 allowed Brazeal to update the visual anthropology lab and to purchase a cutting-edge Red Digital Still Motion Picture camera capable of recording images that are as good as 35mm film, the same film that Hollywood movies are shot on. With this camera, Brazeal plans to bring his research and the Department of Anthropology’s visual anthropology into the digital age.

In the past, film has been one of the most costly aspects of film production. Since the Red Digital Still Motion Picture camera is entirely digital, production costs are lowered significantly without compromising quality. Nor does it require a film crew; it can be operated by a single person, who then inputs the data into a hard drive. What Brazeal calls “anthropology’s signature method of ethnographic field work,” observation with as little intervention as possible, can then be maintained. Aside from the initial cost of the camera and lab equipment, there will be very little additional costs associated with the production of these ethnographic documentaries.

Brazeal plans to take this camera all over the world to conduct ethnographic research and produce documentaries, interactive websites, photos, and other new media outlets. He also hopes to eventually “screen these films on television and in theatres at film festivals.” For his ethnographic documentary on the emerald trade, he intends to shoot “in mines and markets in Brazil, in trading centers in Jaipur, Rajasthan, India, in mines in the Kafubu district of Zambia in Southern Africa, in jewelry markets in New York, and perhaps in Colombia and Afghanistan,” all made possible by the convenience, portability, and cost-effectiveness of the camera.

He will also make the camera available to colleagues and graduate students for local and international ethnographic projects to help them create their own high-quality ethnographic documentaries, photos, and webcasts. His goal is to bring what he describes as “a new level of professionalism and polish” to visual anthropology, which has yet to be achieved in ethnographic film.

In addition to the camera, the grant provided for renovation of the Advanced Laboratory for Visual Anthropology (ALVA), which Brazeal describes as “a unique facility, unmatched by any [academic] laboratory for anthropological cinema,” containing blindingly fast servers, powerful computers, and a suite of professional-quality audio and video monitors. In the lab, ethnographic data can be formatted for television screenings, digital theatre projections, and DVD and Blu-ray players. The films produced in the ALVA can be used in classes and film festivals, on television, and for graduate student projects.

Brazeal said that the quality possible with this camera is “beyond compare in the digital world” and the kinds and number of potential projects are unlimited. This unleashes the potential to pioneer the uncharted field of high-quality anthropological cinema, and, said Brazeal, “I’m really excited to do it at Chico State.”

Jessica Young, University Editing Intern