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The research project

Camera as Cultural Critique: Transcultural dialogue in a digitized world

Aim and hypothesis

This project is based on the central hypothesis that audio-visual means of critical inquiry and expression open up ways of dealing with the immediacy of social life that defy the tendency of much social analysis to accept premature conceptual closure and temporal freeze-framing. We believe audio-visual media allow the moment of analysis to be extended thus transforming it into an experimental zone for cross-cultural dialogue and imagination. 

Cross-cultural understanding is a major challenge in a world characterized by increasing global interdependence but also by deepening ethnic, religious, and national divides. Participatory forms of research that employ audiovisual media provide an important but still underexploited resource for dealing with this challenge. This project aims to develop audiovisual and participatory research practices to enhance cross-cultural communication as well as cultural critique, since we assume that transcultural dialogues are driven by and stimulate cultural reflection and self-critique.


Audio-visual media offer ways of accessing knowledge at an incipient and emergent stage implicit in the visual and sensory forms of cultural interaction. Visual anthropological analysis and cultural critique starts at the very moment a camera is brought into the field or existing visual images are engaged. The framings, distances, and interactions between researchers, cameras, and filmed subjects already comprise implicit analytical decisions.  It is these ethnographic qualities inherent in audiovisual and photographic imagery that make it of particular value to a participatory anthropological enterprise which seeks to resist analytic closure and instead establish analysis as a continued and iterative movement of transcultural dialogue and critique.

 An overall ambition of this project is to produce studies, not of, but with people in diverse cultural and social settings across the globe. Thus interlocutors and audiences will not simply be recipients of scholarly work, but rather active participants in the creation of anthropological knowledge. By facilitating alternative perceptions and imaginations to upturn our basic assumptions we force our imagination beyond the conventional divide between self and other.

 Since words and textual narratives occupy only part of our imaginative faculties, such research calls for methods that make full use of the human sensorium. Interactive, audiovisual, and material means of inquiry afford a range of possibilities for stimulating imaginations and building new platforms for cross-cultural dialogue and critique. In a globalized and digitized world, paying close attention to the ways in which media affect even the most remote corners of the world is crucial for a nuanced understanding of emergent practices of world-making. 

The research project aims at grounding an internationally recognised platform for innovation and experiments in Visual Anthropology in a close collaboration with the new Moesgaard Museum and its Ethnographic Collections Department. In autumn 2013 the School of Culture and Society, Aarhus University, launches the international graduate program Eye and Mind in experimental visual anthropology to which the applicants in this project will be closely affiliated. The new museum building of Moesgaard opening to the public in August 2014 will provide an important window through which researchers, students, photographers, artists, film-, and exhibition-makers can enter into direct and experimental dialogue with a broad public.  

Six case studies and three research questions

We critically investigate the validity of our central hypothesis in six case studies.

  • Place Making with Smartphones - Young Muslim Women in the City. A project exploring the use of the smart phone as a moral laboratory by young Muslim women in Copenhagen (PhD project by Karen Waltorp) 
  • Temporal Dialogues: Envisioning the Postcolonial Fringe. A dialogical photographic mapping of historical sites and their changing meanings (PostDoc project by Christian Vium) 
  • PV. Glob and the Creation of Knowledge. A multi-media study of a renowned archeology professor based on research in haptic audiovisuality (PostDoc project by Arine Kirstein Høgel)
  • Cultural Heritage and The Reef Islands Ethnographic Film Project. A project exploring the interfaces of filmic and ritual techniques for reconstructions of cultural heritage at the Reef Islands in the South Pacific (Peter Crawford, Professor in Visual Culture Studies, Tromsø University) 
  • Capturing the Moment of Infection. A visual anthropological study of contagion and purification of the metaphysical heart among Muslims in contemporary Egypt (PostDoc project by Christian Suhr) 
  • The Last Prophet of the World. A study of future-making by way of modern media and religious visions among the devotees of Paliau Maloat, the “last prophet of the world”, in the Admiralty Islands in the South Pacific (Professor Ton Otto and Christian Suhr).

Each of these individual research projects will seek to explore the qualities inherent in audiovisual media in three interrelated analytic moves based on the following research questions: 

  • How do people around the world imagine, perceive, and create their life-worlds in and through public and personal audio-visual archives and new social media? 
  • How may visual anthropological means of inquiry capture and enter into dialogue with people’s own ways of communicating, interpreting, keeping record of, and establishing their lives through new audio-visual and social media? 
  • How can visual anthropological methodologies and means of representation help establish a closer dialogic and participatory relation between researchers and their local collaborators that subverts the traditional hierarchical roles of “informants”, “knowledge producers”, and “knowledge recipients”?