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Audio-visual-sensory Essays in Post-Digital Times

Communicating Anthropological Knowledge Across the Multimodal, Multisensory, Participatory and More-than-human
Paolo SH Favero


An introduction to the special issue, this article sets the stage for the essays that compose it. It addresses the transformations that have been taking place in the recent decades in the terrain of image-making, visual culture, visual technologies and indeed of visual anthropology. Addressing the continuity between past and present practices this text acknowledges that we are in an era of post-digital visuality, where the distinction between what is digital and what is not is of second order importance.

The article suggests that audio-visual-sensory research is a fluid terrain where different media, senses, modes of collaborations and of narration concur in creating something which is at once a communication of scientific research and a form of production of new ethnographic evidence. It also claims that what we do with visual media today contains indeed elements of novelty yet also many elements of continuity with the ambitions, intentions and desires of previous generations of anthropologists. In a way, the Old is the New New.

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1I am finishing this text after having just attended the 2022 EASA conference in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Coherent with my conventional conference-going habits I have, first of all, attended the classical panels centring around the networks of visual anthropologists (VANEASA and more) and then partaken in other panels and laboratories. The general impression gathered from the assemblage of papers that I have attended to, seems to point to a renewed centrality of images, image-making, and visual matters at large, in today’s anthropology. Visual analysis and visual methods featured in so many panels focussing on matters that were per se not visual. I use here the verb “renew” on purpose, as a warning; this is a reminder of the fact that visual matters have been central to the discipline in the past too and especially at the very beginning of its history. Anthropology founded itself as a modern science by exploiting visual media (Grimshaw 2001). It is enough to think of the Torres Straights expedition which was equipped with the best visual technology available at the end of the 19th century. So, there is no need to speak of a “new” interest. Even though digital media have given new momentum to the centrality of the visual, the continuity with the past is striking. What we do with visual media today contains elements of novelty yet also many elements of similarity and continuity with the ambitions, intentions and desires to both understand, and to communicate the understanding of, the world, of previous generations of anthropologists. In a way, the Old is the New New. Adding to this, the digital also helps us remembering how visual media are evidently not purely visual (nor have they ever been). We must hence speak of audio-visual-sensory media rather than simply of visual media.

2The present special issue situates itself within this terrain. And it does so from the selected vantage point of the “visual” essay. The latter is indeed a broad term that has been used in the social sciences for addressing those forms of publications that attempt to use audio-visual media (in a variety of forms but historically mainly through photography, video and drawings) for communicating research results, understandings and interpretations (see Pauwels 2012). The term must today be made to stand also for something broader. It touches upon that multisensory terrain made up of all those multimodal and collaborative possibilities that have been made available to us by digital media and especially by online publishing. Hence, I speak of audio-visual-sensory essays rather than exclusively visual essays. In this introduction I will use the two terms somewhat interchangeably asking the reader to bear in mind that unless when specified, the visual stands for me for this broader sensory field. Also, audio-visual-sensory essays today are more than a form of communication. True to the nature of interactive, collaborative or “polyphonic" (Aston and Odorico 2018) forms of communication, they are also tools for the constant production of new ethnographic evidence (see later in this text). An audio-visual-sensory essay that travels online is always open to comments, adjustments, re-postings etc. hence becoming a kind of “opera aperta”, a matrix producing new ethnographic evidence. The line between what is communication and what is the actual making of ethnographic evidence is, in a world of digital practices, a thin one. And so is at times also the gap between the observer and the observed, the maker and viewer/user/senser. Audio-visual-sensory essays in a “post-digital” world (I will go back to this term in a while) are more than a means of communication, they are also a methodological tool and an interesting object of study.

3In the following pages I want to address some of these transformations reflecting more broadly upon what audio-visual-sensory essays, knowledge, research and anthropology are and mean in the contemporary scenario. Let me however start by describing the content and background of the issue.

This Special Issue

4This special issue was conceptualised in 2019, when a selected number of emerging and established scholars gathered together in Antwerp, under the somewhat pompous title of “The Future of the Visual Essays”, in an event co-sponsored by VANEASA (the Visual Anthropology section of the European Association of Social Anthropologists), and by the Visual and Digital Cultures Research Center (ViDi) of the University of Antwerp. The early career scholars were interpellated by means of an open call whose text started with the famous quote by WJT Mitchell on “new images” as items that “yield new forms of understanding” and “disturb and disorientate by blurring comfortable boundaries and encouraging transgression of rules on which we have come to rely” (Mitchell 1992: 223). Reminding the reader of how humans have become more aware and critical about the world of images, the call directed the attention to images’ ever-growing dynamic, emplaced, embodied, multimodal and multi-sensory character. “We have today overcome simplistic notions of the image as a “transparent window on the world” (Mitchell 1984: 504) and are slowly living up to Howard Becker’ s (1986) invitation to stop looking for an ultimate truth in images” the call stated.

5Given this preamble our call asked the prospective participants to reflect upon a set of questions such as:

  • To what extent are new technologies (wearable cameras, geo-locative and immersive media, online platforms and smartphone applications, etc.) making us re-conceptualise the act and idea of publishing in contemporary visual anthropology?

  • What new relations between images, image-makers and viewers/users/sensers can we imagine today?

  • To what extent can such changes be incorporated in our ongoing efforts for strengthening the value and centrality of visual work in academic curricula?

  • What are the consequences of this shift for the multiple ways in which we, as visual anthropologists, can use images as tools for communicating research results?

6Applicants were, in other words, asked to explore the possible ways in which visual anthropologists (and visual scholars at large) can today exploit the possibilities offered by emerging (mainly digital but not only) technologies for moving beyond established linear, flat, text-driven forms of visual narration. We invited them to do so by contemplating different visual forms such as videoclips, online archives, smartphone applications, virtual, mixed and augmented reality, 3D printing etc. We opted to focus on the visual essay as a fairly open form which, however, also has a recognizable history in the context of social scientific research. The essays had to be accompanied also by some written, verbalised reflections on what making a visual essay entails, what it provokes methodologically, epistemologically etc.

7In response to this call, we received a large number of proposals from which we selected the eight most promising (and diverse) presentations. During the two-days’ workshop, we appointed a senior scholar for each presenter. These were Peter Crawford, Luc Pauwels, Beate Engelbrecht, Giulia Battaglia, Mattijs van de Port, Caroline Cambre, Janine Prins and myself (the latter two being the duo in charge also of moderating the workshop). The duty of the senior scholars was to deliver a constructive critique to the visual essay that had been assigned to them and hence also to help the presenter improving its quality in view also of a possible publication. The six essays contained in this special issue are a selection made among these presentations. We have opted to select those presentations that together would offer the best blend of topics and forms. The authors of these essays have been asked to attempt at adapting their work to the format of AnthroVision and also to reflect (in words) upon the process of making the essay and of making it friendly for and online publication. The result of this process is the following line-up of people and topics:

  • Joanna Sleigh (Health Ethics and Policy Lab, Chair of Bioethics, ETH Zurich) addresses the terrain of datafication (and hence also of data visualisations) by exploring an interactive installation on data shadow donation.

  • Shirley van der Maarel (University of Manchester) addresses the potential of (both web-based and printed) visual essays as participatory tools in the context of ethnographic research with refugees in Italy.

  • Sandro Simon (University of Cologne) elaborates upon the translation into a digital format of a printed essay on human-mollusc correspondences.

  • Christine Moderbacher (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle) reflects on the meaning and importance of visual form (addressed as the poetics of ethnography) in relation to content through her online project ‘Invisible Brussels’.

  • Sabra Thorner (Mount Holyoke College) reflects on photo-essays and on the nature of photographs “as” archives in the context of the work of Indigenous Australian artist Maree Clarke (Artist/Curator/Art Consultant, Represented by Vivien Anderson Gallery), who also co-authors her contribution.

  • Finally, Rob Eagle (UWE Bristol, Digital Cultures Research Centre) enters the terrain of site-specific augmented reality (AR) installations addressing his own AR-installation “Through the Wardrobe”.

8These six essays offer a broad diversity of topics entering also a variety of different theoretical, technological and geographical territories. They also give the reader insights into the various possibilities for producing and communicating ethnographic research. What is collected in this special issue is hence the result of a playful exercise in combining, in the space of a single publication, various strands of visual and multimodal work with writing. Attempting to stretch the boundaries of academic publishing we will together explore the possibilities that web-based journal (AnthroVision, a precursor of online publishing) can offer.

9Yet, this special issue also contains something more. It is an attempt at reflecting upon the making of an audio-visual-sensory essay, about the meaning this practice may have. In what follows I will tap into some of the themes that have emerged in these essays. It is not my goal to sum them up individually. In fact, with few exceptions, I will always only refer to them indirectly. Many are the angles touched upon by the essays and what I will do is only to address some overarching themes that may help us reflecting on the implications of working with visual essays in today’s post-digital habitats. Before I proceed to that let me however address a couple of issues that have been central to the act of preparing this special issue.

10An internationally accredited journal AnthroVision follows the principle of double-blind peer review. The problem in the context of audio-visual-sensory essays is indeed how to adapt this principle to contributions that build across a dialogue between text (a short article) and audio-visual essays and that evolve across a variety of different media. As a platform for evaluation, we have asked the reviewers to use the standard AnthroVision evaluation forms while inviting them to focus especially on the relation between form and content. In the invite we suggested:

“Of particular importance for the issue is the dialogue between ethnographic content and aesthetic form, i.e. how the essay manages to stitch together audio-visual form and matters of theoretical/ethnographic content together, exploiting the chosen medium to its possible best capacity. In the selection of essay we have also tried to ensure the best possible variety of forms.”

11The anonymity in the peer review process had, on the other hand, to be re-interpreted and re-defined. All the essays presented in this special issue build upon works that have been exhibited, either partially or in a different form, in public venues. This can hardly be hidden from a reviewer especially when the author is asked to address and reflect upon, the process and their own personal involvement in it. We could hence hardly anonymise in both directions. We only did so in one direction, hiding the identity of the reviewers to the contributors.

Rethinking the Life of Images in a Post-Digital Habitat

12Upon their invention and early spread, digital images were looked upon as a kind of revolution to the world of human made images. In Jonathan Crary’s words it was: “a transformation in the nature of visuality probably more profound than the break that separates medieval imagery from Renaissance perspective” (Crary 1990: 1). Fears spread that the “new model of vision” (Mitchell 1992) brought about by digital technologies would eventually kill photography (Ritchin 1990), echoing hence the earlier panic of painters upon the invention of photography. Yet, we know that the technology for mechanical reproduction invented in the first half of the 19th century (photography) never managed to kill painting. Rather it gave it a new life, liberating it from the duty of producing realist accounts of the world. Similarly, the arrival of digital technology just made us rethink the mission and possibilities of photography. It has opened up a new way to approach photography and image-making and especially novel ways for making images travel. It has, however, not radically changed the meaning and importance of images in and for human life nor what they do to us. The digital has perhaps made images more “present” (Favero 2018a) and interstitial than ever in our lives. They reach us amidst the most intimate and also most public of moments, interpellating simultaneously our bodies, brains and minds.

13The positions of those who claim for an essential, radical difference between digital and analogue images are in my view characterised by a narrow focus on the level of production. They centre on the locus of production of the image (the place where light encounter the processor or the film) and hence on the opposition between computation and chemical reaction. Here indeed the change has been significant. Digital images are the result of an ongoing process of computer-driven decomposition and recomposition of discontinuous chunks of information (the pixels). Analogue photography instead builds on the reaction of light on chemical substances. And it is continuous. Yet, when we look at other aspects that lead to the creation of a (photographic) image such as the lens/objective and the photographers with their gestures, the gap between what is digital and what is visual seems much smaller. While the movements and techniques of the photographers contain both elements of novelty (see for instance the use of a detached LCD screen with its opportunities for triangularizing the gazes) and of continuity with the past (the very idea of framing), the lens, albeit with some adjustments, basically lives up to the same duty as before, i.e. of conveying light into the body of the camera.

14In this post-digital scenario, a number of conventional distinctions on which we have historically built our understanding of images have become redundant. Let me address them one by one. First of all, the safety of the medium: the digital has progressively turned the distinction between still and moving images, film, video and photography largely redundant. With the arrival of digital cameras, photographs and videos could suddenly be made with the same tool. And with the smartphone other possibilities were added too, such as that of making sound recordings and written notes, of drawing upon images, and indeed, of sharing them instantly via messaging, social media etc. New formats were also quickly born like GIFs or 360-degree images, that directly challenged the distinction between the still and the moving. Rich agglomerates of multimodal and multisensory data images have become, in a digital habitat, also rich carriers of metadata, of information regarding when and where they were taken, etc. And when inserted in the context of online viewing (such as on social media etc.) these images also point us towards broader networks of people, places and topics surrounding their makers. The multiple sets of #’s, @’s, of contacts, groups, maps, comments, links, embeddings, emojis, etc. have come to constitute a nebula of information that adds to the semiotic and phenomenological value of the images. Around every image there is a forest of information available to the researcher and it is inevitable for us today to have to learn to combine visual and digital tools of analysis. Images are created at the encounter of the human and the more-than-human. Algorithmic metadata is necessarily part of what we must befriend today. We do not necessarily have to learn its functioning in detail, yet we must acknowledge its presence and understand its logic. Nothing more nor less than how previous visual scholars knew how an analogue image was produced. After all, how many of them could exactly explain how photo chemistry works? Nevertheless, they could make sense of the process of photography and use it for their theoretical requirements. The real question for us must today be: can there be any visual work which is not, at least to some extent, multisensory, multimodal and more-than-human? And, I wonder, has there ever been?

15While it is indeed true, as Scott McQuire once said, that regardless of the way in which it is produced and distributed, a picture “remains much the same for viewers” (McQuire 2013: 225), it is also true that the possibilities for putting images in motion and for giving them added meaning have multiplied in a digital habitat. Metadata allows for the sharing of information that is much greater than what a photo album would be able to give (despite the intention being pretty much the same). And it puts them in motion in a different way. In this scenario, photographic images no longer function barely as mirrors, as tools “capturing” a past moment for future viewing. Rather, incorporated in social media and messaging services, they become connectors, links, that allow users to share their present moments with each other. “Visual co-presence” is the term that Mizuko Ito (2000) coined to describe this shift. And if it is true that, as contemporary neuroscience seems to suggest, human consciousness is not something individually owned but rather as a kind of network (see Niebauer 2019), then maybe, the act of sharing images is not such a banal action at all.

16The sense of existential co-presence made possible by the sharing of images is very important today. It is particularly so for citizens in transition (who are severed from their families and friends) and it has been so for many more during the lock-downs caused by the pandemic. This testifies to how important images are for human life and how humans always seem to mediate their manifold ways of being alive through them. It was so in ancient Egypt, among the Etruscans and the Romans. And it is so today. An image is always there (in all possible senses, materially, philosophically and neurologically) in the encounter between humans and the world that surrounds them.

17Spinning further on this, the visual co-presence made possible by digital tools, also flattens another couple of distinctions that have been central to our understanding of image-making, i.e. that between viewers/users and makers/producers of images (and as an extension also that between amateur and professional image-makers). With cheap digital cameras and smartphones, with apps and improved algorithmic automation finding their ways into many homes, purses and pockets around the world, a growing number of humans have become better, more skilled, users, producers and editors of images. The implications of this change are, for an image-making anthropologist, indeed many. Gone are the days when the skills and tools for making images were solidly relegated in the hands of an often white, male and Western anthropologist. Today, we can (and have to) finally imagine this exchange in novel ways. As I recently witnessed during fieldwork in different metropolitan slums in India, even underprivileged children make, edit and share good image work with smartphones. In such a scenario it is not even possible to imagine a visual project that is not participatory or collaborative in nature and that builds on a unilinear notion of narration/communication. This has important implications for the topic addressed in this special issue, ie. the visual essay. Can there be any work today that is not to some extent participatory and collaborative? And especially when this work is distributed online? What room does this leave also for re-thinking what cooperation means? As pointed out by Beate Engelbrecht (personal communication) not every subject involved in our work is interested in taking on an active role in the making of a film, an essay, etc. Do emerging technologies and digital/online forms of communication make it easier for these subjects to cooperate without really participating?

18A final key aspect that needs to be addressed when reflecting upon contemporary images in a digital habitat is the evident shift towards practices that signal an increased attention to (rather than detachment from) materiality. 3D printing, wearable cameras, smart glasses, augmented reality etc. all signal the extent to which digital technologies are progressively blurring the distinction between what is virtual and what is actual (to use old distinctions). I have earlier chosen to label this process as “analogization” (Favero 2016). Elsewhere I also showed (Favero 2013) how the terrain of iDocs (which I believe provides us also with the base for thinking about the possibilities for visual essays online) has clearly marked a shift from a use of the web as a passive space in which to look at the world from a safety distance to one in which viewers are asked to “engage with the physicality and socialness of everyday life, to immerse themselves in the ‘offline’, in other words, to get their hands dirty (again)” (Favero 2013: 273).

19Bringing all the above reflections together, I suggest that the time is ripe to overcome stale distinctions between the digital and the analogue (and also between the online and the offline). We increasingly live in a post-digital world. We transcend the distinction between what is digital and what is not digital in our concrete every lives. We are digitally connected almost all the time, even amidst the most “analogue” of situations. And we are analogue bodies involved in material relations with the surrounding world even when we are online. For those of us living in digitally connected regions of the world (what I call digital habitats), digital (often online) connections matter much for our very concrete, everyday, offline lives. Yet we do not spend so much time problematising that. We glide between living online and offline as we glide between living outdoors and indoors. And we wear our phones as if they were a pair of shoes. We have them “on” without really thinking about it. Adding to the blurring of the boundary between what is digital and what is analogue (something that is particularly relevant when it comes to the world of images) is the fact that most of the materials that we look at though a digital tool (be it a smartphone or a computer) are in fact of analogue origin. Alternatively, many of them, while being digital in origin become analogue. This is the case of a lot of photographs that circulate online; they can easily get scanned, re-photographed and printed. But again, we do not really bother about the distinction. The boundary between the digital and the analogue is of second order importance. Yet the ethics of this distribution (often happening beyond the control of the makers or subjects of these images) still requires attention.

20To sum up, a digital image is basically just an image, like any other previous images, yet it comes with a surplus of possibilities for travelling and for storing information. It comes with a surplus of “imageness” (to borrow from Rancière 2007), a surplus of relations “between elements and functions … relations between the sayable and the visible, ways of playing with the before and the after, cause and effect” (Rancière 2007: 6). It is hence simultaneously both new and old. So how can we engage with this surplus?

21It is part of the mission of this special issue to dethrone the centrality of the distinction digital VS analogue. Or rather, to make us rethink its meaning. The essays in this issue address the complex nature of what I have elsewhere called “present images” (a term that indicates the way in which today’s images have a strong calling to claim presence, Favero 2018a). They do so each from their own angle. Sandro Simon addresses the passage from printed book to digital essay when he explores the multiple sensory engagements that mollusks can generate. His essay is a journey through touch, smell and vision joined by movement. With his augmented reality installation Rob Eagle does something similar, bringing the body and mind of the sensers in contact with the environment surrounding them. And Joanna Sleigh pushes this perhaps even further, articulating relations between human behaviour and data. Data visualisation must, according to her be seen as another visuality. Shirely Van der Maarel and Sabra Thorner dig deep into the (practical, technical and ethical) intricacies of collaborative work and Christine Moderbacher explores the poetics of ethnography in the alternation between media. But let us now enlarge the field a little more.

Vision, Visuality, Anthropology and Visual Essays in a Post-Digital Scenario

22The idea of the post-digital applies not only to the terrain of images but to that of vision and visuality writ large too. First of all, let me clear the terrain from some confusion. Even though images are indeed an important part of our work as visual anthropologists (and despite this being also my own main interest) they are not synonymous with visual culture. Visual culture is a much richer, denser terrain. To cite Hal Foster, visual culture is about “how we see, how we are able, allowed, or made to see, and how we see this seeing or the unseen therein” (1988: ix). This definition is deep and precise, and it manages to convey the extent to which the visual is a field in which nature, culture, power, politics and perception meet and merge. Translating this into the language of anthropology we could say, and I build and expand here on the interpretation given to this by late Marcus Banks (2001), that an anthropology interested in the visual is simultaneously busy with: how vision is socially or culturally constructed; with how culture and power are communicated (and hence also re-produced) through the visual; and with the use of audio-visual media and tools for both studying culture and society and for communicating research results. In anthropology, the “visual” is often made synonymous with mainly (sometimes only) the latter dimension. Visual anthropologists, a somewhat old-fashioned yet still very much alive mainstream position assumes, are the ones who make ethnographic films. Again, some still do exactly this, yet there is much more to visual anthropology than merely ethnographic film. The growing spread of digital tools has brought this to the surface, showing the co-presence of different approaches, styles and media for communicating (and indeed also for grasping) anthropological knowledge audio-visually, more broadly sensorially and multi-modally. Moving between photographic essays and augmented reality, between live installations, videoclips and printed books, the present issue aims to provide the readers with a window onto the variety of contemporary practices. While painting a possible scenario for future visual essays we also want to remind the readers/viewers/sensers of the continuity with the past, of the diversity of practices and visual forms that preceded the digital age.

23The essays contained in this issue not only signal the changing possibilities available to visual scholars for communicating their research results but also the shifting character of the visual field altogether. As I hinted at above, the merging of “things visual” with “things digital” has indeed enlarged not only the terrain of images but that of vision and visuality too. This is relevant not only for those scholars who are keen on communicating research results visually but also for those whose key interest is to engage with the visual as a terrain for gathering and producing new ethnographic evidence. As it emerges in many of the essays contained here, the “visual” (as a sense and a medium) is a complex field. The multisensory nature of images in a digital habitat (that I addressed above) resonated with the recent insights gathered by the neurosciences. Scholars in this terrain have increasingly deconstructed the separateness of vision from the other senses. The studies of Ramachandran, Gallese, Sinigallia etc. have shown how vision is distributed all over the nervous system, so that when we see, we simultaneously also touch, smell, and feel. The same studies have also shown that all our senses are strictly relational. The so-called mirror neurons (or “Gandhi neurons”) constantly blur, for instance, the boundary between self and other, between perception and action (Gallese 2009; Rizzolatti and Sinigaglia 2006; Ramachandran and Hirstein 1999). Building on a series of studies conducted on monkeys, such research shows that when I look at someone doing something, it is as if I were doing it myself. What emerges here is the co-operation of the senses and of the brain-body complex; the embedded kinetic and relational nature of vision.

24The insights of contemporary neuroscientists are however not that surprising. They dialogue so well with the reflections on the continuity between body and vision and between self and other that have been postulated by scholars in the fields of philosophy, art history, and visual culture. In Art and Visual Perception (2004), Arnheim, for instance, wrote:

“in looking at an object we reach out for it. With an invisible finger we move through the space around us to go out to the distant places where things are found, touch them, catch them, scan their surfaces, trace their borders, explore their texture. (Arnheim 2004: 13).

25Merleau-Ponty suggested that a corporal principle is really at the core of our engagement with images. In Eye and Mind (1964), he stated:

“A human body is present when, between the see-er and the visible, between touching and touched, between one eye and the other, between hand and hand, a kind of cross-over occurs, when the spark of the sensing/sensible is lit, when the fire starts to burn that will not cease until some accident befalls the body.” (Merleau-Ponty 1964: 125)

26And also:

“I only have to see something to know how to reach it and deal with it.” (Merleau-Ponty 1964: 120).

27And John Berger (1972):

“We never look at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves. Our vision is continually active, continually moving, continually holding things in a circle around itself, constituting what is present to us as we are. (Berger 1972: 8).

28Each of these authors address one or more of the aspects I addressed above. Their observations also nicely expand into the context of post-digital visuality with its multisensory, multimodal and relation character; with its multiple dialogues between the human and the more-than-human. In digital habitats too images do wrap us in. As in a VR/AR installations they do so also, so-to-speak, technically, they “swallow” us (Favero 2018b). They reach us at any time of the day though our smartphones, the latter becoming a kind of prolongation of our mind-body complex into the surrounding world. They interpellate us (as in social media) individually, inscribing our personal narratives into broader streams and exchanges.

The Old is the New “New"

29Concluding this introduction, I want to address a few aspects that are perhaps worth taking onboard when addressing the terrain of visual essays in a post-digital terrain. I will write this section as a set of provocations, aimed at giving producers of audio-visual-sensory essays a chance to reflect upon their practice. Underpinning this last section is the idea, as I stated at the beginning of this introduction, that many of the tendencies we see today in the context of visual communication and research are per se nothing new. They re-promote, albeit in a new shape, the same (or similar) ambitions and wishes of visual scholars (and artists) of the past. The old is, in other words, the new “new”.

Ethnography is Like Meditation or Science?

30Visual essays have been used by generations of scholar (and artists) for attempting to express the inexpressible. They want to communicate that kind of understanding of the world that is experiential at its very core (rather than conceptual and rational). This is knowledge by acquaintance, by exposure rather than by description and explanation. It is knowledge that comes as a whole, rather than in sequential bits. This kind of knowledge does not reside comfortably in rational reasoning, in the use of words as explicatory tools. Images, sounds and other sensory experiences can grant us access to this and hence to how humans respond to and engage with the world affectively, bodily, sensorially. Images are just the tip of the iceberg, they are, as MacDougall said “a pathway to the senses” (1997: 289). They interpellate not only vision, hearing and smell but as Marks (1998, 2000 and 2022) and Sobchack (1990) have suggested also touch: “our eyes themselves function like organs of touch” (Marks 2002: 2). In this issue Sandro Simon attempts at defying the terrain that connects words with touch, smell and other sensations by reflecting on the making of his book.

31Today, with the possibilities that digital tools are making available to many of us, we are in a good spot for experimenting more with this level of multisensory engagements. And again, nothing futuristic in this. This desire does rather represent a concrete return or anchorage to one of the pillars of ethnographic work. As is well known ethnographers not only need to rationally understand how people live but also to be able to sensorially and existentially get a feeling of what Malinowski (1961[1922]: 25) famously called “the native’s point of view, his [sic!] relation to life, to realize his vision of his world.” Ethnographers must immerse themselves in a new way of living. They are expected to let their bodies, their senses, minds, hearts, and spirits tune in to new rhythms, tastes, sensations and feelings. Not by chance Malinowski used a sensory metaphor to express this idea, he spoke of “vision”, opening up to the idea that we have to learn not only to understand conceptually but also bodily; we have to learn to feel, to focus on the be-able and not only on the know-able.

32Images, sounds and other sensory perceptions and media are, as we saw above, precious channels for conveying the field experience. They help us not only in communicating a different (and perhaps fuller) sense of the world but also to grasp it differently (and again perhaps more fully, multidimensionally). To use an altogether different terminology, images grant access to that part of the brain where the “non-interpretive mind” resides. This is the home of non-verbal consciousness or to cite Einstein of the “intuitive mind”. This is the area of affectivity, of creativity, of artistic creation and spatial consciousness, where awareness comes to us simultaneously; where we grasp the whole rather than the detail, the context. This is the area mainly touched upon during the practice of meditation, but it is interestingly enough also probably the one closer to ethnography. After all, the latter is an immersive research practice that acknowledges a sense of wholeness and contemplates the critical engagement of a researcher’s mind-body complex. So, could it be that ethnography is closer to the practice of meditation and to experiments in the arts than to a rigid vision of science? As Pavel Florensky said the language of science at times constricts “the observer in an iron headrest and forcing him [sic!] to wear blinkers” (Florensky 1993: 60).

Ethnography Can Be Like a Silent Caress

33If ethnography is not a cerebral, theoretical exercise but a practical one, one that has to do with body, action and ethics, then the question is to which extent written text (articles and books but also notes and accounts) are suited to express this. Can academic texts manage to grasp the corporal, emotional, experiential and existential engagement that characterises our being in the field? Think of how the written notes that we hastily jot down while conducting fieldwork may risk generating blindness. With words we manage to quickly anchor our understanding of a whole event to a single abstract string of theoretical terms: gender, power, race. This surely helps us in making sense of an event. Yet, can this grasp and render its affective dimension? Can keywords convey sensory complexity? Words may indeed help consolidating an idea, transforming what may be an intuition, a feeling into a concept in need of being tested. Yet, the next time we will encounter a similar event we will most likely start from that same notion, testing its validity. We will look for gender, power, race. And we will exclude other options. We will see the past rather than the present (the latter fading away under a thick theoretical fog). So, while adding to one dimension of our being in the field, words may remove from another part of it. They will remove the openness, the serendipity that sometimes is the conveyer of a holistic understanding of an environment. Levinas said that “a caress does not know what it seeks” (1987: 89). I believe that silent caresses can be a good ally to ethnographic work.

34A critical questioning of writing has indeed been done during the 1980’s and 1990’s crisis of representation (among many just think of Clifford and Marcus’ “Writing Culture” 1986, Shostack 1981, Crapanzano 1977). I believe that this question is more than ever valid today vis-à-vis the changing technological scenario. Emerging media show us an array of new possibilities for sharing open ethnographic accounts built across the multisensory, the multimodal and the relational/collaborative spectrum. This is an open terrain that requires experimentation, time and the right to commit mistakes and to try out new paths. It is a space made of “caresses” that enters quite quickly in tension with the contemporary neoliberal university scenario with its urges for fast and numerous publications. With figures rather than quality becoming synonymous to academic excellence, the temptation to quickly subjugate the understanding of the nature of a specific terrain (an event, a place, a community, a topic) to something that can be somewhat promptly turned into theoretical reasoning (and hence a publication) is indeed stronger than ever. And technical lingo, linear reasoning and words are indeed better suited for this than caresses, poetry and serendipity.

35But do not get me wrong. I am not preaching here against the existence of academic written publications. I simply believe that, given that humans understand the world through the simultaneous use of both intellectual and bodily/sensory faculties, this doubleness should also reflect in our publishing habits and practices. The making of a film, an exhibition, a visual essay, etc. should, indeed depending on their depth, thickness and quality, matter in a CV as much as a book or an article. And this doubleness of value should also help us enriching our understanding of words. As hinted at above, words can in fact, be many things. They can be much more than rigid, linear theoretical explanation. They can also be abstract, they can be willingly treacherous, and make us reflect. And they can also be pure description. Poetry and literature have taught us this. Think of Hemingway’s description of bullfights in Pamplona and the capacity of this author to show and make us partake at the events rather than explaining what is happening. Or think of the ethnographic experiments with poetry made by Rosaldo (2013). Like audio-visual and sensory work, metaphors and poetic descriptions speak to, or better touch, that part of our experience of being alive that connects to the “consciousness that does not rely on words” (Niebauer 2019).

36Digital tools can help us befriend and expand this dimension further (both as tools for conducting and for communicating research). Emerging digital technologies (such as life logging cameras, GPS tracking, 360-degree cameras, body sensors, artificial intelligence etc.) can help us gain access to that dimension of our being in the world that escapes our conscious attention. And in communication to the outer world they can help bringing to the foreground that part of our consciousness that attempts to move beyond rational linguistic meaning. Several contributions in this special issue address this dimension. Joanna Sleigh, looks at artificial intelligence as both a topic of research and a tool for conducting and communicating research. Rob Eagle’s account emerges also through a technology-mediated interpellation of the body-mind-brain complex of the viewer/senser. The presence and body of the viewer as a co-author are problematised in all these accounts. So, who is the author of these stories at the end?

Ethnography Without an Author and… Without an End?

37As hinted at earlier in this text, the growing spread of digital image-making tools is today contributing to the possibilities of sharing the act of crafting stories together with our research participants. It also allows for new ways of incorporating the viewers in the making of unique viewer-based experiences and stories. The essays by Shirley van der Maarel and Sabra Thorner address this dimension in different ways. Der Maarel capitalises upon the growing skills in image-making by her research participants involving them in the act of making images. Thorner even shares the authoring of the contribution with the artist whose work she is addressing. Besides these dimensions, the placing of a visual essay online opens up room for another kind of collaboration, i.e. that between image maker(s) and the viewers of the materials. The structure of an online visual archive (the form that I would generically call an iDoc) invites to leave the possibility open for a dialogue with the viewers/users/sensors. Knowledge is in this context polysemic and polyphonic.

38I would say that all the essays in this special issue, whether in an explicit or implicit matter, do problematize this dimension. This is in the nature of online/digital visual essays. The story/experience emerges in a collaboration between the ethnographer/scholar/storyteller and the viewers/sensers/users. These (in all their body and mind complex) become the co-creators of a single and unique experience and story. Visual essays online provide us with another clear window onto the age of personal media.

39The narrative in a post-digital visual essay is therefore not fixed; it is always emergent in a web of dialogues and interactions between the authors, the viewers/users and the research participants. Going back in time we can see how this openness and unicity has perhaps always been there whenever humans have been faced with an image. Think of a photograph. Contrarily to its name (a still image) this is an extremely dynamic item. According to Flusser (2005 [1983]), photographs allow for circular readings in and through their connection with the construction of a narrative. During the act of viewing a photograph (or a painting), viewers are in fact allowed to move back and forth in the image, returning to the point of departure, changing direction and hence gathering new meanings at every new gaze. Meaning is allowed to stay open and constantly negotiated in an ongoing dialectic between the image itself and the narrative constructed in and around it. In this sense a photograph is perhaps even more dynamic than a moving image as it leaves the temporality of the act of scanning safely in the hands of the viewer rather than of the maker. The digital further materialises this dimension, interpellating and identifying the individual viewers, allowing them not only to enact their personal interpretations but at times also to leave comments, to add materials and to repost. In this (post-digital) context, the making of a story looks however not only as something new but also as something very old, like a pre-modern act of storytelling. According to Benjamin (1999) premodern storytellers never gave birth to fixed objects: stories for them were never finished, but always in the process of being reinterpreted and reinvented; they were circular and made up of ongoing, uncompleted negotiations of meaning-making enacted among the individual, the collective, and the universal; between the past and the future. I believe that we do something similar today. The modern novel closed this possibility off, sealing a story once and for always. And today, with contents being open to be commented upon, reused and re-edited, this openness is back.

40The very openness of the narrative produced by online visual essays, their way of pitching individual stories, entails also that the final story is never fully closed. Post-digital essays often allow for the sharing of comments, for the creation at times of new material and new edits that will, along with the essay itself, circulate in the online networked environment. Bearing this in mind, the act of using images (no matter whether still or moving) for communicating an interpretation of human behaviour becomes not only something shared but also a potential never ending matrix of new material. Communicating in a terrain of online digital visuality is also an act of producing new scientific evidence.

The Medium is the Message but not the Method

41A final aspect that I want to raise is the one regarding the role of the medium. Often addressed as a “messy” terrain, the post-digital landscape is not messier than any other previous fields, practices or forms attempting to address the co-existence of verbalized and affective/experiential/embodied meaning. Let us just remember "Heaven and Hell”, the masterpiece by William Blake with its mesmerizing blend of painting, typography, and text; or the multimedia essays by Chris Marker; and why not the art of Bill Viola where architectural elements coexist with painting and video. I could go on giving more examples, yet the point t is obvious. All these experiences claim the need not to subjugate the communication of a story, an experience, an emotion to a medium. As the 1956 Free Cinema Manifesto stated: “An attitude means a style. A style means an attitude”. So, a degree of supposed messiness, the active mixing of media has always been part and parcel of the way in which artists and scholars have used images and other sensory media to communicate their understanding of the world. And I use the term “understanding” here in its broader meaning, the one that does not only encompass rational reasoning but also corporal proximity, empathy. Etymologically, the very verb to understand comprises the root “to stand”, “to be in the midst of”. Its synonym “to comprehend” even more openly addresses this double dimension; the rational grasping and the physical act of taking “prehendere”. In all its randomness, etymology can sometimes like tarot cards and horoscopes ignite precious reflections and insights.

42What we must bear in mind however is also that the medium is never neutral. Too much anthropological work has over the years addressed images as a kind of neutral window onto reality (“the mirror with a memory” was one of the early definitions given to photography). Every medium (just like any choice of form) is already in itself a choice of content. This may be more or less evident depending upon the case, but the use of video instead of photography, of sound instead of images, or linear instead of non-linear storytelling techniques, etc. each amount to a specific choice of content, a specific vision held by an author/scholar regarding how to interpret the topic at the centre of their interest. Photographs may bring to the attention of the viewers details that an image in movement may not be able to fixate. Images in movement may help better grasping matters of temporality and rhythm. A non-linear storytelling technique may highlight the desire for a more collaborative meaning-making endeavour. And so on and so forth. The form “is” the content.

43As an appendix to the above argument let me also add that the post-digital scenario may also remind us of the importance of not conflating medium and method. Using a particular tool or technique (a photographic camera instead of a video one, etc.) is not per se a choice of method. The method is about how we produce knowledge with such tools, so for instance how we use photographs for purposes of elicitation, videos for participation, time lapses for studying flows, GPS trackers for producing maps of habitual movements, etc. Compared to other disciplines, anthropologists excel in what is conventionally referred to as reflexivity, that is in reflecting on the extent to which their own positionality in the field may contribute in producing the material they will then analyse and use. However, they underperform when it comes to giving concrete practice-oriented methodological suggestions. I would suggest that we anthropologist often do methodology or even meta-methodology rather than method. And this is not always useful at a beginning of a track as a student.

44Today, in the present scenario where a variety of tools allow us to not only grasp but also to communicate our understanding of the world across a spectrum of different senses and media this clarity is more than ever important.


45The essays contained in this issue enter the complex and integrated terrain where technology, different kinds of media, the senses, and a complex set of relations (between research participants and researchers, between humans, nature and machines) meet and mingle. Underpinning this introduction is the idea that much of what is being crafted in this terrain is per se not new but rather a novel version of ambitions and yearnings that can be found in the long history of exploration and communication of the world by means of audio-visual and sensory tools and practices. The Old is the New New I have jokingly suggested. Nevertheless, we must explore the possible novelties that this ambition can bring. Digital visuality is making it inevitable to acknowledge (and also to address and perhaps exploit) the multisensory, multimedial, embodied, emplaced, dynamic, participatory, interactive and relational character of audio-visual-sensory research. I believe that it is today impossible to think of images as mere illustrations of verbalised knowledge. And it is impossible to think of vision as detached from the other senses. Audio-visual-sensory research is a fluid terrain where different media, senses, modes of collaborations and of narration concur in creating something which is at once a communication of scientific research and a form of production of new ethnographic evidence. Following the same logic, it is impossible to think of a visual anthropology that is not simultaneously also an anthropology of media, of the senses and the body, of art and technology. An anthropology that connects the most human of drives with the more-than-human.

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Electronic reference

Paolo SH Favero, Audio-visual-sensory Essays in Post-Digital Times Anthrovision [Online], Vol. 8.2 | 2020, Online since 31 August 2022, connection on 06 December 2022. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Paolo SH Favero

University of Antwerp, Visual and Digital Cultures Research Center (ViDi) 

Paolo SH Favero is Professor of Visual and Visual Cultures at the University of Antwerp.

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