Program - Day 5 - Friday 1 August

Section I - Moving Images / Day 5

Challenging Video as Method to Document/Represent Ritual

Sarah Pink (Loughborough)

Serious anthropological research about rituals and performances relies on the methods and media used for the investigation in relation to local media practices. Diverse forms of (audio) visual work, including photography, audio-recorded interviews and hypermedia, are discussed and the roles of various media explored.


This presentation will question the merits of simply using video as a method to document and/or represent rituals. Drawing form two case studies from my own research I will suggest that to undertake serious anthropological research about rituals and performances one needs to select the methods and media used for the investigation in relation to local media practices. Instead I suggest a departure from approaches that prioritise the making of ethnographic films to instead include other forms of (audio)visual work including the use of photography, audio-recorded interviews and hypermedia.

The first case study is based on my research about the roles of women in Spanish bullfighting culture in the 1990s. In this research I explored the bullfight as not simply a ritual performance but also as a media event, a mediated ritual that took on a new form and new meanings when televised. First I outline my analysis of the Spanish bullfight as a media event to demonstrate how the relationship between the experienced live performance and the televised bullfight developed. However I shall argue that even though the media bullfight and the live event are more or less inseparable this did not mean that video recording the live bullfight was an appropriate anthropological research practice. At the time of my research video cameras were rarely seen at bullfights, unless they were the professional cameras of TV crews. Instead, the dominant visual practice of bullfight audiences was photography. Photography took various forms, which I have identified as those of the snap shotter, the keen amateur and the professional photographers. As a researcher learning how to see (i.e. understand) the bullfight the most appropriate role for me to take on was that of keen amateur which allowed me to produce photographs that had range of different roles in the research process. To represent this research these photos were combined with written words in my final representations of the research.

The second case study is drawn from my current research about the development of the international Cittąslow (Slow City) movement in the United Kingdom. I shall discuss an event that I have now been researching for three years: the Big Slow Breakfast, which is an annual celebratory event that is held in Aylsham, a Cittąslow town in Norfolk (UK). To research the Big Slow Breakfast I have used audio-recorded interviews, video, photography and the 'being there' of participant observation. The latter also means participating in the breakfast, sharing its tastes and textures with the other breakfasters, experiencing the conviviality of the event, in short the commensality from which much ethnographic knowledge is produced. Simply video recording events cannot do the work that using a combination of different methods might achieve when researching a ritual event. In the future all this research might be the basis from which I could then shoot a film about the breakfast in a subsequent year. However, as an anthropologist my main interest is not in producing a film about the breakfast, but in theorising the event in relation to the ethnography. As such any representation of it would need to combine the visual images, descriptive writing and theoretical debate.

As rituals are experienced in multiple ways, have diverse meanings and to have any academic meaning need to be theorised, making a documentary film about a ritual will never be enough to reveal its complexity or its academic significance. This does not mean that films cannot communicate multiple subjectivities, or that they cannot try to evoke the sensorial experiences of ritual. However as film cannot do it all, I believe that we need to go further than film - in the processes of both research and representation. This means using multiple methods and media to research ritual on the one hand. On the other it means thinking about using multiple media similarly in its representation. This might simply mean using images in a printed text and representing video there using sequences of stills. But it might mean creating hypermedia texts that represent both the multiple subjectivities through which ritual might be experienced, and construct and represent the ritual itself using multiple media as well as multiple types of narrative (e.g. audio-visual, visual, descriptive, theoretical, etc).

Sarah Pink
Sarah Pink
Reader in Social Anthropology, Sociology Program Director, Department of Social Sciences, Loughborough University, UK