Stephanie Sadre-Orafai

© Stephanie Sadre Orafai, 2016

© Stephanie Sadre Orafai, 2016

On the strategic non-use and insistent use of photography—the future of visual anthropology. 

My provocation is rooted in two overlapping positions: The first is as an ethnographer working with commercial image producers in a so-called secondary industry (fashion model casting) and the photographic ephemera they produce. What is the best way to document, analyze, and engage with these photographs that are neither intended for broad circulation, nor seen as visually constructed? How do we challenge or complicate ideologies of visual transparency—both inside their industry and among our audiences—and transcend a “behind-the-scenes” aesthetic that runs parallel to other representations of these practices? I argue that in these cases, the strategic non-use of photographs in visual anthropology—that is, a refusal to show these images—can be more effective in drawing attention to these constructions. In doing so, we can disrupt the evidentiary quality of photographs to better grapple with emerging forms of expertise and visual acuity that shape and constrain the ways we see.

The second position is pedagogical, the result of design experiments I have conducted and facilitated to bridge contemporary art and anthropology. Taking seriously the syllabus maxim Jordan Tate and I prescribe in our co-taught “Critical Visions” studio—“students are expected to both write and make work from day 1—neither the written, nor the visual components should be afterthoughts; each informs the other”—how can we rethink the design of ethnographic research through the insistent use of photography? Here, I argue that taking, printing, and physically working with material photographs and found images through processes of visual translation, juxtaposition, and collaborative riffing during and after fieldwork generates visceral and affective responses that are not possible through text alone. Issues of scale also open up, producing new tempos and rhythms of research.


Stephanie Sadre-Orafai is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Co-Director of the Critical Visions Certificate Program at the University of Cincinnati. Her research focuses on transformations in contemporary US racial thinking and visual culture by examining emerging forms of expertise, cultural and institutional practices of type production, and the intersection of race, language, and visual practices in aesthetic industries. In addition to publishing traditional academic articles and essays, she has pursued projects that blend research with creative practice, resulting in video, curatorial, and experimental design work, as well as a new program of study. In 2013, with Jordan Tate, she established CVSN, a periodic publication she co-edits that features student work on a single theme and is reviewed by an international editorial board of anthropologists, artists, designers, and interdisciplinary scholars.