Graphic Anthropology Field School

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The Graphic Anthropology Field School (GrAFs) is a project launched by Expeditions, an independent network of scholars in the human sciences. For 11 years, we have been holding in Gozo (Malta) a summer school for anthropologists and social scientists, focused on the practice of fieldwork. Far away from sleepy lectures in gloomy classrooms, our aim has always been to keep our feet on the ground and experiment with tools and tricks for fieldwork practice.

The idea of offering a separated program entirely dedicated to graphic anthropology grew during the past two years. The project started quite randomly as a colleague saw me sketching a scenery. His interest was piqued and he suggested that we take some students to grab a coffee and sketch at a terrace as a group. Of course, the ulterior motive was to figure out if drawing could serve as observation and analysis in the field. But we quickly acknowledged it was more than that: drawings present numerous advantages at different stages of the research process. More importantly, sketching appeared as a handy activity for young and sometimes inexperienced researchers to access the field more easily. Also, it did not require any expensive gear nor specific skill: everyone can trace lines on paper.

GrAFs views drawing as a practice of “making” more than “taking” (Taussig 2011). Drawings are far less intrusive than photography, and encourage the necessity to take time, observe, wait, and get lost with fieldwork. In the field, the utility of sketches appears from a low-brow but most useful kind: sketching a scene gives one “a reason to be there” in situations where even senior researchers might struggle with a feeling of being “out of place.” It also helps to fight boredom in the field, serves as an opportunity to take the notebook out of the pocket and often provokes new and unexpected interactions. Something intriguing about sketches, especially when compared to standard field notes, is indeed their capacity to amuse people and arouse curiosity: sketches truly have the ability to get conversations flowing. As an observation tool, graphics may also help to explore different and perhaps more relaxed mindsets, push to look at things from multiple angles and help the researcher to realize — more than textual notes do — how subjective and biased his perceptions are.

As one among many other projects (http://www.anthropologyfieldschool.org/), our experiment with graphics quickly turned into a full-grown graphic anthropology workshop, and some of the participants used sketching in ways that did not originally occur to us. For example, in studying migration, one student turned drawing into a tool for icebreaking and reciprocal observation by having she and her informants sketch each other. Thus, this activity balanced the ethnographic relation in a more equal way. Another student found reflexive sketches useful for getting rid of fieldwork’s anxieties and traumatic experiences. Finally, a staff member let the process of drawing carry her through music played in a Gozitan village festa, experiencing sketching as a way to record sounds and senses.



Boosted by these early achievements, developing GrAFs was a way to give us more time to explore the potential and limits of graphic anthropology, something our academic lives do not always leave room for. The program, which took place in March and April 2016, was set up as a mixture of collective field trips, individual research and technical exercises (such as live model, portraying or perspective sessions). It was tailored to give us a grasp on the uses of graphics for both fieldwork and results communication, as well as to confront us with artistic drawing techniques from an anthropological point of view. Among other themes, we explored the practicalities and ethics of drawing and, for example, its potential to record social memories, gestures and techniques. In order to train in keeping visual field notes and organizing graphic narratives, some specific assignments included the production of ethnographic postcards, a daily comic report and a collective storyboarding session of a paper on Gozitan food culture. But, most importantly, participants were asked to draw all the time and never erase their lines. After a few days, drawing really became addictive for most of us.



Unfortunately, getting into each of these rich experiments would outstrip the scope of this post. In the next paragraphs, I will rather try to sketch out two general observations which, I hope, will be of some interest for other graphic anthropologists. Of course, it is clear that I do not speak here for all participants who gathered in Gozo, but rather from my personal point of view (you can find another report of the school here).

The first observation I want to bring in this discussion is about the possibility of using drawings as a form of performance in the field. What I am personally more enthusiastic about here is the transformative effect ethnographic drawings can have on the notebook itself and, accordingly, on the people who come to handle it. While writing always feels so secretive, drawings are “an invitation to watch and ask questions” (Hendrickson 2010: 34) as well as to make comments and edits. Because of their accessible nature, drawings have the potential to demystify the notebook by making its content public and consequently open to discussion and negotiation. Passing from hand to hand, the notebook becomes a mobile and participative museum which allows space for dialogue, collaboration and the expression of multiple levels of reflexivity. In the field, “one is constantly testing one’s interpretations and understanding by finding ways to play them back to informants” (Calzadilla and Marcus : 98); and this is exactly one of the reasons why drawings are useful. Of course, to reach this asks for some willingness, try-outs and also mistakes from the part of the ethnographer. And mistakes do happen. For example, one of the preoccupations that arose during the program concerned the iconicity of our drawings: what if we make a drawing of someone which looks negatively different from the way this person perceives herself? Drawings are not innocent. Sometimes, they can even be deadly serious.

Nevertheless, was it conscious or not, some of us developed clear techniques to foster people’s curiosity and comments. Echoing Ballard’s (2013: 139) depiction of portraiture as a “powerful plastic form of social interaction”, one participant made a point in using sketches of storefronts to trigger dialogue with bartenders and shop owners. As for myself, drawing with two hands or with watercolors proved being a solid trick to get other people’s interest. In the same vein, I cannot help but notice that I have progressively abandoned inconspicuous notebooks over the past two years. If one’s goal is to attract attention, draw bigger.





In this sense, drawing in ethnographic notebooks may best be described as an act of performance. A “theater anthropology” (Calzadilla and Marcus : 99), where the notebook itself becomes the stage on which the ethnographer and the interlocutors meet, discuss and debate both the script and the decor. In this mise-en-scène, the distinction between ethnographic drawings, participative drawings and what I would call “exposition drawings” (i.e. drawings that are intentionally made to communicate research results, like ethnographic expositions or anthropological comics) often tend to get blurry. The distinction, thereof, might not be heuristically fruitful.

The second observation concerns drawing style. As days passed, intimacy and trust grew among participants of the program and I felt the need to move away from a realistic style to more sketchy, conceptual and overtly subjective drawings. Drawings which, thanks to obvious distortions of apparent reality allowed me to stick closer to the lived experience of the moment. “In pointing away from the real, they [these drawings] capture something invisible and auratic that makes the thing depicted worth depicting” (Taussig 2011: 14-15).



Somehow, this process recapitulates the evolution of visuals in the history of anthropology itself. As David Macdougall (2004) points out, anthropologists slowly neglected realistic drawing, photography and film as they moved away from an ethnology mainly based on visually apparent aspects of human societies (dimensions of the body, skin color, masks and haircuts, material culture, architecture, formal rituals, etc.); to later rediscover film, but also a more figurative and conceptual form of drawing as an alternative to the limits of text in research topics such as, among others, memory, emotions, senses, sexuality, time or space.

Moving away from a superficial observation through drawing was, for me, a slow process. This difficulty might reflect a limit posed by a mode of inscription which does not automatically step away from the visual paradigm predominant in Western societies and academia (Ong quoted by Clifford 1986: 11). Some refer to ‘seeing through drawing’ as a haptic practice (see Ingold 2013: 139, Taussig 2011), and in many ways they are right to do so. But we do need to stay aware of this pitfall of visual thinking, especially for untrained artist-anthropologists : the eye first leads to what is visible. Thereof, the lack of training anthropologists show in both the history, the making and the interpretation of visuals is a risk at stake here. It did take Kandinsky his whole life to find his way into — and out of — figurative painting, did it not?

In our experience, learning to draw continuously — while talking, eating, walking or even standing in the middle of a busy bakery — helped growing confidence in our practice, develop a deeper intimacy with it and, in return, with the field. If field researchers want to avoid rigidifying cultures behind technical or organic drawings, artists-anthropologists really need to grasp lines of movements and actions, lines of life (Ingold 2011: 1-21). To do so, they need to be part of the flow, to move in it and, why not, to sketch with it. At least, this is what we will intend to do in the 2017 edition of our graphic anthropology program!


Kim Tondeur is a researcher and trainer at Expeditions. Research in Applied Anthropology. In Gozo (Malta), Kim carries ethnographic research in a small rural community, focusing on perceptions of change, Europe and globalization. His main research interests lie in the anthropology of neoliberalism, ecological systems and social inequalities. One of Kim‘s specialities is graphic anthropology. Through his fieldwork and workshops, he explores and studies the possibilities offered by sketches and drawings as a tool for ethnographic research and social sciences. 

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