Swahili Art

Men of the island of Lamu take part in a local festival.

‘Visual’ Anthropology A Lesson in Ethics


November 13, 2007

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. – Men dance in celebration, wooden ships race across the water and hands beat handcrafted drums. It is a celebration on the East African island of Lamu, and for Illinois Wesleyan University Associate Professor of Anthropology Rebecca Gearhart, it is an opportunity to learn.

“The expressive arts that I study are challenging to describe in words, which is why I use visual media,” said Gearhart, who has been exploring traditions off the coast of Kenya. “These traditions include the dance competitions performed during festivals and rituals, wood carving, handmade ship building – all visually spectacular Swahili expressive art forms.”

Although anthropologists often use photographs and video to illustrate their ethnographic research, Gearhart explains that it is rare for anthropologists to have been trained to use visual media as a methodology in a “visual anthropology” course. “There are very few of us who teach visual anthropology, which is why it is so unique for our anthropology program at IWU to be able to offer it to our students,” said Gearhart. “The issues that visual anthropology raises allow us to teach the visual methods course as a course on anthropological ethics.”

An instructor at Illinois Wesleyan since 1999, Gearhart explains to her students that taking a photo as a visual anthropologist is more than illustrating what you write about the society under study, it is part of a methodology used to gather information in a collaborative way. And taking images of people must always be done with the ethical implications in mind. “When an image of a person is taken, that person is often viewed as representing an entire culture and rarely if ever has any input on how the image is interpreted or used,” said Gearhart. “The best visual anthropology is collaborative in nature and allows members of the society under study to participate in their own representation.”

According to Gearhart, taking photographs of people is a great way to build rapport. “Giving people copies of the photos you take of them is an important way to earn their trust, especially since most visitors promise to send photos but never do.”  In addition, Gearhart uses photographs in the interview process. “You need to talk with the people in the photos, so they can explain what’s going on in the image,” said Gearhart. “It sounds simple, but those conversations provide detailed information that leads to a greater understanding of the culture.”

Swahili Art

Rebecca Gearhart records musicians for her visual anthropology studies.

Respecting a society’s culture is key to documenting a community ethically, said Gearhart, who has been immersed in Lamu culture for more than 20 years, lived on the island for years at a time and whose husband is from Lamu. And Gearhart works diligently to stay within the boundaries of Swahili traditions.

“There are very few images of Swahili women in my work, because images of women are usually only taken by close relatives, who are trusted by the family to keep the photos safe,” said Gearhart.

She noted a case where a Swahili husband sought to divorce his wife after the woman appeared in postcards from photos taken by tourists. “This case reminds us that assessing how images have been used in the service or disservice of the community under study is the first step a visual anthropologist must take before any camera is used at all.”

With thousands of images in her personal collection, Gearhart is now in the process of creating a digital collection of her journeys through The Ames Library’s Digital Media Collection accessible from the Library’s homepage, to be used for educational purposes.

“It’s great to be able to create a collection that is accessible within an educational environment that provides people with access to my publications about Swahili expressive arts so they can fully appreciate and understand the images within their unique historical and cultural context,” said Gearhart. “I am hopeful that the collection will generate interest in Africa while representing the Swahili of the Kenya coast as respectfully as possible.” The first round of images comes from Gearhart’s research on Maulidi, the popular festival on Lamu celebrating the birth of the prophet Mohammad. Gearhart plans to expand the collection, devoting pages of photos to other Swahili celebrations and art forms. 

The online collection offers Gearhart the chance to share her work with not only her students, but others who have an interest in Africa. Stephanie Davis-Kahl is helping Gearhart put the collection online. “Dr. Gearhart’s collection is a natural match for what our digital collections can do,” said Davis-Kahl, digital and media initiatives librarian for The Ames Library. “Her methods are so unique and the results open up a clear picture of modern Africa that can help everyone understand a different culture.”

Gearhart’s Swahili Expressive Arts Collection can be viewed by visiting the IWU Web site: www.iwu.edu/library/resources/DigitalCollections.shtml.

Contact: Rachel Hatch, (309) 556-3960