Views on the visual experience of looking at anthropologists’ pictures

7 min readAug 29


Each year since 2008 a photo contest is held for the thousands of members in the American Anthropological Association. People submit a few pictures during the submission period and then voting is opened up to let members select ten pictures they most like or rate as superior relative to the others. Most years attract 70 or 80 images, but in summer 2023 more than 130 responded with pictures (maximum three uploads per person). Winners’ photos appear in a calendar distributed at the November Annual Meeting of the Association.

The heart of anthropology, as the name itself shows, is anthropos or humankind. So it is not surprising to see people in portrait, in process, or in performance. In the age of point-and-shoot digital photography, it is relatively easy to make pretty good pictures time after time. Occasionally, through experience or by luck, there are photos that stand out from the others in recording a significant moment or situation, or photos that may not have notable content but which compose a scene with artistry or poetry of light and line and (possibly transcending) meaning. However, more often, the pictures taken by scholars and non-academic anthropologists working in the private sector will be something less than masterpieces. The images successfully illustrate a subject matter and can be usefully accompanied by analytical text to shed light on things that the audience knows little about. Yet there are many small ways to add greater visual effect to one’s professional (and personal) picture-taking. In this essay, I offer some examples of things to try to incorporate or develop a habit that will amplify the communication conveyed visually. It is true that the Eye of the Beholder will define what is beautiful or desired. So the one person’s commentary that follows is best treated as discussion starter; not as some sort of final word on the matter of Best Practices. In a time of daily flooding of (still) images for many readers, many photo contest viewers look but do not necessarily stop long enough to see the moment recorded truly or in the context of its making: who records whom, for what purpose, framing and therefore excluding what surrounding details, and so on.

This screenshot is a fraction of the entries in the summer 2023 photo contest. The same collage is marked up with numbers later as a way to talk about some of the good and bad points from the point of view of one person’s eye; a person who spends a lot of time viewing, taking, and thinking about photography for documentary and more expressive purposes, too.

collage of photo thumbnails in 4 rows and 7 columns
collage of part of the 2023 photo entries in this year’s American Anthropological Association photo contest

Reviewing 132 submitted photos and voting on 10 of them can be carried out in a variety of ways. Some will browse the thumbnails and click particular ones for full-size view and to read the accompanying description. Others will consider the merits of the competing pictures from the small images alone, foregoing the richness of detail that a large view or a large screen provide. Some will have an appetite for people-pictures and give scant attention to other compositions. For others it is the reverse: landscapes and streetscapes will hold the greatest interest. My own shortlist of criteria is to favor photos that are technically more or less pleasing, that give some context around the main subject, and that ideally are able to stand on their own with little text to prop it up; that is, the picture all by itself communicates much of the significance. In the 2023 cohort of photo contest images there are many that are well composed (technique), do have context, and do seem to tell a story. By picking out some of the thumbnails in the above collage (a subset of the total number of entries), a few recurring strengths and weaknesses can be singled out.

superimposed numbers 1 to 9 identify collage of photos in text body
identifying numbers for photos discussed in the body of this essay

1 Tilted horizon is sometimes beneficial for emotional effect (urgent sense; contingent snapshot) or to fit in elements otherwise excluded from frame. Often, though, the disorienting visual presentation draws attention to itself rather than to invite viewers into the scene.

2 Printed enlargements installed with good gallery lighting and seen in person can convey a wide range of light values, from details within the dark to brightest regions just a breath away from bleaching out to pure white. But pictures recorded digitally and then viewed on handheld or even typical personal computer screens-only can convey something less than the full range of light and details. Therefore, the result is dark areas that are hard to perceive. One remedy for an all-digital environment is to lighten up the shadow areas selectively so the cumulative range from light to dark is not as pronounced as the original conditions where the picture was composed.

3 Raising questions is a good way to catch the eye and the imagination of viewers: they wonder, “what is going on here,” for example.

4 Exiting the frame does make an editorial point, but as a human-interest story, seeing the postal courier entering the picture lends more interest than this view of the person with back to the lens.

5 Subject with surrounding context makes a complete sentence. This photo could be a short story all by itself; it seems to convey a larger meaning in one click of the shutter: main subject, secondary subject, audience, (presumed) outcome.

6 Sloping horizons can distract some viewers from what is happening inside the frame since attention is drawn to the tilting room itself. Many photo editing apps make it easy to adjust the horizon. So it is usually worth removing this potential distraction — unless the photographer does particularly want viewers to feel uneasy or distracted themselves.

7 Close framing of the subject and excluding the surrounding setting or timing can add intensity or drama, making the subject all by itself seem sovereign in its meaning. But on the other hand, without context there is much discarded of value, too.

8 Split horizon can sometimes emphasize something about the subject, but apart from a very few purposeful uses, in most cases the 50–50 split gives a static feeling to the viewing experience; a symmetry that suppresses the viewer’s eye and keeps it riveted rather than inviting it to wander. In this photo, if the aim is to portray the person under a big sky, then composing 2/3 sky and 1/3 foreground would be more dynamic than the 50–50 split.

9 Obscured faces sometimes are purposeful (to give some anonymity to the subject) or accidental (unplanned turn of events just when the picture is exposed). But when there is no need to hide the face, then photographing the expression on the person’s face usually invites viewers to enter into the frame and to engage with the person, thus making for a stronger picture.

Concluding views on the anthropology fieldwork photos in the 2023 contest

In the USA the “study of humankind” (anthropology) has taken five main routes that intersect here and there. The physical anthropologists foreground the bodies of people ancient and modern in order to understand individual development and social interactions more widely. The archaeologists foreground the material remains of earlier lives. Social-cultural anthropologists work with societies and the individuals there today, including historically (and more rarely, futuristically) to some extent, too. Linguist anthropologists foreground the verbal (and non-verbal) system of communicating with self and others, insiders and outsiders, newcomers and old-timers. And applied anthropologists solve problems, or at least define and document them for public and private sector purposes.

Compared to 100 years ago, just about every one of these anthropologists frequently has at hand one or more kind of camera. Even verbally dominant thinkers take snapshots out of personal habit these days. For those who are more inclined to thinking visually, perhaps comes more naturally to record a subject in storyboard frames, each composed with some care. But no matter whether a person has aspirations to take champion photos or merely to rely on images as note-taking shortcut as aid to memory, by taking just a little more time before snapping the photo — moving an inch to the right, kneeling to eye level of the subject, or taking care to avoid distracting shadows or busy backgrounds — the results will be better for the researcher, for the subject portrayed, and for viewers now and inquiring minds from the indefinite future generations, too.

Photography is literally “writing with light.” And so it is worth giving special attention to that part of the composition: being alert to distracting light or looking out for alluring golden light as the sun is low, for example. Of course, patterns of color, texture, light and shadow interplay, and geometric organization of elements in the picture frame also improve a photograph, but above all it is light itself that makes a lot of what others react to as “great photography.” Whether it is the annual photo contest for members of the American Anthropological Association or pictures for personal or work projects, the resulting image often can improve by the three criteria listed earlier: not distracting by technical fault (misfocus, wrong exposure, crooked horizon), showing the subject in illustrative surroundings (context), and composing and timing the shot to tell a (self-contained) story. Of these, the technique and the context are easy habits to adopt. Recognizing a story in the frame takes more time, inclination, and interest.