Art Term

Visual ethnography

Ethnography is the study and interpretation of social organisations and cultures in everyday life. It is a research-based methodology, and when this research is conducted using photography, video or film, it is called visual ethnography

Artists operating in this field arguably date back to the 1930s and 1940s with projects like Mass Observation, which documented everyday British life, or the Farm Security Administration in the USA which portrayed the challenges of rural poverty.

The theorist Hal Foster argued that visual ethnography emerged as a debate in art in the 1960s, thanks to the rise of performance art and social movements like feminism. It was no longer possible to describe audiences as simply observers, just as it was no longer possible to describe the institutions in which the art was shown in terms of space. As a result art passed into the expanded field of culture that anthropology surveys.

An artwork like The Battle of Orgreave, by Jeremy Deller could be described as an example of visual ethnography in that the artist collaborated with a community to recover a suppressed history.

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Selected artists in the collection

Selected artworks in the collection