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Ethnographic filmmakers have shown their films to their subjects since the 1910s, when Martin and Osa Johnson produced adventure films in Melanesia and Robert Flaherty shot Nanook of the North. Flaherty, Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, and other anthropologists used this practice to enlist their subjects as informants and learn their interpretations of filmed behaviors. Before they could do so, though, they had to develop their film.
In the 1960s, human scientists began using electronic video equipment that could play back tape immediately. A professional community of psychiatrists and other therapists developed around the practice of video therapy, using a patient’s experience of seeing themself on television as a form of treatment. Bateson, who was peripheral to this community through his involvement in the development of family therapy, also began working with video in his research on the behaviors of dolphins. And at Columbia University, students of Marvin Harris began shooting video in New York, including family studies in collaboration with therapists. Joe Schaeffer’s 1970 dissertation “Videotape Techniques in Anthropology,” supervised by Lambros Comitas, Harris, and Mead, explored ways the medium could be used.
In this paper, I will examine how video’s technical affordances shaped the work of those who used it, particularly in regard their relationships with their subjects, from the 1960s to the medium’s wider adoption as a central tool of visual anthropology in the decades that followed.