The Society for Visual Anthropology (SVA)

The Society for Visual Anthropology

Sarah Quick * Posted May 1999

Focus and Goals: To foster and support a broad range of approaches in visual research.

Organization Website:

Total Membership in 1999: About 515

Type of Organization: Interdisciplinary outside and within anthropology; academic and educational.

Date founded: 1984

Newsletter or Journal: Visual Anthropology Review.

Annual Membership fees:  Professional:  $40.00, Student:  $25.00 

Membership Services 
4350 N. Fairfax Dr 
Suite 640 
Arlington, VA 
Tel: 703-528-1902  X 3030

Affiliation with other groups: SVA is a section within the American Anthropological Association. 

Listserve or other internet resources: Documentary Educational Resources:, UR-List on Visual Anthropology: 
Visual Anthropology Review: 

Contact Address: 
Mary Strong

1708 11th Avenue

Brooklyn, NY 11218


Visual Research Conference & the Film, Video & Interactive Media Festival

The Conference on Visual Research, begun in 1985, meets two days prior to the official AAA sessions and allows visual researchers to present their on-going research in a less formal atmosphere.  Panelists usually have 45 to 60 minutes for presentations.  These pre-session meetings are lively, well-attended and revolve around diverse topics.   

Another main event for the SVA at the AAA meetings is the Film and Video and Interactive Media Festival.  Clips of the award-winners are shown at screenings throughout the AAA meetings after the initial awards ceremony.  Each year there are awards of excellence,


A Brief History of Society for Visual Anthropology

The Society of Visual Anthropology has its origins in PIEF (Program in Ethnographic Film), a group that primarily focused on the use and production of ethnographic film. PIEF formed in 1966 at Harvard University through Robert Gardner and Asen Balicki, who later became well-known ethnographic filmmakers. PIEF was initially funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and functioned as a subcommittee of the AAAs. In 1969 PIEF moved to Temple University, and Jay Ruby became Executive Secretary. In 1970 Carroll Williams and Jay Ruby edited the first issue of the PIEF newsletter. In 1973, PIEF became the Society for the Anthropology of Visual Communication (SAVICOM) and began creating its own newsletter. In 1975, SAVICOM produced a publication called Studies in the Anthropology of Visual Communication, attending not only to ethnographic film, but incorporating other aspects of the anthropology of visual communication.  

In 1984 SAVICOM reorganized into the Society of Visual Anthropology (SVA) and became an official unit within the reorganized AAA.  In the late 1980s, SVA membership began to steadily grow to reach just over 500, where it has been stable since the early 1990s.  Past SVA presidents are Jack Rollwagen, Thomas Blakely, Karl Heider, Richard Chaflen, Joanna Scherer, Fadwa El Guindi, and Emilie de Brigard.  SVA’s newsletter began under Timothy Asch in 1985 at the Center for Visual Anthropology at USC.  The newsletter later became the journal Visual Anthropology Review with an editorial board and peer review system.  In light of its scholarly status, VAR transferred production to another research institute under the editorship of J. David Sapir at the University of Virginia in 1998.  VAR's editorship is now a five-year rotating position, the incoming editor co-editing with the previous editor for a year.  

About the Society for Visual Anthropology


SVA membership is interdisciplinary, and many members work outside of the academy.  Within academia, many visual anthropologists are employed in area studies, media studies, or communication and culture programs instead of in anthropology departments (or as adjuncts to both).  Visual Anthropology also crosses the sub-fields within anthropology although socio-cultural anthropologists are the most represented.  In addition, many members are affiliated with museum institutions such as the Smithsonian, while others (a small minority) are associated with media distribution companies.  See Table for a breakdown of the board of directors, institutional affiliation, journals published in, and primary research interests.  Besides the Visual Research Conference and the AAA sessions, some SVA members meet, usually in June, as jurists for the Film, Video and Media festival at the Anthropology Film Center in Santa Fe. 
The SVA  anticipates having two invited sessions for the1999 meetings, one pertaining to the teaching of visual anthropology, and one designated as a poster session. They also plan to co-sponsor a session with the Society for Anthropology in Europe on visual anthropology in Europe and may potentially co-sponsor a session related to museum issues (AN, Feb. 1999: 60). In addition SVA members may organize workshops on visual resources, providing a source of additional funding for the society.  In 1998 Peter Biella and Carol Hermer directed two workshops on the use of digital technology in visual anthropology (AAA program 1998). 

Also at the 1998 meetings, SVA formed four committees in order to address recognized issues and problems concerning visual anthropology.  These committees are: On Student Issues in Visual Anthropology; On Scholarship in Visual Anthropology; On Archival Issues; On Film and Anthropology (AN, Feb. 1999: 59-60).  Though it is not obvious from its title, "On Scholarship in Visual Anthropology" is perhaps the most relevant to SVA members in its goals to better assess the "academic environment, particularly in the context of hiring, promotions, and retention" for visual researchers (AN, Feb. 1999: 59). 

There are various, but similar statements concerning the goals and purposes of SVA in Visual Anthropology Review, in Article II of the SVA Bylaws, and in the Anthropology Newsletters.  These statements are broad and inevitably contain an inclusive list of research domains, from "still photography" to "interests in kinesics, proxemics and related forms of body motion communication . . ."(VAR 1998: back inside cover).  The message of an all-inclusive visual anthropology is evident outside of SVA as well. For example, in the introductory chapter of Rethinking Visual Anthropology, Marcus Banks and Howard Morphy posit, "We seek to deflect the centre of the discipline away from film and photography, allowing them to be reincorporated in a more positive way and in a way that is more cognizant of the broader anthropological project" (1997: 5). 

In a recent issue of VAR under his editorship, J. David Sapir writes, "Visual Anthropology, as set out in the Bylaws of the SVA, contains a tension or opposition. On the one hand it consists of the use of visual means to record and to analyze cultural phenomena. On the other it takes as its subject anything a people might create to be seen.  The mission of Visual Anthropology Review is to publish studies . . . that take either one side or the other of the opposition or in some way find a means to form a bridge" (1998: 2).  Banks and Morphy as well as Sapir’s proposal reflect a recurrent theme for SVA members and visual anthropology as a whole: most anthropologists associate visual anthropology with the production of a visual record, most likely in the medium of ethnographic film, while many visual anthropologists do not solely produce, but also examine, visual phenomena. 

In their e-mail replies to my questions about the SVA, president Malcolm Collier, board members Mary Strong and Anne Zeller, and student representative Irma Preikschat all explictly or implicitly affirm the strong linkage of visual anthropology to ethnographic film although SVA members' interests are much more diverse.  As Mary Strong states, "The SVA provides a forum not only for filmmakers and photographers, but also for other students and practitioners of all of the arts.  My interests in the hand-made arts and crafts has led me to work as a street muralist/community organizer in New York City, Maya villages, Quechua towns in the Andes, fishing pueblos in Mexico, and many other places.  SVA board membership permits me to interest more students and other professionals in this kind of work, which combines applied anthropology and the arts: beauty and conscience.  I believe this combination to be of extreme importance both philosophically and practically today." (Feb. 10, 1999). 

Besides VAR, many visual anthropologists publish in Visual Anthropology (VA).  This journal is affiliated with the Commission on Visual Anthropology, a more international association than SVA although much of the membership overlaps.  Interestingly, many of the latest publications in VA are written by SVA board members. SVA board members Mary Strong, Najwa Adra, and Peter Biella all have articles in a recent VA issue (1998: vol 11, nos 1-2).  In addition to VA and VAR, visual anthropologists publish in the Visual Sociological Review and the American Anthropologist, primarily as film reviewers.  However, under Harald E. Prins, who is SVA’s current president-elect, the film review section of the American Anthropologist recently became the visual anthropology section, incorporating the ‘beyond ethnographic film’ attitude here as well (1999: 62 ). 

The production of ethnographic film has been and remains a primary source of identity for the field of visual anthropology.  Theoretically and methodologically, ethnographic films challenge past assumptions about ethnographic representation and production, while practically and educationally, they bring exposure to visual anthropology as a discipline as well as to the peoples they are recording. 

Anthropology Newsletter. 1999  SVA Unit News. February 40(2):59-60. 

Banks, Marcus and Howard Morphy. 1997  Rethinking Visual Anrhropology.  New Haven: Yale University Press. 

Blakely, Thomas D. and Pamela Blakely.  1989   Directory of Visual Anthropology. A publication of the Society for Visual Anthropology, a Unit of the American Anthropological Association. 

Close, Cynthia.  Personal E-mail communication. Feb. 9, 1999. 

Collier, Malcolm.  Personal E-mail communication. Feb. 17, 1999. 

Preikschat, Irma. Personal E-mail communication. Feb. 11, 1999. 

Prins, Harald. 1999   Editorial Note to Visual Anthropology Section.  American Anthropologist 101: 62. 

Biella, Peter and Carol Hermer 1998 Workshops on Digital Anthropology: Beginning and intermediate. Program on the 97th annual American Anthropology Association meetings. AAA, Arlington, Maryland: 87 and 89. 

Sapir, David J. 
1998  Editorial Statement. Visual Anthropology Review. 14(1): 2, 18, 44. 
Strong, Mary.  Personal E-mail communication. Feb. 10 , 1999. 

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