Field Course / William Thompson’s Visual Anthropology Course: Ladakh, India
The Visual Anthropology course takes place in Ladakh and Zanskar, in northern India, during the final week of July, and the first few weeks of August. Ladakh and Zanskar sit high in the Indian Himalaya and are populated primarily by those of Tibetan heritage. Unlike most of the Himalaya, the environment in this region is massive in scale. Because of large mountain ranges to the south, it is protected from monsoons; thus the area we will visit is exceedingly dry. The beauty of this area in northern India is punctuated by a feeling of remoteness – a remoteness slowly disappearing from the majority of the Himalayan communities.
The visual aspect of this course is not about travel photography but rather, examine another culture with photographic and video tools. With this in mind, we will explore the Tibetan and Muslim traditions practiced in the daily lives of villagers in three major areas: Leh, Padum, and Kargil. Our images will capture the evolving culture presently experienced by these northern inhabitants of the Himalaya.
Travel is via jeep, van, and foot. We will stay in small, family hotels, occasionally camp, eat traditional foods when appropriate, and experience ‘home stays,’ where we sleep and eat in a local family home. It should be noted that the Western Himalaya is safe, generally clean, and the food is good. The majority of Zanskar and Ladakh is not heavily populated as is the rest of India. As our studies take us from larger towns to small villages, we will meet with nuns and monks at some of the region’s fascinating monasteries.
Our travels will take us to high elevations, from 11,000 feet to 14,000 feet, with a considerable amount of walking; therefore, it is important that each student is healthy and reasonably fit before embarking on the course.
THE COURSE: VISUAL ANTHROPOLOGY
Dr. Thompson has thirty years of worldwide professional photography and film experience, including eleven years as a National Geographic photographer. He will share his insight and expertise in terms of content and support with respect to applying the mediums and editing of visual material from an anthropological standpoint.
During this course, students will come to understand the culture through the use of cameras and video recorders. The use of these visual tools will be taught and practiced through individual and group efforts. The final project will consist of group productions of 8-12 minute videos and/or still photographic presentations – essentially visual anthropological monographs.
Each individual participant will give a presentation to the group critiquing, in anthropological terms, their group’s audio-visual monograph, its successes and weaknesses. In addition to the critique, a short paper will be required discussing the nature of personal individual efforts in the development of the group project. Essentially, in this short analysis, you will assess and define what you have learned through the course. Some reading is required; however, given the nature of the course, the reading is designed to be both reasonable and possible in the context of travel. The readings will be assigned prior to the beginning of the course.
While the student will learn to create high-quality images, it is equally important to create images that are meaningful and effective in understanding other cultures – it isn’t about using cool tools; it is about understanding culture through imagery. It is important to be aware that a student can participate with simple tools. A fancy, expensive camera is neither necessary nor expected. Powerful images can be created using an iPhone and/or inexpensive video camera. The goal is to become a competent image-maker using the tools available.
At least one laptop computer is required per group (preferably each student has his own) with a minimal editing capability such as iPhoto, iMovie, Photoshop, Keynote, etc. Additionally, one of the more powerful film editing programs such as Final Cut Express, Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premier is desirable, but not required.
While this course has a wide range of educationally pragmatic outcomes, there is one meta-goal: to explore the enormously difficult dialog with respect to the question of “explanation” in social science. In anthropology the efforts to understand human cultural evolution have undergone, throughout the history of the discipline, vast changes as well as challenges – from the structuralism of Claude Levi-Strauss to strategies of statistical quantification, not to mention all the work that has taken place in genetics and human evolution.
Underlying all of this discourse and all of the years of academic research and intellectual meanderings is the penultimate question: Is anthropology (and for that matter, any of the social sciences) actually “science”. Exploration of this question is foremost in the anthropological discipline today, and is one of important sub-categories of this course.
The philosopher Norwood Russell Hanson was deeply aware that our preconceived concepts color our view of existence. He wrote simply, “seeing is a theory-ladened activity…” How do we then understand reality? Can we understand, even anticipate, cultural change? What presuppositions do we carry to the judgments we make as social scientists? The issue is that the problem of understanding human beings must be calculated in the terms of the constantly developing relationship between human ideas and the natural world, neither of which is invariant.
Each learning mind in this visual anthropology course, as he or she experiences the dialectic with respect to anthropology, will have the opportunity and responsibility to explore and ultimately connect their work, their visual project, with the questions fundamental to contemporary anthropology – that is to say, to human understanding and cultural evolution.
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