Annotation: Irving, Andrew. 2007. Ethnography, Art, and Death

Irving, Andrew. 2007. Ethnography, Art, and Death. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.), 13:185-208.

Using photography and performance methods, Irving “stages” encounters with the residents of Kampala, Uganda, with the goal of mapping the city through their emotions and memories. In Irving’s fieldwork performance called Life as it is lived (2000), he interviews an informant, Daniel, while walking together around Daniel’s neighbourhood. Diagnosed with HIV in 1997, Daniel shows Irving the places where he had attempted to commit suicide three times. Through this process, the author tries to understand “how experiences of illness, disease, and death are inscribed into the urban imagination,” and also how the experience of illness itself is shaped by the social and physical environment (193). Through this work inspired by Russian formalism, de Certreau, Rouch, and Morin, he aims to “uncover layers of memory and emotion that have long been sedimented” (187). As Irving argues, through such performance acts, memory is produced. Simultaneously, the understanding of neighbourhoods is transformed from static spaces to “a dynamic temporal phenomenon” (193), which both mediates and enables people to create their experience of illness. Thus, illness is not only passively experienced, but is also actively created. For another fieldwork performance called Flesh and earth (2001), Irving asks three HIV+ women to depict their city through spoken and photographic narratives. The photographs, however, are ommitted from the final publication, leaving only the descriptions written by the women on the otherwise blank pages. For the author, the absence of the photographs serves as metaphor for the “absence of value accorded to African life” and to the “absence of any real commitment” by people elsewhere to affect change in Africa. Through these techniques of placing the informants “centre-stage,” Irving provides an alternative form of witnessing in anthropology that strives to counter the “(re)covering, reification, and fossilization” of experience “through the slow murder of context” (205). Also through such experiments, the author suggests that “photography is a bodily rather than a visual activity” (206).


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