Annotation: Ruby, Jay. 1995. The Moral Burden of Authorship In Ethnographic Film

Ruby, Jay. 1995. The Moral Burden of Authorship In Ethnographic Film. Visual Anthropology Review, 11(2):77–82.

Ruby contends that there is an “arrogance” in the anthropological paradigm of “see(ing) the world through the eyes of the native” (Malinowski 1922). He asks, “If anthropologists want to see the world through native eyes, why don’t they simply watch their videos?” (77). Historicizing ethnographic film’s style of representing Others, Ruby writes that anthropology and ethnographic film were created out of the “need of Westerners to describe, explain, and control the exotic other” (78). There developed an assumption that film can capture a certain presumed objectivity, that anthropologists have “an inside track on understanding that reality” (78). This positivist approach gave ethnographers the “absolute power of authorship” (80). This changed after the WW2. According to Ruby, “Given the chance, the subject of anthropological inquiry wish (sic) to speak for themselves” (78). Nowadays, it is recognized that knowledge is “constructed” and not found, and to continue filming, ethnographers have shifted their technique to “speak with or alongside,” as also argued by Trin Minh-Ha. Current ethnographic film and other forms of representation from the West, Ruby argues, are in a “crisis characterized as both a loss of subject and a loss of faith in form (77). For Ruby,  ethnographic filmmaking must be reformulated for it to survive, and he finds three possible ways forward for ethnographers: 1) act as facilitators and cultural brokers for indigenous media makers; 2) become collaborators with the people they film, and/or; 3) filmicly explore their own culture. As the West has turned its own camera onto itself, it has retained its intellectual and moral problems associated with representing the exotic other. Now, it films the “domestic exotic other” (81). Ruby suggests that the corporate power structure or the the power elite could make interesting new subjects for ethnographic film.


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