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Visual anthropology puts communities in focus

May 19, 2006

Still from "Sisters Rise," about the Center for Young Women's Development in San FranciscoA team of student anthropologists working on "Perspectives and Potential -- Malcolm X Academy," a documentary about an elementary school in San Francisco's Hunters Point neighborhood, enjoyed the schoolchildren so much that that they also volunteered as tutors at the school during filming.

Their experience not only gave them a stronger perspective on the subject of their film, but also helped serve its purpose: to recruit SF State students to volunteer at the school. Early screenings of the film have netted about 20 new student volunteers.

This is an example of applied visual anthropology, defined by Professor of Anthropology Peter Biella as a "cultural intervention that brings about change to an audience."

Biella and Assistant Professor of Cinema Greta Snider teach a two-semester course on Visual Anthropology in which students create documentary films that are intended to make a memorable impact on viewers and spur them into action, he said. The course was first offered in 2000.

All four films made in this year's course will be screened from 7 to 10 p.m. Thursday, May 25, in August Coppola Theatre in the Fine Arts building. A reception will precede the screenings. Admission is free.

In March, the students gave presentations on their films at the annual meeting of The Society for Applied Visual Anthropology, held in Vancouver, B.C. Past films from the class have gone on to screen at film festivals across the United States and Canada.

Still from "Perspectives and Potential -- Malcolm X Academy," about a San Francisco elementary school Students shoot their films on digital video cameras and edit them on computers in the Digital Cinema/Visual Anthropology Lab. Biella and Snider recently garnered a $7,000 grant from SF State's Office of Community Service Learning to support and further develop the course.

Visual anthropology has roots at SF State. John Collier, a faculty member in the 1960s and 1970s, is considered a founder of the field. He and his son Malcolm Collier, professor emeritus of Asian American studies, wrote the book "Visual Anthropology: Photography as a Research Method." Biella, who holds bachelor's and master's degrees in film production from SF State, was one of John Collier's students.

Jennifer Wolowic, a senior, came to SF State specifically for its visual anthropology program. She is part of the team that made "Perspectives and Potential."

"(The class) has taken over all of our lives," she said, estimating that the students have spent about 100 hours a month working on their films.

The children in "Perspectives and Potential" not only loved being in front of the camera, but also forged close relationships with the filmmaking team, Wolowic said.

"As soon as they see us in the hall, they give us a hug," she said. "Getting to know the kids has shaped the project."

Kerri Gawryn directed "Exposing Homelessness," about her work teaching black-and-white photography to three formerly homeless women. "Exposing Homelessness," which is Gawryn's first film and her master's thesis in social science and interdisciplinary studies, focuses on the personal growth and friendships the women developed while they took pictures depicting their perspective on homelessness in San Francisco.

"Stereotypes of homelessness need to be challenged," said Gawryn, who plans to pitch her film to PBS and submit it to film festivals. She hopes people who view this film "feel compelled to reflect on homelessness and how they can participate in helping solve the problem."

The other two films made in this year's Visual Anthropology class focus on midwifery in San Francisco and the Center for Young Women's Development, a San Francisco nonprofit that provides leadership development, job training, and health and wellness programs to young women in the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

-- Matt Itelson
Photos: "Sisters Rise" courtesy of Dom Brassey; "Malcolm X Academy" courtesy of Lyra Frederick


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Last modified May 19, 2006 by University Communications