Visual cultures. Towards the pluralization of visual culture

Received: June 6, 2018

Acceptance: June 21, 2018

In this dossier we think about the importance of approaching visual cultures, in the plural, to know the multiple constructions of reality that are crystallized in images in various social settings. Today not only an immense amount of images invades and represents us, but digital options and social networks build in real time the material and symbolic world in which we live.

East dossier explores the term visual culture in its plural form, visual cultures, to highlight the existence of a diversity of them. Speaking in the plural allows us to see that there are multiple forms of visual productions and an asymmetric distribution of power between the supposed globalized cultures from the West and those various images and visualities that are gestated in multiple contexts, from our own points of view. In this way, the singular concept reduces our understanding of possible visual productions to a single homogeneous condition. We consider visual cultures to belong to geopolitically and historically situated cultural formations. Approached in its plural form, investigative practices are generated that approach the conflict with the presuppositions of a universal visuality and favor particular knowledge, other visualities.

Next, I examine three moments in the construction of the concept of visual cultures in the plural. This journey has meant an extension of the studies of images towards the subject who makes and consumes them. The transformation of the concept to the plural occurs in dialogue with cultural studies, in search of understanding other epistemes and other ways of seeing. Then I present and compare the studies in Latin America that have been critical of traditional studies of the image and have focused on images produced or "read" from non-hegemonic contexts. In a third moment, some concepts and methods that originate in dialogic research on visual cultures in Latin America are presented. The texts included in this dossier are sample of this search.

Origins and disciplines of a field of study

The term "visual culture" was first used by Svetlana Alpers in her study of the Dutch arts and culture of the century. xvii. In the text published in 1982 (Brea, 2005), the author, originally from the field of art history, seeks an alternative method to empiricism that gained strength as a tool for scientific research and the works of art that she analyzed. The originality of his text was to question the centrality of art to approach images and propose them as the place where cultural meanings are created and discussed in different contexts.

The studies of art and visual culture, also very recent, are debated between the methodological reproduction imposed on them by the academy and what they consider is the characteristic of art: an institution within an institution. In this context, they seek to create bases for work, nodes and networks with other disciplines, to think beyond corporate networks (Kantonen, 2017).

Art and art history studies were also restricted from understanding the production of non-Western images. The concept of art was narrow to name the production that they incorrectly called "primitive" and "popular" art, which included what was produced in Latin America outside the European academic canons. With this influence of the academy, the museums of the world arrived, with an aestheticized vision, the objects produced in other latitudes: the tools of the exhibited peoples lost their usefulness, the rituals their relevance, the ethnic differences were racialized and nationalized. The diversity of visual cultures was not considered.

On the other hand, the studies of visual anthropology and mass media they were also important starting points in shaping the field of visual culture. For its part, visual anthropology entered the Latin American university in the 1970s with an indigenous vocation. Scott Robinson, a pioneer of visual anthropology courses, makes an honest self-criticism of 25 years of this practice. For the author, visual anthropology "is the quintessential example of the expropriation process, via images, of the cultural intimacy of the photographed strangers" (Robinson, 1998: 95). Although not always aware, visual anthropologists have cooperated to produce a national state that portrays “its” indigenous peoples but, by essentializing them, excludes them from national political participation.

The photographic archive of the Instituto Nacional Indigenista speaks of the origin of indigenous photography in Mexico. From the founding of the Institute in 1948 until the 1970s, a nationalist anthropology project was shown, bearing intellectual and political direction. With the passage of time, we observe that the old indigenous visual project is not replaced by anthropologists with another visual proposal (Corona 2011b). Far from illustrating the activities of the visual anthropologist as it was at first, or including the indigenous gaze, today the photographs are no longer the testimonies of those who “were there”, nor are the indigenous communities portrayed by themselves in their difference ; They are photographs of exceptional moments captured by artist photographers who struggle to separate themselves from the referential quality of photography to transform it into art. The traces of ethnography, description and the search for objectivity have disappeared in pursuit of the aesthetic indigenous. This is another way to racialize and pay for visual coloniality. Today the images with which we recognize indigenous people have more to do with those inspired by photographers such as Álvarez Bravo, by the Indio Fernández cinema, soap operas, commercials and popular science magazines.

The article "Three snapshots of the relationship between anthropology and photography in Mexico", by Citlalli González Ponce, included in this dossier, offers an elaborate history of the participation of anthropology in indigenous photography, showing how ways of seeing the indigenous are constructed in Mexico in three different historical periods.

On the other hand, Social Communication studies also began their research career in the field of the visual in the 70s and 80s in Latin America, where the place of visual representations that came from image-producing centers (such as the American cinema, television, and advertising and their Mexican replicas) and the power they wielded over marginalized populations.

The new Latin American investigation denounced the imperialist ideological capital. Among other state apparatuses, the ideological networks of the media were thought to be the cause of Latin American underdevelopment. Although Marxist criticism discovered the unequal power between producers and consumers of audiovisual media, for these studies the institutions producing images continued to dominate the active pole and consumers the passive or receptor pole of the dominant visual strategies. This perspective offered no explanation for the non-capitalist visual production forms of some social groups, nor for their transforming capacity in the consumption of what are considered “alienating goods”. The existence of heterogeneous forms of consumption of images or their own visual expressions had no relevance in the communicative investigation of visual media.

Critical imaging studies

Subsequently, the reading of Gramsci in Latin America allowed us to understand the mechanisms of reproduction and transformation of a system from the cultural struggle for hegemony. The images were no longer conceived as static entities but as fields of struggle, relations of force, conflicts for a vision of the world.

At this stage, American images as a privileged place for visual study were offset by interest in production formulated by other non-Eurocentric visual narratives.

Jorge González (1986), in his study of the votive offerings produced by subaltern cultures, showed how popular religion coexisted with hegemonic modernity, forcing us to redefine the very meaning of religion and modernity. Since then, other research has been done on religious images and their production and consumption from Latin America (Carozzi and Frigerio 1992; De la Torre, 2000; Menezes 2009; Zires, 2014).

García Canclini discusses the imbalance that exists in the circulation of images and works of art produced in the transnational circuit and relates it to the production of knowledge about visual cultures: “The geopolitical configuration of knowledge is as important as the transnational organization of representations and images in the arts and cultural industries ”. For the author, the globalization and standardization of images does not help the production of Latin American knowledge or multicultural communication, but on the contrary: “dealing with the diversity of images and symbolic elaborations in which [the other] is represented forces us to dealing with their difference and asking questions about the possibility of universalizing diverse views ”(García Canclini, 2007: 41).

Images and their global proliferation have given rise to research on visual cultures as an official school resource and the uses of teachers and students in the field of education (Pinto M. and Ribes R., 2011; Reno and Reno, 2013; Baronnet, 2017). An interesting way of constructing new images from old images is the work of those who produce other national stories based on their “family albums” and their visuality in dialogue with the official one (Wood, 2014).

The methodological use of images is also interesting in the works of Pablo Vila (1997), who, rather than analyzing the images themselves, puts them at the service of research as a tool for subjects to express themselves around their own vision. María Inés García Canal (1997) carries out a study on gender stereotypes and reveals visual prejudices in the description of photographs, in consumers of different ages and social classes.

In another space and time, Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui (2010) analyzes more than 300 drawings made by the chronicler Waman Poma de Ayala in his First New Chronicle and Good Government (1612-1615). The result of this research is of interest to us where the author finds, from a historical perspective, that the images of the chronicler allow her to discover meanings not censored by the imposed official language. In this analysis it can be observed that the “visual theorization of the colonial system” contributes better to the indigenous ideas about the meanings of the colonization and subordination of the indigenous population to the Spanish Crown. Methodologically, the author separates herself from the Eurocentric structuralist or semiotic epistemological proposals and points out with humor that the methodology she applies to the drawings is cinematographic, the flashback. From her current experience with indigenous students who come to express in images meanings that cannot be expressed in academic writings, she studies Waman Poma's images, which surpass the written record plagued with euphemisms; the unsaid, in this sense, is drawn.

Jesús Martín Barbero criticized in the 70s and 80s those researchers of the image, especially television, who were concerned about the "effects" of the visual media, since they were looking for direct and coherent effects. Martín Barbero considered then that “the problem to be faced is how the relationship of users with reality and the experience of events changes due to continuous contact with representation” (Martín Barbero, 2002: 99). A convinced of the pleasure that the image generates, Martín Barbero points out today that the visual field is central in the new sensorium of the planetary population. In this sense, the multiple visualities are key to understanding that it is there where today what he calls the aesthetics of the disposable are hybridized with the fragile utopias that arise from audiovisual vertigo.

With different approaches, postcolonial studies speak of the struggle to build our own images in the face of the expropriated place of enunciation that places us in a situation of colonization (León, 2012; Barriendos, 2008). According to Quijano, colonial domination has not allowed us to develop our own images, our visual and plastic aesthetic meanings and, as a consequence, to think about ourselves from our own epistemology.

The capacities of the dominated peoples to produce their own visual patterns were repressed, and they were forced to adopt the models of the dominators. The images instructed that race was the fundamental element to distinguish the dominated from the dominators. The images have not ceased to underline the inequality between Europeans and non-Europeans. Quijano calls this practice racism:

Such historical mystification that denies non-white populations not only their effective contributions to world history but also their ability to have done so […] was effective, since their imposition on the world imaginary, including that of the dominated, has been hegemonic. until now (Quijano 2014: 47).

The studies of visual cultures as a field of the visual in the arts, the media, and everyday life has been widespread in Latin American academia since the 1980s. The studies of visual cultures include the study of works of art, of the soap operas, videos and other products that circulate in the mass media, and also visual products generated in multiple cultural contexts and by the actors themselves, such as migration, parties, education, graffiti and visual production on social networks. On the other hand, this field not only deals with images or visual objects, but is concerned with the cultural context and the relationships of the visual with other areas of social life. The economic and political conditions of production and distribution, as well as the reception and consumption of images become important.

This range of research has made the idea of a singular visual culture increasingly untenable. Above all, talking about visual cultures in the plural allows us to recognize the multiple ways of looking at the world and encourages the methodological search to carry out research with the others, instead of doing it on the others.

From visual culture in the singular to visual cultures in the plural

In accordance with the previous paragraphs, it can be understood that the dominant visual policies maintain visual inequalities by not accounting for their own images loaded with other knowledge. The practice of Western images, massively propagated, excludes the other in their own images and ways of seeing.

The field of plural visual cultures implies the recognition of multiple non-hegemonic visualities. The plural means the study of other visual experiences: their non-hegemonic production, distribution and consumption. The plural includes their own views on themselves and on their other, often the hegemonic Westerner.

As Spivak argues in his influential text “Can subordinates speak?”, It is not only necessary to consider and give voice to the excluded other, because that other already speaks and in our case also produces images and visualizes. Our approach is that it is necessary to transform the place of enunciation, because the researcher placed from the place of power, even if he tries to make himself invisible or give visibility to the other, is still critical of the Eurocentric gaze from the same Eurocentrism.

The six articles of this dossier they are an example of the plurality of visual cultures and the ways of studying them. Visual cultures are seen in the photos of the inmates, in the tattoos of young gang members, in the selfies taken by indigenous people, on maps drawn by transit riders, in photos of contemporary anthropologists, and in video self-portraits of African Americans.

The topics of the articles are as follows: in the text entitled "Three snapshots of the relationship between scientific photography and anthropology in Mexico", with Citlalli González Ponce we access a historical overview of the use of photography as a methodological resource in the scientific works of Mexican anthropology from 1840 to date. In this temporal range, we come to understand how photography has built the image of the indigenous in Mexico and the need to continue with this genre in a critical way to recognize the photographic image of the indigenous Mexicans.

In this dossier We include an article that composes "in motion" a methodological practice with images, which, being dialogic, constructs forms, norms and symbols of the city with the researcher himself traveling on public transport. Christian O. Grimaldo, in “The methodology is a movement. Proposals supported by the use of the image for the study of the urban experience in transit ”, proposes the creative use of photography as a record of their journeys and shows how the route gives meaning to the urban panorama. To complete his understanding of this city in motion, the author opts for dialogue with other users. He uses the image again to approach the users of the routes and asks them to draw the map of the city and locate symbolic places according to their social reading of the photographs it provides.

Rogelio Marcial looks, asks, photographs and offers us the “Images of the gang body: representations of identity from a collaborative dialogue”. Marcial allows us to understand the importance of tattooed bodies in violent gang groups. Masculinity, belonging to a group, the protection of the gang against antagonistic groups, fidelity, depend to a great extent on the emblems that they build with images on their body. Wearing these brands with pride has to do with the identity construction of the gang member, which shows that “to be you have to appear”.

Illiana Landeros reports to us in her article, entitled "The construction of the image of women in the Puente Grande Prison, Jalisco", the results of her investigation between voices with inmates of the prison. In the texts and photographs that she analyzes with the women, we approach the life stories that the inmates themselves discover from their self-portraits. This is a project that delves into the construction of the feminine identity of women who, through their own photos, recognize the violent origin of their existence.

The subject of the article “Participation in anthropological cinema: the case of Question Bridge, from the video installation to the collaborative interface on-line”By Fabiola Alcalá Anguiano, Ariadna Ruiz Almanza and Carmen Lucía Gómez Sánchez revolves around the questions that the authors ask themselves about participating in a documentary on-line where the author and receiver function is not linear. In the text the authors show the importance of participation in the construction of this visual product where African American men debate their own image and the identity roles and representations that their culture has imposed on them. The participatory peculiarities of the technological tool and the characteristics of the participants to collectively produce a Web documentary film.

In “From portrait to selfie wixárika: a visual history of ours ”I describe the self-portraits that an indigenous community takes of itself and the selfies that the same community is taken twenty years later, from the arrival of the smartphones. Based on a selection from the archive of 6,000 photographs taken by young Wixaritari, I pose questions about visual cultures, in the plural, and their relationship to Western and hegemonic visual culture.

In the six articles of this dossier A double reflection is presented: on the relationship of the image with the construction of the image itself and representation, and, second, the techniques used to investigate said images in a dialogical way. The proposals are suggestive and creative, and show that starting from visual cultures in the plural necessarily throws up other methodological ways to approach the images that are constructed outside the hegemonic circuit. Thinking the images with the others, as do the articles in this dossier, opens the door to a new visual regime where cultures, in the plural, are also visible.


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EncartesVol. 4, No. 8, September 2021-February 2022, is an open access digital academic journal published biannually by the Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social, Calle Juárez, No. 87, Col. Tlalpan, C. P. 14000, México, D. F., Apdo. Postal 22-048, Tel. 54 87 35 70, Fax 56 55 55 76, El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, A. C.., Carretera Escénica Tijuana-Ensenada km 18.5, San Antonio del Mar, No. 22560, Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, Tel. +52 (664) 631 6344, and Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Occidente, A.C., Periférico Sur Manuel Gómez Morin, No. 8585, Tlaquepaque, Jalisco, Tel. (33) 3669 3434. Contact: Director of the journal: Ángela Renée de la Torre Castellanos. Hosted at Responsible for the last update of this issue: Arthur Temporal Ventura. Date last modified: September 29, 2021.