Through the Lens of the Anthropocene: The Shared Histories and Futures of Ethnographic and Natural History Filmmaking

By Alejandra Melian-Morse, McGill University §

The very first scene of the BBC’s Planet Earth II (Berlowitz et al. 2016) breaks the mould of early BBC natural history documentary. It opens with a wide shot of a blue hot air balloon floating above the snow-covered peaks of an undisclosed mountain range. As the camera cuts to a closer view, the audience hears the sound of the fire keeping the balloon afloat and sees two human forms held within the basket. Finally, the camera enters the basket, too, and its gaze falls upon Sir David Attenborough, looking out upon the view. “Looking down from two miles above the surface of the Earth,” he says, “it’s impossible not to be impressed by the pure grandeur, splendor, and power of the natural world.” He goes on to discuss the first iteration of Planet Earth, released ten years prior, and what has changed since then—both the technological advances in filmmaking and the precarious state of the planet’s biodiversity and climate. 

The rhetoric of grandeur, splendor, and power does not break any moulds. Attenborough’s presence itself, however, does. Attenborough is, of course, a national UK treasure and immediately recognizable to many. Yet far more recognizable than the wispy white hair and wide jaw of this distinguished then ninety-year-old British gentleman, is his voice. Attenborough has narrated, written, or produced over a hundred natural history documentaries in his life (Science Alert n.d.) and his voice has become a hallmark of the genre. Yet his image, his embodied form on screen, is far less common, especially in the style of landmark natural history of the last 50 years in which humans in general are few and far between.

The appearance of Attenborough’s body on screen in the opening sequence of every Planet Earth II episode points to a current shift in the genre. In fact, the six episodes of Planet Earth II were organized quite traditionally into biospheres: Islands, Mountains, Jungles, Deserts and Grasslands each got their own episode. The last episode of the series, in sharp contrast to the original Planet Earth and to the tradition of the genre more generally, featured Cities. It asked audiences, “Can humans choose to build cities that are homes for both them and wildlife?” Three years later, Attenborough produced and narrated the widely popular Our Planet (Fothergill et al. 2019). The series was developed for Netflix in partnership with the WWF (World Wildlife Foundation) with the explicit goal of carrying an environmental message to audiences and to “[make] the destruction of nature politically, socially, and economically unacceptable” (Itano and Harvey 2020: 5). It aimed to communicate three main messages: everything is connected, nature is resilient, and climate change is happening now (Itano and Harvey 2020: 17).

This messaging matters. Our Planet was streamed from 45 million Netflix accounts in its first month of release—that’s an estimated 90-180 million individual viewers (Itano and Harvey 2020). It also claims that this messaging succeeded in making a positive impact, reporting that individuals who were exposed to the series were up to 15% more likely to agree with statements regarding their personal responsibility to combat climate change and biodiversity loss than those not exposed to the series (Itano and Harvey 2020). The natural history entertainment industry can no longer ignore that humans are involved in what is happening on and to Planet Earth, and even the most mainstream of productions has expressed a commitment to making an impact. Yet how much of a change is actually happening? Yes, the human impact on climate change and biodiversity loss receives more explicit screen time and human dominated spaces like cities are acknowledged as existing on Earth. Does the inclusion of environmental politics in these documentaries and series do enough if the version of nature they promote still primarily represents it from an outside (etic) perspective, a nature that is separate from humans?

In line with the theme of this Engagement series “Imaging Nature,” I aim to think here about these mainstream nature images—natural history film—alongside the anthropological tradition of imaging culture—ethnographic film. Here, I present a brief history and some media analysis of ethnographic photography and filmmaking in its development alongside and in conjunction with early nature documentary and wildlife photography in order to make an argument about contemporary mainstream nature documentary filmmaking, my object of study. As I argue throughout this piece, the significance of the step to include human beings in natural history productions at all should not be discounted. But taking seriously scholarship on the Anthropocene and engaging with multispecies ethnographic film would deepen their impact on audiences, the public, and the planet’s well-being.

Colonialism, Science, and the Camera

Considering our discipline’s own colonial roots, perhaps it’s no surprise that the history of natural history film and wildlife photography is rooted in that of European colonialism and imperialism. Following in the footsteps of Paul du Chaillu, the first white man to kill a gorilla in 1855 (Haraway 1984: 26), in the early 1920s Carl Akeley began leading hunting expeditions into the mountains of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo to shoot wildlife, gorillas especially. Akeley was not alone. The same year, the Prince of Sweden left the region after having killed no less than 14 gorillas (Haraway 1984: 27). As the violence of European colonialism spread throughout Africa, the extractivist mentality that destabilized life for the human inhabitants of the continent affected wildlife, too, and big game hunting parties became popular forms of entertainment for wealthy Europeans in the places they were colonizing. For Akeley, these parties became about more than shooting wildlife with guns. Frustrated with current camera technology’s inability to capture wildlife, he founded the Akeley Camera Company which eventually produced the Akeley Camera, a relatively portable camera suitable for wildlife photography (Haraway 1984: 39). The invention of this camera arguably marks the very beginning of natural history image-making. Akeley’s photography, and thus the roots of natural history documentary in general, cannot be separated from the colonial period which also birthed the modern anthropology in which anthropologists such as Malinowski, Boas, and Kroeber participated. In fact, a year after Akeley killed the great gorilla known as the Giant of Karisimbi in 1921 (Haraway 1984: 20), Robert Flaherty released Nanook of the North (1922), marking the beginning of the history of ethnographic film.

Both Akeley’s hunting and photographing of wildlife were done, according to him, in the name of science (Haraway 1984: 27). In its early focus on the visual aspects of culture, anthropology also followed the example of natural science’s extensive use of images to compile its taxonomies. As David MacDougall explains, “Anthropology was inspired by zoology, botany, and geology to describe the world visually, and there was a corresponding emphasis upon those aspects of culture that could be drawn or photographed” (MacDougall 2005: 215). In focusing on nakedness and animal products such as feathers or bones, anthropological photographs communicated the closeness of their subjects to nature (MacDougall 2005: 214), minimizing the distinction between wildlife and anthropological photography.

For example, both of the photos below (Figure 1) give the viewer a detailed picture of their subjects. They are both in situ representations of bodies in their environments. While they are both beautiful photos, through this comparison we can see how the framing of Evans-Pritchard’s ethnographic photograph allow for the men’s forms, stances, and environments to be observed just like the wildlife photography of the birds, therefor objectifying the subjects. Evans-Pritchard did not include this photograph for its artistic merit, but to aid his anthropological analysis and the reader’s scientific understanding.

Just as early ethnographic photography mirrored wildlife photography, early examples of ethnographic films show the “objective,” etic style also recognizable in natural history documentary. Take for example the following clip from Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson’s Trance and Dance in Bali (1952).

Trance and Dance in Bali (1952): Watch 5:25 to 5:47

The expository style of Trance and Dance in Bali prominently features Mead’s own voice. As the Kris Dance unfolds and dancers undergo their trance through a Balinese drama, Mead explains to the viewer what certain individuals are doing, what the ritual clothing, movements, and interactions mean, in the tone of straightforward fact. There was nothing artistic about ethnographic film for Mead; this was a matter of science. In her and Bateson’s famous conversation, “On the Use of the Camera in Anthropology,” she refutes Bateson’s complaints about tripods and his opinion that “photographic records should be an artform.” “I think it’s very important, if you’re going to be scientific about behavior,” she tells him, “to give other people access to the material, as comparable as possible to the access you had. You don’t, then, alter the material. There’s a bunch of film makers now that are saying, ‘It should be art,’ and wrecking everything that we’re trying to do. Why the hell should it be art?” (Mead and Bateson 1977: 78). To Mead, ethnographic film was an objective, scientific record of culture. The film’s subjects did not speak for themselves and were instead spoken for by the anthropologist.

The Reflexive Turn in Ethnographic Film

Twenty-one years after Trance and Dance in Bali, Talal Asad’s Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter (1973) was published and eleven years after that James Clifford and George Marcus’ Writing Culture (1986). Both books critiqued the aim for an objective anthropological science which mirrored the approaches to research of the natural sciences. Asad’s critique focused on the “disinterested” nature of anthropological research and asked if this approach did “not also render [the anthropologist] unable to envisage and argue for a radically different political future for the subordinate people he studied and thus serve to merge that enterprise in effect with that of dominant status-quo Europeans?” (Asad 1975: 18). Clifford and Marcus, as the name of their book implies, focused on anthropological writing, situating ethnographic works in their historical moments and stated that ethnographies are “always caught up in the invention, not the representation, of cultures” (Clifford and Marcus 1986: 2).

Ethnographic film, too, participated in this move away from the objective in the discipline, often referred to as the reflexive turn. In 1982, between the publishing of the two books referenced above, Judith and David MacDougall released their ethnographic film, A Wife Among Wives, in which the self-conscious positionality of the time is quite apparent. The film opens with a series of still images—one of David MacDougall holding a camera (Figure 2, left), another of Judith MacDougall among the subjects of the film (Figure 2, right), and finally an image of a field notebook (Figure 3), reminding the viewer that the film they are about to watch is the result of research and filmmaking carried out by two specific anthropologists and from their point of view. The film is narrated, not unlike Trance and Dance in Bali, yet the narration comes in the form of a diary or field notebook entry, with passages written from both David and Judith’s points of view. For example, “By now everyone knows we’re here to make films” David tells the viewer, “But we’re trying to find out what the Trakana think should be in them” (MacDougall and MacDougall 1972: 02:19).

Figure 3: Opening cut of A Wife Among Wives (1982).

It’s in this moment of change in anthropology that I see a clear split between the styles of natural history and ethnographic documentary. After this moment of reckoning, ethnographic filmmakers could no longer frame their subjects as objects of science observed by the disinterested and detached anthropologist. Yet natural history filmmakers did not move through the same reflexive turn. The subjects of their films—plants, animals, geological phenomena—could still be shot, studied, and explained from an “objective” point of view. In 2021, these films are not made with scientific discovery in mind. Commissioned by for-profit corporations such as Disney or Netflix, these are products of entertainment. But they are framed as (and often truly do act as) vectors of science communication for the public. How dissimilar is the following clip from Our Planet to the clip referenced above of Trance and Dance in Bali?

Our Planet, “Birds of Paradise” (2019). Watch 00:09-00:32

Yet what happens when the subjects of natural history productions and the history of ethnographic film coincide? As much anthropological inquiry has turned its attention to multispecies life, ethnographic films have also contributed to our growing understanding of the planet’s entanglements. Perhaps one of the most notable in this regard is Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash’s Sweetgrass (2009), which follows the journey of sheep and sheepherders through the mountains of Montana to summer pasture. The film serves as an excellent example of how filmmakers can communicate and represent nonhuman life on video. For example, in an early scene the frame focuses on a single sheep chewing her food (Castaing-Taylor and Barbash 2009: 01:11). The shot is forty-seven seconds long, and the length of the shot allows the viewer to understand more about the sheep’s reality as she moves from contentedly chewing to noticing the camera. In the transition the viewer learns about the sheep’s position in her environment not only through her interaction with her food, but also through her interaction with the filmmaker. Castaing-Taylor’s shooting choices consciously make space for the sheep’s experience. While ultimately the decisions about what to shoot and how to represent nonhumans are human ones, in this case the durational aesthetics of the long shot provide opportunities for the audience to see and attempt to understand the sheep’s world. The time—the rhythm—of the shot could only be achieved through deep ethnographic attention from Castaing-Taylor which allowed him to mimic the sheep’s rhythm and make its experience legible to the viewer.

Ethnographies such as Sweetgrass have moved beyond the self-conscious reflexivity found in A Wife Among Wives, yet they have also moved even farther away from early expository ethnographic styles. Sweetgrass does not tell, or even make at all obvious to, the viewer what is significant about the subjects of the film. Instead, it guides the viewer’s attention to the intimacies between sheepherders and sheep. The viewer comes to know realities that are not scientific fact but rather affective, nuanced, and creative unfoldings of a more-than-human world.

The Possibilities of Film in the Anthropocene

The age of the Anthropocene has made it impossible for many to ignore the interconnections between species and the monumental effect ours continues to have on the planet as a whole. This is a problem that requires collaboration between seemingly disparate fields of knowledge, creativity, and action. Despite the urgency of the crisis, however, taking seriously and working with the complicated nature of our entanglement with our ecosystems is crucial to finding solutions that address more than the surface of the problem. In A Possible Anthropology (2019), Anand Pandian describes the contributions he observed anthropologists and their allies make during the World Conservation Congress (WCC) of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). He states that they “called attention to exceptions, remainders, equivocations, and human realities that demanded to be acknowledged without being fully understood” (Pandian 2019: 91). It is clear that urgent action on global environmental change is needed. But what damage might the simple message communicated by so many contemporary natural history productions—that a generalized humanity is destroying the planet—do? What is lost when examples of environmental stewardship and the complex relationships humans have with their environments, which not only involve destruction and exploitation but also care, generativity, and respect, are ignored?

One of the key messages Our Planet worked to convey was that “everything is connected” (Itano and Harvey: 17), yet there still was very little room for humans in their representations of Earth’s jungles, forests, deserts, coasts, etc., despite the clear participation of humans in each type of biosphere. Through these images, nature is reified as something external to humans that we must save. Viewers get the feeling that these pictures might be the last they see of these beautiful places and, while it’s possible that they’re right, this echoes the troubling salvage anthropology of our discipline’s past. Things are changing and intimate human/nonhuman relationships are already emerging in popular documentaries such as My Octopus Teacher (Ehrlich and Reed 2020). Early on in my own research on natural history filmmakers and their production process, I have already come across moments in which filmmakers are responding to environmental changes and adapting their filmmaking to climates that are making the nature/culture dichotomy more and more difficult to uphold.

I am not arguing here for a complete erasure of the divide between natural history and ethnographic filmmaking. I’m not sure Netflix could sell two full hours of long-shot sheepherding to its audiences, and it is crucial that a wide public watch and learn from these documentaries. It is time now, though, for the industry of natural history production to turn onto itself and recognize the similarities with ethnography so clearly outlined by our shared history. As much anthropology moves away from dominant definitions and images of the human, perhaps natural history documentary might move away from dominant definitions and images of nature. Where in the middle could we meet? What might we learn from one another? These are some of the overarching questions my research addresses. As an ethnographic filmmaker myself, studying and creating alongside natural history filmmakers provides an interesting opportunity to experiment with collaboration and learning between genres. As the Anthropocene breaks down the lines that have divided the subject matters that pull the attention of ethnographic and natural history filmmakers, filmmaking that embraces the intimate messiness between humans and “nature” that is being revealed might inspire a deeper approach to stewarding our shared future.

Works Cited

Asad, Talal, ed. 1973. Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.

Berlowitz, Vanessa, Mike Gunton, James Brickell, and Tom Hugh-Jones, directors. 2016. Planet Earth II. BBC Video.

Castaing-Taylor, Lucian and Ilisa Barbash, directors. 2009. Sweetgrass. Cinema Guild.

Clifford, James, and George E. Marcus. 1986. Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Ehrlich, Pippa and Reed, James, directors. 2020. My Octopus Teacher. Netflix.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1940. The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Flaherty, Robert, director. 1922. Nanook of the North. Pathé Exchange.

Fothergill, Alastair, Keith Scholey, and Colin Butfield, directors. 2019. Our Planet. Television series. Netflix.

Haraway, Donna. 1984. “Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden.” Social Text 11: 20-64.

Itano, Nicole, and Paul Harvey. 2020. “Our Planet: Our Impact.” WWF Report.

MacDougall, David, and Judith MacDougall, directors. 1982. A Wife Among Wives. Berkeley Media.

MacDougall, David. 2005. The Corporeal Image: Film, Ethnography, and the Senses. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Mead, Margaret, and Gregory Bateson. 1951. “Trance and Dance in Bali.” Video. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Accessed October 18, 2021.

Mead, Margaret, and Gregory Bateson. 1977. “Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson the Use of the Camera in Anthropology” Studies on the Anthropology of Visual Communication 4(2): 78-80.

Pandian, Anand. 2019. A Possible Anthropology: Methods for Uneasy Times. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Science Alert. N.d. “Who is David Attenborough?” Science Alert. Accessed July 29, 2021.

The Guardian. 2016. “The Keartons: Inventing Nature Photography – in Pictures.” The Guardian. July 14, 2016.

Alejandra Melian-Morse is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at McGill University. Her research interests lie at the intersection of anthropologies of environment and media, the focus of her PhD project being natural history filmmaking. In her research she looks at both the narrative of nature that is created by nature documentaries through the recording and pre/post production processes as well as the relationships filmmakers form with the wildlife they’re recording mediated by their technologies. Beyond film being the focus of her research, Alejandra integrates an ethnographic film practice into her own work.

This post is part of our thematic series: Imaging Nature.