‘Ethnography Is A Legitimated Pornography’

In the 1980s writer and film critic Bill Nichols made the provocative claim – that forms of documentary film are comparable to pornography.

Leni Riefenstahl

The camera never lies

Nichols’ rather shocking statement refers primarily to ethnographic film, made by social scientists in order to demonstrate their field of research. Over time anthropological disciplines and film have become entwined in mutually beneficial relationships. The latter half of the 20th century problematised this relationship however. A crisis developed about the legitimacy of the discipline as well as forms of representation. The objectivity of author and image was questioned, as it could not and did not always present ‘reality’ – undeniably a questionable notion in itself. As surely ‘reality’ changes over time and context, and so there cannot be one? And if one is shown, whose is it anyway?

These issues are always at the forefront of social debate, and have impacted the previously ‘objective’ nature of the documentary film industry. Nichols’ claim compares pornographic film to the unquestioned, absolutism of this previous approach to ethnographic filmmaking. One of unequal power relations – as the filmmaker remains in the dominant position, a voyeur, deciding what is shown of the subjects. However, no longer should it be considered acceptable to present an ethnographic or documentary film as an absolute truth, or one way stream –positioning and opinion should be raised.

How else can they be compared?

Leni RiefenstahlGender: Close up images of the body are central in ethnographic documentaries, as filmmakers have often honed in on nudist scenes. It is this that Nichols argues is comparable to pornography – images centred on the body of the ‘Other’. The ‘Other’ is a figure described in the social sciences and political spheres as somebody deemed different from the ‘norm’. According to Nichols, ethnographic and pornographic films alike represent bodies in their most sexualised form, as heterosexual gender roles are enhanced.

People are often symbolised on film through their body or gender alone, providing a representation that has little or nothing to do with their beliefs or opinions. Surely this can be highly problematic when a mass audience only sees a fraction of a representation, and at that one imbued with sexuality.

Leni Riefenstahl

Pleasing the Audience: This representation, Nichols argues, is one designed to please the audience. He draws on the link between knowledge and pleasure as one that is prominent in both industries, and therefore another reason for the comparison.

Although arguably, the ethnographic film audience desires a different form of knowledge to that of the pornographic industry, the need to film an action to create a reaction in the audience is comparable – and it is this aim that can be criticised, as it does not allow for true representation. But then shouldn’t the filmmaker want to excite the audience?

‘Cannibal Tours’

Cannibal Tours

Dennis O’Rourke’s 1987 film, Cannibal Tours, is an example of this debate. It raises the position of the voyeur in documentary filmmaking, making it extremely uncomfortable to watch. Set as a dialogue between local/ foreigner, it follows a group of Western tourists on their visit to Papua New Guinea. The lines are blurred as Rourke makes it unclear who we are watching and which culture we are gaining an insight into. The tourists are presented as voyeuristic, taking pictures and watching the locals - yet the filmmaker is watching the tourists in their approach and so is a voyeur himself. Local and foreigner are therefore equally presented as the subject of the film, yet both are shown in their most provocative form.

Moving on from this – How new media can help

His statement, I feel, must undoubtedly be taken with a pinch of salt. If approached in this manner, then surely it can warn us from techniques of the past that lay in biased or even false representation, let alone enhancing the gap between cultures and peoples. The potential power of the person behind the lens has been raised. Through comparing representations of people in both industries from Nichols’ claim, the crude nature of depictions of the ‘Other’ has been drawn to attention. These issues have driven the current focus for authenticity in the ethnographic film industry, and in my opinion new media can help with this.


Technological revolutions of handheld devices and mobile phones allow everybody to become a filmmaker, this accessibility has transformed the ethnographic film industry; breaking down the boundaries that once retained unequal power relations of observer/ observed – often in the form of those from the west filming ‘Others’ around the world. Since this claim was made, the internet has become a key player in allowing for multiple, varying narratives.

In my opinion this is of great importance as it prevents the spread of a single story – and alternate stories provide alternate truths. People no longer have to rely on other people to tell their stories or histories, and even if they do, at least they are able to watch and critique it.

The accessibility of the internet has always been clouded in controversy, yet it is impossible to return to an age without it, instead I believe we must embrace it.

YouTube, Facebook and Twitter have enhanced the dissemination of information, knowledge and debate – helping to destabilise and question powerful authorities, as well as sharing everyday experiences. In this sense film really is a tool of the people, and can be used to create a worldwide dialogue.

Lottie Walford

About Lottie Walford

Lottie graduated in Anthropology from the School of Oriental and African Studies and is now interning at Raindance. She hopes to combine her anthropological studies with a more practical focus. She is especially interested in documentary films, telling and witnessing the stories of people from all over the world.

, , , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

If you liked this, You'll really like...

10 Tips for Writing Loglines
The Best Of Bond
Top 10 French Films of 2012
28 Brilliant Films You Can Watch in the Time It Takes to Eat Lunch

Subscribe to our free weekly newsletter
Watch independent shorts, features and documentaries on www.raindance.tv
Visit us on Twitter for daily tips and updates

© 2013 Raindance Film Partnership LLP
Reproduction of this article without written permission is strictly forbidden. For information on reprint rights please email info@raindance.co.uk