Bridging Gaps

J. David Sapir blends anthropology and photography into a mind-opening Internet experience.

By Porscha Chavon Burke

As J. David Sapir enters his office, his hair moves fluidly past a big black locomotive's smoky haze in a photo on his left. The classic image of a young Audrey Hepburn, smiling and starry-eyed, hangs only a few feet away. Black-and-white images hover over a barrage of brown and orange furniture: antique rocking chairs, wooden desks and shelves, Sénégalese woven baskets, books and journals.

Sapir, a professor of anthropology at the University of Virginia, sits in the rocking chair. His graying black hair seems a part of the pictures' worlds on the walls, while the rest of his body - clad in brown and beige clothing - belonged to the colored reality below.

Sapir bridges similar gaps - between candid images and a kaleidoscopic world - in his work. He combines still photography and anthropology, and uses the Internet for his tool. Disgust with artists' and anthropologists' portrayals of Africans - either very poor or very proud - drove Sapir to show the world the Africa he knew. The result: several Web sites devoted to still photography and the mind opening theories of anthropology.

After years of study in Africa throughout the 1960's, 70's and 80's, Sapir desperately wanted to display the photos he took of Sénégal's Kujamaat Jóola. He was disgusted with the images of Africans being portrayed by most artists and anthropologists doing fieldwork on the continent. "I wanted to have a show unlike the other images of Africa," he says. According to Sapir, there were two types of African photos: one, of "these [starving people] in really bad shape...ready to drop over dead - very proud, though;" the other, of "these gorgeous male Hopi, standing tall with their spears and 'ugh.'" He gestures, stiffening his body in a military-type stance. "This wasn't the Africa I knew," says Sapir. "These are my friends. These are just people living."

A self-proclaimed shutterbug since high school, Sapir began his pursuits of what he would later call ethnophotography upon receiving a fellowship in 1961 to study linguistics and folklore in Africa. He traveled to Sénégal's Casamance region to study folklore of the Kujamaat Jóola, armed with his Leica camera, several cartons of film and a "determination to photograph."

The Jóola's ways of life helped Sapir isolate his academic pursuits from his love of just taking pictures. Jóola art forms are very verbal, "in the form of songs and fantastic dances," says Sapir. As an anthropologist, he recorded, transcribed and compiled some of the Jóola singing sessions. For himself, he photographed everyday elements of Jóola life, including fank (home), ewań (farming), bugáar (dance), futamp (initiation of young men), and ebun (a women's festival).

Sapir teaches the cultural implications and use of photography at U.Va., is the editor of the Visual Anthropology Review (VAR), (a publication of the Society for Visual Anthropology), and has his own Web site, Fixing Shadows, an electronic museum of still photography.

Sapir uses the Internet like most people. He presents both his work and his hobbies, expands his professional audience, and broadens the range of his field past its classical boundaries. Sapir's colleagues and students - and millions of others - can not only read about his work on their PCs, but also see his fantastic pictures and click on links to find the meaning behind the montage he's created.

Sapir's cultural blend can be viewed in lecture halls, magazines, museums, or more remarkably, on a personal computer. He teaches the anthropological value of photography in packed university classrooms. He's created a Web site for his U.Va. course, Culture and History of Photography. Students find the site helpful, at least when it comes to the exam. The class site uses HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) technology to link students to the course syllabus, paper and exam preparation materials, as well as to Fixing Shadows and other Internet sites devoted to photography away from art.

As the editor of the VAR, he has extended the focus of visual anthropology beyond the traditional documentary films to include photographs, dances, needlepoint and American Sign Language, which he calls, "a remarkable visual communication." The VAR even covers aspects of world cultures that Sapir says used to frighten anthropologists: aesthetics. "They see the word, and they just turn pale," he says through a wide grin.

In both the Fixing Shadows and VAR sites, Sapir discusses some of the different cultural interpretations of photography. He defines visual anthropology - which now includes photography, thanks to him - as "the means by which we represent the people we're studying visually." These representations vary between societies because every culture has eyes with which to see.

An example exists in the Jóola, whose idea of photography is "standing straight up in their best clothes." These types of value differences in photography have led to the publishing of articles on photographic ethics at the VAR site. Sapir affirms his fairness in shooting the Jóola. "When I do the picture, I just do the picture," he says. He gives little attention to the anthropological value of the photos while taking them. Yet, Sapir didn't photograph private elements of Jóola life; he didn't shoot the actual initiation of boys during the futamp, but rather the preceding and concluding elements of the ritual. "They'll probably throw something at you," he says of the Jóola, easily provoked by attempts at shooting undesired pictures.

J. David Sapir shows the world his interpretation of the wide possibilities for ethnophotography on the Web. He challenges classic ideals of anthropology, as well as common stereotypes of African cultures. Sapir provides realistic representations of international cultures to anyone brave enough to visit his site and abandon their biases. His passion as a hobby photographer, his wisdom as an expert anthropologist and his motivation as an innovative human being, in a world full of technological opportunities have all combined into one image - a compilation that represents diversity through technology.

Fixing Shadows is at

On the Brink