Beloit College Anthropologist, Associate Professor Jennifer Esperanza was feeling frustrated. Why is there always images of “exotic” peoples on the cover of anthropology textbooks? “Why can’t there be images of, for example, a group of white American women eating salads, on the cover?,” she asked.
The design brief that I offered to my former Swinburne Design Anthropology postgraduate students was the following:
Greetings Danthro Alums. I have a quick weekend project for you to do as a favor. A friend of mine pointed out how all anthropology textbooks have these “exotic” images of others on the covers and never an image of “white women eating salad”.
Me, being Dr. Smarty Pants, said, “Wouldn’t it be great to replace those exotica images with those of middle class American/Australian Caucasians doing stuff, maybe even using stock photos?”
So, I would ask you to select a cover from a cultural anthropology textbook and replace the “exotica” image with an image equivalent of “white women eating salad.”
Design anthropologist, business coach, and branding specialist, Julie Hill accepted the challenge and produced nine images for the project. She describes her experience below:
I found this exercise interesting and fun to explore. Especially focusing on the shift in the lens, from traditional anthropology to contemporary ethnography, and what that means. The longer I did it, the more interesting it got – I accessed deeper cultural themes, such as beauty, festivities or core cultural values.
I found the results of this exercise thrilling and thought-provoking. See what you think.
“‘Exotic’ and decolonized images” by Julie Hill. All images Creative Commons (Wikimedia).
“Cultural Anthropology textbook.”
It’s a natural human bias that we automatically think of ourselves and our little corner of the world as the default, the norm by which we deem everything and everyone else Other (consciously or not). Our inherently warped and limited lenses have a profound influence across vast spheres of culture, fundamentally affecting our perceptions of morality, economics, community, politics, war, kin relationships, art, sexuality, the environment, violence—pretty much everything, really. How could it be otherwise?
And therein lies the toxic seed of privilege. As a Whitey McWhiteperson raised in a middle-class US suburb, “race” and “culture” become something that only apply to and concern Others, not me. I’m normal, you see. Why on Earth would anyone ever be afraid to call the police?
The same phenomenon is at work across every axis of privilege: class, gender, (dis)ability, legal status and other factors that should cement our status as equally human in all of our glorious diversity, but instead are repurposed for enforcing, often violently, exactly the opposite.
Maybe the increased tolerance and affection for others that starts with exposure can lead us to turn our lenses back on ourselves with a more critical eye, and recognize that we have much more in common with each other than we’re instinctively inclined to believe?