Digital Stories from Visual Anthropology

ANTHR 485/585 Winter 2006


To the Digital Stories

Digital Storytelling Links



Department of Anthropology

MACI Anthropology Visualization Lab

Community Service Learning

Christopher Fletcher's Home page

Email comments on this site



This site presents the work of students taking Visual Anthropology at the University of Alberta with Dr. Christopher Fletcher. The VisAnth course is organized around the idea of learning as praxis - the embodiment of theory through experience. Students were required to go through a three step process of engagement with fundamental anthropological concepts around meaning, symbol and action. First was a "Found Object" assignment, second was to create a Digital Storytelling (DS) episode, and third a group project had them conceptualize and produce a short ethnographic video. Here we are presenting the work of step 2, the digital storytelling episodes.

What is Digital Storytelling?

Digital storytelling is a simple method of linking still images and narrative together to create a short, evocative, and informative multimedia work that incorporates still imagery, movement, voice and subject in a creative and original product. While the majority of digital stories (see links) on the web are personal stories, the students in this course were asked to work in this medium to create an anthropologically informed piece between 2 and 3 minutes in length. These are the end products of disciplinary research. An additional wrinkle to this effort is that several of the students chose to work on collaborative stories with community organizations either through the Community Service Learning (see below and link) program or that they were already associated with. These stories reflect a negotiated position where the different objectives of students and organizations come together. Students also produced written reports on the DS development process.

Why Digital Storytelling?

The ubiquity of imagery today challenges anthropology to grapple with their social importance, content and reception within and across groups of people over time. Images mobilize meanings and help shape our world in subtle and complex ways. Digital storytelling provides a tool to work through the social complexity of images by having students capture, select, narrate and ultimately share the product of their work. Discussions of each episode provide opportunities for probing and critical (self-)reflection that brings forward the positions in the readings through concrete example. As most of the students in the course are upper-year undergraduates or graduate students they are quite familiar with the requirements of research paper writing. Their writing skills get a new test when they come to link their narratives with the image sequence. Likewise, a new appreciation for orality can be achieved when the written word is recorded as voice and linked to imagery. The reception to this challenge has been enthusiastic and the process of going out there and collecting pictures, talking with people and often constructing a story collaboratively brings a sense of what anthropological fieldwork is like into the classroom experience.

Community Service Learning

This course included an optional Community Service Learning (CSL) component. CSL is a university supported program that links course work with volunteer opportunities in non-profit organizations. The basic idea here is that in working together both students and organizations will benefit. Many not-for-profit and community groups are concerned with "culture" as part of their mandate, or work with the many facets of it on a daily basis. Before the course began a number of organizations declared their interest in having VisAnth students create a Digital Story with and for the organization. Each organization provided a rough indication of what they were interested in and how many students they could accommodate. The students underwent ethical and security clearances and were provided with a contact person in the organization.

Ethical considerations

An important element of teaching anthropology at all levels is to build a culture of ethical awareness, responsibility and reflection. Rather than seeing ethics as an administrative or technical issue separate from the research encounter, the DS exercise presented an opportunity for students to work through the ethics of research and representation in an applied project. The course research assignments were reviewed by the University Research Ethics Board and all of the students provided ethics statements that described their approach to their projects. Ethical issues that arose were also reviewed in the written work that accompanied the DS assignments.


While viewers may judge the content of the stories by their own criteria, as an instructor my assessment is that the student work in this assignment is unparalleled in terms of the quality of the material produced, the thoughtfulness, energy and commitment given to the projects. The engagement of students with the projects and the literature was much more active and profound than I have found to be in many of the other courses I have taught. This is not to disparage student work outside of Visual Anthropology. Instead, I would suggest that engaging in an experience based learning exercise with a tangible and public outcome provokes a different relationship between theory, example and course based assignments than has otherwise been the case in my teaching. In our informal evaluations of the course students have talked about the importance of being creative and applied in their course work, in the learning that has taken place in working with others outside of the University on the content of the Digital Stories, and of the transformation of disparate and sometimes abstract elements of anthropological ideas into knowledge that they feel is theirs.