Ethnographer considers location and representation 

By Karen Herland

Synagogue in Havana. Magnifying glass

Synagogue in Havana.

Visiting lecturer Ruth Behar has built her career on theorizing and understanding her own experience bridging multiple cultures.

Behar, who visited Concordia for a public lecture and workshop on April 15 and 16, has ties to the department of Anthropology, Women’s Studies, Latin Studies and Jewish Studies at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. As a member of a community of Jews who fled Cuba during the revolution in the early 60s, her own experiences of returning to a place and culture she only dimly remembered has shaped her evolving understanding of ethnographic and anthropological research.

As the second guest for the joint Concordia-McGill Annual Lecture on Anthropological Studies, Behar spoke on the “Joys and Dilemmas of Visual Ethnography.” Her lecture traced larger trends in the relationship between the visual and written languages in documenting cultural practice.

“Behar has reinvented and reinvigorated the discipline of anthropology …stretching and blurring ethnographic writing to include biography, memoir and photographer,” said Erica Lehrer, Canada Research Chair in Post-Conflict Memory, who has a cross-appointment in both history and sociology-anthropology. Lehrer’s opening remarks credited Behar, her own PhD supervisor, with helping to inspire her own career path.

Starting with what she termed her own “use and misuse of photographs” Behar presented examples primarily culled from her own work as a partial antidote to pioneering ethnographer Margaret Mead’s criticism of the discipline as one of “words and words and words.”

However, Behar was careful to note the challenges of photographic representation when describing her return to the community she had left as a young child. Her collaboration with Humberto Mayol, a Cuban photographer, provided some distance from the subjects. At times she was concerned that distance might lead to an objectification or misrepresentation of the range of experiences they adressed. Finding a balance between the visual and words became a feature of Behar’s theory and practice.

The lecture was also sponsored by the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, the Sociology and Anthropology Students Association and the Department of Art History.


Concordia University