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John Collier Jr. (1913–1992)

Disabilities And Early Education, Visual Anthropology And Cultural Blinders, Photographs As Records And Elicitation Tools

A founder of and one of the most significant contributors to the discipline of visual anthropology, John Collier Jr. applied still photography and film to cross-cultural understanding and analysis. He used photography for education in two ways. First, his principle work, Visual Anthropology: Photography as a Research Method (with Malcolm Collier, 1986[1967]), defined the discipline for many years, and stimulated the creation of visual foci in anthropology departments nationally and internationally. The work offered methods by which photographs may sensitize students to cross-cultural nuance and allow them to find correlations between visual behavior, material culture, and cultural and psychological values. Collier's second key work, Alaskan Eskimo Education: A Film Analysis of Cultural Confrontation in the Schools (1973), applied visual analysis to a critique of "white-centered" education in Native American schools. Collier showed that irrespective of lesson content, teaching styles were ineffective if they were insensitive to indigenous cultural modes of learning.

Disabilities And Early Education

Collier's life-long commitment to visual communication and cross-cultural education was born in the unique circumstances of his youth. His father was John Collier Sr., indigenous-rights activist and commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs under Franklin Roosevelt. As a boy, Collier Jr. spent many years living in and near pueblos of New Mexico, surrounded by Indian elders and the Western literary and political luminaries in his father's circle. A motor vehicle accident left Collier at the age of ten with a profound hearing impairment as well as motor and cognitive disabilities. He was thereafter unable to perform adequately in school, and he lost much of his father's regard. Both parents had been active in the home schooling movement, however, and Collier's mother Lucy took on the boy's personal education. Equally important were the Taos Indian elders who treated young Collier as one of their own and guided him in the ways of the Pueblo until he reached the age of puberty.

The near uselessness of formal, Western education for Collier contrasted starkly with his mother's tutelage and the silent life lessons he gained from Taos elders. Collier's subsequent training in painting and his mastery of still photography were achieved through apprenticeships, experiences of the type he would later call true education, not mere schooling.

Visual Anthropology And Cultural Blinders

Collier's complex disabilities, particularly with hearing, made him intensely sensitive to the visual world. The disabilities made it necessary for him to seek beyond words to alternative bases of knowledge. They made it possible for him to appreciate radical differences between Western worldviews and those of the pueblos. The "Indian experience," Collier wrote, "was in essence a pure nonverbal sensibility, and coming from a constantly talking intellectual society, [one might be] overwhelmed by this quietude" (1986, p. xix). Largely divorced from the words spun in his father's literary circles, Collier came to distrust theoretical constructs. Instead of seeing, he concluded, Westerners only learned to read. Collier's goal for training Western anthropologists and educators, then, was to liberate them from their cultural blinders, an inhibited dependence on print-based understanding. In its place he offered means to read cultural values visually. Visual messages are more reliable than those that people know how to express in words.

Photographs As Records And Elicitation Tools

Collier proposed two fundamental uses of photography with which nonverbal, cross-cultural meanings can be interpreted. First of all, the camera is an eye with a memory. Used systematically, photographs can track movement and change, can allow accurate counts and measurements, and can offer viable comparisons within and across cultures. Without principled method, the cross-cultural photographer will easily lapse into idiosyncratic or ethnocentric impressionism. In contrast, though, methodical documentation–time and motion studies, material culture inventories, and the recording of cultural processes–produces photographs that are researchable. In them, statistically representative data can provide reliable bases for understanding.

Collier's faith in the possibility that photos may disclose their visual memories in untroubled ways was shared by important contemporaries, including Gregory Bateson, Margaret Mead, Edward T. Hall, and Ray Birdwhistell. Collier expressed a modernist optimism about the possibility of photographic cross-cultural education. Later scholars, however, have rejoined that photographs, like all forms of representation in social science, are problematic. Statistical method may strengthen ethnocentrism by disguising it with the appearance of objectivity. Further, photographic depiction is rife with inegalitarian power relations.

Collier did not answer these criticisms directly, but dedicated enormous energy to disclosing inequality of power, particularly with respect to Native Americans. His second crucial application of photography to cross-cultural education scuttled the idea that pictures might somehow represent the world objectively or become neutral politically. In collaboration with psychiatric-anthropologist Alexander Leighton, Collier used culture-specific photographs in the place of Rorschach and Thematic Apperception Tests. Informants from different ethnic and class groups, shown the same collection of photographs, systematically identified different culture elements and projected different values on them. By comparing these contrasting responses, Collier could give a composite of how diversified communities interpret their visual world.

Cultural Vitality And Identity

Collier understood education in a very broad sense, as that which developed a child's well-being in the round. His study of Alaskan Eskimos (Inuit) weighed the emotional and psychological effects of Western-styled education on children, and concluded that most of it provided "humiliation instead of a stimulating fulfillment" (1973, p. 114). Credentialing, too, the "White backlash of conventional teacher training," could destroy the effectiveness of Eskimo educators (1973, p. 119).

Collier feared that despite its benefits, Western education undermined the cultural energy that is the greatest strength of Native American identity, and the greatest potential lesson for word-obsessed students. This energy is spiritual, something beyond the visible and audible. Yet, Collier felt, photography can help recover the pure intelligence that all may possess before onset of adult inhibition. Much of this energy and intelligence may be found in the enormous collection of photographs taken by John Collier Jr., stored in the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico.


COLLIER, JOHN, JR. 1973. Alaskan Eskimo Education: A Film Analysis of Cultural Confrontation in the Schools. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

COLLIER, JOHN, JR., and COLLIER, MALCOLM. 1986. Visual Anthropology: Photography as a Research Method (1967). Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

COLLIER, MALCOLM. 1993. "John Collier, Jr.: Cultural Diversity and the Camera." In Threads of Culture, ed. Steve Yates and Robin Jacobson. Albuquerque: Museum of New Mexico.

MURPHY, JANE M., and LEIGHTON, ALEXANDER H. 1965. "Native Conceptions of Psychiatric Disorder." In Approaches to Cross-Cultural Psychiatry, ed. Jane M. Murphy and Alexander H. Leighton. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.


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Education - Free Encyclopedia Search EngineEducation Encyclopedia: Classroom Management - Creating a Learning Environment to Association for Science Education (ASE)