Schools in Alaska

Excerpt from

Collier, M. (2007). The applied visual anthropology of John Collier: a photo essay. In S. Pink (Ed.), Visual interventions: applied visual anthropology (Vols. 1-4, Vol. 4, pp. 29–50). New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books.

“In the late 1960s, John Collier turned his attention to cross-cultural schooling and, in response to the limitations of still photography, started using Super-8 film equipment. The shift to film placed more emphasis on observation and analysis of social interactions and process through time and space. The first major project was a study of schooling in Native communities in Alaska in 1969. This work was explicitly applied and unlike the work at Visco, was published, providing important theoretical and practical foundations for new training programmes for Native Alaskan teachers and the development of school programmes more suited to the needs of villagers in Alaska during the 1970s and 1980s. While film formed the primary data set for the research, still photographs were made in parallel to the film coverage, both as supplementary sources of information and for use in publication, as in this essay.

Figure 2.22: Teachers aide students in Tuluksak, Alaska 1969.

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Figures 2.23 and 2.24: Head Start class in Kwethluk, Alaska, 1969. Discontinuous clips on the left, continuous clips on the right. Moving images allowed detailed examination of the social dynamics of schools.

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Figure 2.25, above: Still photograph of the Head Start program in Kwethluk, Alaska, 1969. Equipment and materials were minimal but the social processes rich.

Figure 2.26, below: Elementary level classroom in government-run school in Tuluksak, Alaska, 1969. Well equipped, with dedicated staff, but not as socially intense as the village-directed Head Start program.

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Figure 2.27: Lower grade classroom in the government-run school in Kwethluk, Alaska, 1969. Analysis found considerable contrast between Native-directed situations, like the Head Start programme, characterized by close and extended interactions as compared to the more distant and abbreviated  communications found in the well-equipped classrooms of government-operated schools with Native teachers from outside Alaska.

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Figure 2.28 and 2.29, opposite page: Stills and film were made of homes, daily activities, family life, and community social religious activity as a basis for comparing Native social circumstance and behavior with those encountered in the formal school settings. These photographs are from various locations in the Lower Koskokwim region of Alaska, 1969.

On completion of the fieldwork in Alaska, the film records were subjected to detailed study and analysis by John and a team of assistants. This analysis, both qualitative and quantitative, focused on the character of communication and relationships in the classrooms as compared to village and family settings. Far more than in previous work, the images were mined for their informational content which, together with a final overview of film and photographs in their totality, formed the basis for writing and publication of findings.

During the 1970s and early 1980s, the investigation of schooling extended to work on the Navajo Nation in Arizona and in a wide range of schools in the San Francisco Bay Area with results that were fed into John’s teaching of anthropology and education for credential students at San Francisco State University. This work, not represented visually in this essay, was accomplished almost totally with Super-8 film and was never formally published, although the research was extensively reported in papers at academic conferences.”

(Collier, 2007, pp. 48-49)

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