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Legends Asch and Myerhoff Inspire A New Generation of Visual Anthropologists

USC College’s Master of Arts in Visual Anthropology Starts Anew

Portraits by Eric O’Connell Photography. O’Connell, a professional photographer, is enrolled in the Master of Arts in Visual Anthropology program at USC College. His project focuses on the visual ethnography of men and women in Germany who have adopted the “lifestyle” of the American cowboy.
Portraits by Eric O’Connell Photography. O’Connell, a professional photographer, is enrolled in the Master of Arts in Visual Anthropology program at USC College. His project focuses on the visual ethnography of men and women in Germany who have adopted the “lifestyle” of the American cowboy.

Twenty-six years ago the first visual research center at USC within the College of Letters, Arts & Sciences was founded by Academy award winner Barbara Myerhoff ("Number Our Days"). The program thrived and was further developed by famous filmmaker and Professor of Anthropology Timothy Asch.

Under the direction of Asch and in collaboration with the Cinema-Television and Journalism School and the Center for Visual Anthropology, the master’s-level visual anthropology program was unique in its emphasis on both visual media and written texts as components of an academically grounded thesis.

The pioneering master’s program flourished under its gifted leadership, producing stellar graduates who now teach visual anthropology at Harvard and Princeton and other prestigious institutions in addition to those who have excelled in industry.

Fast forward to the first day of classes in Fall 2008 when USC College senior Jamie Schreiber walked with purpose into the office of Nancy Lutkehaus, professor of anthropology, gender studies and political science and the former chair of the anthropology department. “I explained that there existed a desire among undergraduate students for the creation of a master’s program in visual anthropology in USC College,” Schreiber recounted.

“Both the College and Holly Willis, director of the School of Cinematic Arts Institute for Multimedia Literacy, have been great in offering support to the new program. Our students reap the benefits of the collaboration between the two schools that has allowed our MVA students to use the state-of-the-art facilities at IML and the expertise of faculty from both anthropology and cinema,” Lutkehaus said.

Lutkehaus, the program architect, along with colleague and graduate advisor Janet Hoskins took the recommendation seriously and began to thoughtfully craft a curriculum rich in theory and experiential learning. Jennifer Cool, a graduate of the original visual anthropology masters program, is also a part of the core teaching faculty along Janet Hoskins, Lanita Jacobs-Huey, Tok Thompson and Emily Zeamer.

“The time was ideal for bringing back this amazing program,” Hoskins said. “With the onset of high quality digital media, we no longer have the costs associated with enormously expensive 16mm film that had required students to fundraise for their projects.”

To be considered for the master’s programs, prospective students must submit a project proposal. Schreiber’s project will take her to South America on a five-day Inca Trail trek through the Andes to Machu Picchu, Peru. “My focus in this field experience covers a wide range of topics from ecological tourism to dominant and resistant patterns that might emerge in these communities; spiritual journeys and pilgrimages; as well as theorist’s Victor Turner’s ‘communitas,’ which refers to whether the individuals traveling together will form a community.”


A view of Machu Picchu, Peru, from the Inca Trail.

Schreiber will be both an observer and a participant in her Peruvian pilgrimage. “An interesting twist to my project is that I will also let others in the group film,” she said. “This will provide, both literally and figuratively, their perspectives on the experience.”

Schreiber has invited an eclectic group of people to accompany her on this trek where they will travel through amazing valleys and gorgeous mountains and stay at indigenous village campgrounds. The group will include cosmopolitan people from Lima, indigenous people from Cusco and others from the United States. “I am the only thing they have in common,” Schreiber added.

Eric O’Connell from New York is also enrolled in the master’s program. O’Connell, a professional photographer for magazines and newspapers along with commercial work, was interested in visual anthropology before he began his twenty-year career. His project takes him to eastern Germany where he will engage in visual ethnography of German men and women who have adopted the “lifestyle” of the American cowboy.

O'Connell's project idea came to him after reading Fast Food Nation (Eric Schlosser, 2005). “There was a quick reference to how fast food comes from the West and a reference to Paluen, Germany, the site of the first McDonald’s in Eastern Europe," he said. 

“In his brief statement, Schlosser described a group of people in Paluen who had seemingly adopted an American cowboy-like lifestyle.”

O’Connell grew curious and returned to Germany where he had been several times before but had never seen this phenomenon. Since then, he has interviewed or talked to nearly 1,000 of these so called American Cowboys. “They dress like cowboys or cowgirls, enjoy line dancing and even import Budweiser and Corona beer in their bar,” O’Connell said.

The owner of the group’s popular bar told O’Connell that after seeing John Wayne movies as a six- or seven-year-old boy he decided he was going to be a cowboy.

“I was further amazed when I attended an American car show contest in Paluen, their epicenter, and learned that they had been collecting Ford Broncos and Chevy pick-ups over the years.”

O’Connell is equally enthusiastic about the program. “The curriculum is well thought out and one class builds upon another. I appreciate that we are encouraged to experiment with hyper media and video.”

Program faculty and students alike praise the USC School of Cinematic Arts’ Institute for Multimedia Literacy and its lab manager Gabriel Peters-Lazaro, who is a wonderful resource for all the technical aspects of their documentary film making. Additionally, they reap the benefits of weekly screenings that have included a visit from an Oscar winner who talked in detail about her own documentary process.

Schreiber, a fourth generation Trojan, is proud to be a part of the visual anthropology legacy at USC College. “Knowing that we are part of this legacy and that the early practitioners in visual anthropology were here at SC is incredible.

“When I approach the world, I will do so having this masters and I can say that I came out of this wonderful legacy program,” Schreiber said. “I am so lucky; I am so happy in this program that I could not ask for anything better.”

Check out the anthropology department’s newly redesigned Web site at