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Durham University

Department of Anthropology

Why the World needs Anthropologists

by Chris Terrill

I graduated from Durham in 1975 with a joint honours degree in Anthropology and Geography. In truth I had no real idea how I was going to make my degree work for me but I was determined that somehow I would become a career anthropologist/geographer. At first I have to admit I did not realize how incredibly adaptable an anthropology degree could be. Few do.

For a few years I went down the academic route – three years of doctoral research, including one year living with the Acholi tribe of Southern Sudan, was followed by five years of teaching. I then returned to the field as an anthropologist working for the International Disaster Institute in Ethiopia and Sudan during the Sahelian drought of the mid 80s. On my return to the UK I was asked to give an interview on drought and famine to the BBC World Service. When I had finished the interview the producer asked if I would like a short term contract to work as a researcher for the BBC African Service. I agreed, thinking it would just be a diverting summer job but my initial three month contract ended up stretching to a 20 year BBC career! I was employed, eventually, as a documentary maker but throughout my time with the Corporation I remained, first and foremost, an anthropologist – in spirit and in practice. I quickly realized that anthropology as a discipline and a ‘way of seeing’ the world was crucial to the way I wanted to make programmes for both radio and subsequently for TV.

As a programme maker I have always specialized in human stories and so, drawing on my anthropological training, my approach has always been to immerse deeply into other cultures or communities and for extended periods (seldom less than 6 months, sometimes for a year or more). I have frequently employed participant observation as a central methodological tool and I remain steadfastly non judgmental in my analysis. Moreover, my films always reflect the fact that I am there with a camera and am therefore part of the dynamic. My presence as an observer will affect that which I am observing so I include this as part of the story rather than pretend there is an invisible glass wall between me and my subjects.

I have always insisted on working alone without a conventional crew. This is to minimize the ‘them and us’ factor that can creep in when working mob handed – and some TV crews can be very mob handed believe me. Consequently, I had to teach myself not only how to operate a camera and recording equipment but also invent a way of working as a totally self sufficient one man band in the field – something that had never been done before in television. It took an anthropologist to ring the changes in popular documentary making and for this “revolution” in approach I was very honoured to win the Royal Television Society Award for Innovation back in 1997.

In 2004 I left the BBC to set up my own company, Uppercut Films, and have continued to make anthropological films although my focus has been mostly on societies and communities either in conflict zones or those threatened by natural hazard. This has meant immersing with the warring factions of the Helmand Valley in Afghanistan, the nomads and Islamic militants of the Sahel, the Sami reindeer nomads of northern Norway, the traditional fishermen of Mauritania as well as communities living in the path of hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires in the US and those on the Sub Continent facing monsoons and flooding.

Sometimes my films have been for specialists (Humanitarian relief workers, refugee organizations as well prison reform groups for example). For the most part though my job, for over 30 years now, has been to translate my field research into films for a predominantly lay TV audience. As a filmmaking anthropologist, therefore, it has been both my responsibility and my privilege to help illuminate the popular understanding of the human condition. It is the Durham anthropology department I have to thank for preparing me for the task – not only in providing me with the academic background and the methodological wherewithal but also that all important “way of seeing”.