Visual anthropology: a temple anniversary
in Singapore

by Fabian Graham

Working Papers WP 17-08
June 2017
ISSN 2192-2357 (MMG Working Papers Print)

Full text: pdf

Based on the hypothesis that the inclusion of visual media provides insights into non-verbal communication not provided by the written word alone, this paper represents an experimental approach to test the usefulness of reproducing fieldwork photography in directing reader’s attentions to probe the emic understandings of deific efficacy, and the researcher’s selective bias which the images implicitly or explicitly portray. This paper therefore explores the use of the visual image to illustrate that a reader’s own analysis of proxemics and kinesics allows for a deeper understanding of emic perspectives by drawing insights from the manipulation of material objects and from non-verbal communication – insights that the written word may struggle to accurately portray. Framed around a photo-rich ethnographic account of trance possession cults in Singapore, the intent of the paper is to contribute towards the broader discourse of the future of the visual image in anthropology in the digital age.

Keywords: Visual anthropology, Chinese religion, spirit mediums, temple ritual,

Fabian Graham is a research fellow in the “Temples, rituals and the transformation
of transnational networks” research project headed by Peter van der Veer. Having
completed two years of fieldwork in Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan on spirit mediumship, rituals and temple culture, he is now working on writing up his research data into a book. Previously, Fabian has studied Taiwan studies, social anthropological analysis and social anthropology in Taipei, Cambridge and SOAS in London. His doctoral dissertation compared the folk Taoist landscapes in Taiwan and Singapore with the aim of locating historical and socio-political explanations for the recent evolution of difference between the two religious cultures. Working closely with spirit mediums and their devotees, and adopting a participatory approach to fieldwork, his analysis encompassed temple based ritual and material culture; spirit mediumship and trance states; inter-temple organization and expanding temple networks, and the societal factors that have influenced the development of these religious elements in each location.

His research interests include the anthropology of Chinese religion, folk and orthodox Taoism, tang-ki spirit mediumship, temple ritual and material culture, the invention and reinterpretation of tradition, ethnographic approaches to the study of religious phenomena, and evolving forms of new syncretic practices in Southeast Asia.