Multimodal Anthropologies

By Sonay Ban, Jason Hopper, Bronwyn Isaacs, Cecilia Salvi, and Vaia Sigounas


This collection of short essays is adapted from a panel at the 2018 AES/SVA conference organized around the theme of “Resemblance.” The authors are grappling with long-term dissertation and research projects that wade in the waters of images, technologies, and rumors, and their debris. Engaging in “varying processes of knowledge production that often lead to multiple outcomes,” the authors invite their readers to stand with them in the midst of their thinking, to walk with them in a Bhutanese art gallery, to look sideways at a censored film in Turkey, to hold a book made of repurposed rubbish in Chile (Collins, Durington, and Gill 2017, 143).

The collection draws attention to the role of conference presentations as a key mode in the production of anthropological knowledge—in particular, the serendipity of finding and making unexpected connections through the practice of attending and presenting at conferences. Reading the collection below raises questions about what each piece gains from being part of the whole that the authors may not have had in mind while conducting their fieldwork and, more broadly, the comparative project at the heart of the production of anthropological knowledge. Embracing the spirit of multimodal anthropology, this collection welcomes readers to the messiness and excitement of ideas and images in motion both in the world and as anthropologists interpret them.

Recognizing the historical emergence of technologies that make the infrastructures and effects of media ever more invisible (Kittler 1996), the authors of this multimodal collection reflect on how control over representation serves as a conduit for power and as a tool for redirection in response to power. Representations are inseparable from the media through which they circulate, and the essays here ground their analyses in the examination of specific media: cardboard, speech, film, digital images, and paint. The various ethnographic examples help elucidate the material and tangible way power works through representations and the media that facilitate them.

In this way, the authors of this collection participate in a number of key scholarly conversations. The authors follow in Alfred Gell’s (1998, 6) theoretical lineage of attending to the distributed agency of the material, considering various media in terms of a “system of action, intended to change the world rather than encode symbolic propositions about it.”  Like Gell, scholars Dilip Gaonkar and Elizabeth Povinelli (2003, 396) have argued that focusing on the circulation of forms in public culture “orients . . . analysis toward the calibration of vectors of power” instead of focusing on “meaning.” So, too, the discussion below recalls W. J. T. Mitchell’s (1996, 82) proposal that images be “seen as complex individuals occupying multiple subject positions and identities” and “not merely a by-product of social reality but actively constitutive of it.” Many of the works examine how socially shared representations or “images” can often turn or be turned to ends other than originally intended.

Providing a series of unique glimpses of media circulation from Uganda, Bhutan, Turkey, Chile, and Thailand, the authors’ contributions illustrate the way that political power, especially local nationalisms, effectively constrains and enables various forms of local media circulation. Sonay Ban’s work argues for reconsidering how we choose to represent censorship, drawing attention to the less direct and more dispersed forms of control over film in recent decades in Turkey. Cecilia Salvi considers how publishers of cartoneras editoriales in Chile turn cardboard, a material seen as worthless or garbage, into a medium for a local literary culture informed by ideas of democracy. Vaia Sigounas’s essay addresses how the image of success in Uganda gets subverted through rumor and what this may say about resistance, inequality, and uncertainty during an election. Bronwyn Isaacs analyzes how various aesthetic regimes of celebrity, Buddhism, and monarchy come to inform each other in the construction of the Thai national imaginary. Jason Hopper’s work describes how Bhutanese artists repurpose national imagery to reconcile their pursuit of free expression with the high value placed on cultural preservation and social harmony.

Media circulation in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries is sometimes described as moving along open vectors of distribution according to a political vision “that takes the world rather than the nation as its political space” (Ignatieff 1998, 21). The authors of this multimodal collection attend to local visions of power and the “foreclosures, inhibitions or even ‘stickiness’ that may shape and hinder movement in a world of seemingly open digital vectors” (Spyer and Steedly 2013, 23). Finding unique appropriations and movements of photos, newspapers, paintings, films, cardboard, speech, and other materials, the authors in this collection insist on the ongoing importance of grounded ethnography and attention to local political concerns in the study of contemporary forms of media and representation. At the same time, this diverse group of studies shows how representations continue to circulate and take on new significance through scholarship itself.

Husbands, Lovers, Gods; Unrequited Images in Thai Media  

By Bronwyn Isaacs

In May 2014, a Thai military junta led by General Prayuth Chanocha halted months of popular street protests in Bangkok and took power on the pretense of establishing an interim peace and orderly return to democratic government. The colorful shirts, piercing whistles, and giant protests flags that had illuminated Bangkok for months were suddenly gone. In their place stood soldiers who transformed intersections into checkpoints and residential neighborhoods into theaters of military display. Army-green jeeps and uniforms saturated the markets, the malls, the parliament, the universities, social media, and television. The message played from General Prayuth on the radio and TV was unambiguous. The Thai people needed his assistance in order to become a functioning democracy; the general would be Thailand’s savior. Prayuth’s mission was popularized through a short pop ballad called “Returning Happiness to the Thai people” (Khuen Kwam Suk Hai Prathet Thai). This song served as a soundtrack to patriotic and military videos and played frequently on television and radio and in public spaces across Thailand. The telos of national “happiness” was used to justify and excuse a variety of social and political changes, including censorship, martial law, and curfews.

In this essay, I examine the phenomenon of celebrity in Thai politics and consider how the presentation and distribution of the portraiture of political celebrity became a tool for generating new relationships between Thai citizens and their rulers. I argue that the seemingly wild, fast-paced media of the twenty-first century does not mean that public images and advertisements occupy an ungoverned space. Instead, I draw attention to the market and political hierarchies of power and influence in contemporary Thailand and demonstrate how they shape the ways that image, sound, and information are circulated.


Not unlike sports figures and popularly elected politicians in other nations, Thailand’s biggest celebrities are often promoted in the media and the popular imagination to the status of embodying and carrying the dreams of the entire Thai nation. Little known outside of Thailand (except occasionally to their immediate neighbors in Southeast Asia), Thai celebrities are seen as national treasures who belong to Thailand alone. Popular male film and television actors at the peak of their celebrity are referred to as “national husbands.” The characters they play might be cheeky or serious, faithful or flawed, but they almost always embody a charismatic mixture of masculine strength with romantic sensitivity. The content and moral character of these actors’ everyday lives, and even their deaths, frequently become a matter of popular national concern. In March 2016, for example, singer and comedian Padung “Jazz” Songsaeng was forced to make a public apology for allegedly insulting a monument of the Thai king’s sailboat in a racy music video. The deputy mayor of Pattaya and local police called Padung to return to the monument in order to perform a ritual apology. Meanwhile, the death of actor Trisidee Por Sahawong in January 2016 sparked shared public grief climaxing in a funeral in which the family could not prevent the media from overtaking the event, as journalists swooped in front of grieving family members to take photos of the unprotected body. For just a brief moment, the stark humanity behind the fantasy of celebrity was made clear. These incidents and others like them illustrate the national ownership of Thai celebrity, which in turn frequently places a public burden on celebrities to perform as the government prescribes.

Circulating visual representations of political celebrities have been used as an effective political tactic in campaigns predating the current Thai military government. Previous prime ministers, such as the populist Thaksin Sinawatra (2001–2006) and his sister Yingluck (2011–2014), made productive use of their own portraits in cultivating popular support. A calendar featuring the images of previous prime ministers were banned by Prayuth’s government in early 2016. The images in the calendar were stylized as family portraits. In banning the calendars, the military government attempted to circumvent the power of the images to construct fictive kinship between Thai audiences and the fallen leaders. Through political portraiture, the Shinawatras present the portrait of a family who has made the country their adopted siblings.

The military general Prayuth has also sought to promote his popularity through public political portraiture. While the Shinawatras were frequently portrayed in ways that projected warm family relationships, Prayuth has favored a different kind of representation. With a preference for the quirky, the bold, and the dramatic, Prayuth has positioned himself as a kind of dramatic male lead—both as a superhero and as a new “national husband.” In an attempt to win the hearts of Thai youth on Children’s Day 2018, for example, Prayuth had his life-sized likeness printed in various poses of action—kicking, smiling, riding a motorbike, and standing at attention. These images were placed in the Government House for parents to photograph their children alongside them.


It would be a mistake to view the general’s marketing strategy as vain and frivolous. While Prayuth often presents himself as something of a joker, many images of the general present him in a more serious posture. The gravest images of the general feature visual references to Thailand’s monarchy. Images of the king are tightly controlled in Thailand. Photos may only be released by the royal palace, and unofficial photography by news media is not allowed. In her research of images of the Thai monarchy, Thanavi (2014) has described how images of King Bhumibol changed over the decades of his reign. While in the early years, the king was often photographed in action shots or in official poses, in the later decades of his reign, there was an increase in abstract art and pictorial narratives encouraging “national empathy, loyalty, love and gratitude for Bhumibol from Thai people all over the country” (Thanavi 2014, 6).

Figure 1. An employee attaches ribbons and rosettes to the frame of a new image honoring the recently departed King Bhumibol. (Photograph by author, October 2016)

During my own time working with advertising production crews in Bangkok between 2014 and 2017, I noticed a change in techniques used in the formal portraiture of King Bhumibol. Airbrush techniques were more frequently used to drastically soften the image and texture of the king’s skin. The effect of such a change brought images of the king in closer likeness to Thai images of holy and supernatural figures. These aesthetic trends only increased following the king’s death in October 2016. The changes in representation followed increased enforcement of the lèse-majesté censorship laws in recent decades that forbid criticism of the monarchy. At the same time, an amplified public discourse developed during the last decades of Bhumibol’s life. Increasing reverence promoted the king to the pantheon of figures to whom people could pray and worship (Jackson 2004). Over time, technological changes have abetted the new role of royal images as depictions of divinity. For example, all cinemas in Thailand are required to play the king’s anthem before the screening of any film. This anthem was for many years accompanied by a single image of Bhumibol or a slide-show of rotating photographs. In more recent years, the images accompanying the king’s anthem have become much more elaborate, with photos recolored in sepia, cut and blended to remove the background, and faded onto and over each other with the softness of evaporating smoke. Lighting effects are used to illuminate the king’s face, soften his eyes and change the tone of his skin. Enlarged on a giant cinema screen, Bhumibol began to appear less like a man and more like a spirit.


In Thailand, the act of seeing a movie in a theater exposes the spectator to a cinematic shrine that hails its viewers as loyal citizens. The intended meanings of the royal images are clear: progress, patriarchy, and worship. The photos will rotate on nearly every visit, as new images are resurrected from the national archive. The ground of the image is often erased and only the selected personages are allowed to project upon the cinema’s screen. Eyes may be drawn to the cut of the queen’s 1950s Siamese-style jacket, the frame of the king’s 1970s glasses, or of peasants’ hands pressed upon the earth. While Benjamin (1986) warns that photos and movies can become tools of fascism, the impact of this cinematic shrine remains a largely unexplored phenomenon. Here, the king takes photographs caressing the camera as softly as a ripe mango. Here, the king leans out of a now antique car, an ancient pair of binoculars around his neck. Here and here, we see the king’s young family. Today, those children are grown into their separate and complicated reputations. But in the cinematic shrine, they are poised and bound together in what Barthes (1981) describes as the magic of photographed kinship.

Figure 2. Thai citizens take photos in front of King Bhumibol portrait on the day following his death, October 14, 2016. (Photograph by author)


It is the power of the cinematic shrine, the king’s supernatural aura, and the love of national husbands that General Prayuth hopes to transfer to his own cult of personality. Prime Minister General Prayuth’s government regularly releases propaganda videos that draw on the cinematic monarchical montage, as well as the genre conventions of music videos and commercials. Less than a month after the military took power in 2014, “Returning Happiness to the Thai People” was played several times a day on radio. It was claimed that General Prayuth composed the lyrics in just one hour, which were paired with a melody that swayed between a pop song and a lullaby, but more than anything else resembled a love song. When played on television, the general’s sonnet to happiness was accompanied by several montage iterations of slide-show images. The pictures were variations on a very deliberate theme of national nostalgia. Thai people are prosperous, together, and happy under the leadership of the general. In one of these music-video montages, the happiness of Thai people was cataloged as a photo album. Many videos narrated a simple and clear story in which the Thai people progressed from the depths of protests to the heights of peace. Documentary footage of protestors was followed by highly symbolic actions—a farmer casting his shrimp net, a nurse and a solider erecting a banner, a soldier embracing his mother, another soldier comforts his weeping young wife. The words in Thai were impressed across the screen, the lyrics unchanging in their text, turning unstable political questions into the simple desires of romance: “To bring back love, how long will it take? Please will you wait? We will move beyond disputes. We will do what we promised. We are asking for a little more time. And the beautiful land will return.”

The genre of photo montage accompanied by music attempts to appropriate power from an established powerful source, namely celebrity nostalgia for “true” Thailand. The montage of General Prayuth is a love letter, a declaration of love, a proposal that asks for submission, adoration, and docility on the part of his woman, figured as Thailand’s citizens. The desire of Prayuth the lover is strong. His attempts to woo are persistent and filled with longing. His insistence builds with the circulation of his image and song: “We offer to guard and protect you with our hearts. This is our promise.” The lyrics written over the screen directly determine the intended message of the pictures. The masculine, powerful, and violent soldiers will care for the beautiful children, the gentle farmer, and the dancing young ladies. The images are typically still and carefully framed photographs. Sometimes a short video—no more than two or three seconds—is included in the montage. Resplendent in white and gold, the general shows sacred humility, his face to the ground in a deep bow before the portrait of the king. This is a lover who strides purposely, dresses splendidly, and smiles handsomely. The general’s image borrows from celebrity images. He uses pop music and smiles and wants to be the new “national husband.” But the general also employs from images of the monarchy while asking for loyalty and submission. By bowing in front of the king’s portrait, he attempts to insert himself into the symbolic health of the nation’s strength.

Prayuth’s desire is strong. He is the lover who will not give up, who insists on his right to pursue regardless of the sentiments of the lover he desires. Mitchell (2005) claims that images may be lacking in power while abundant in desire. Prayuth’s montages are highly suggestive of this claim. The blunt obviousness of the message, the lack of ambiguity, and the failure to include the small circumstances or subtlety all speak of his anxiety. Prayuth the lover is jealous. Perhaps Thailand’s love is unrequited. Every day the general circulates his tokens of love, but he suspects his love poem does not reach the hearts of his people.

General Prayuth has written many more songs since 2014. Each release, however, is less popular than the one that preceded it. The general’s love letters are an attempt to appropriate the magic of celebrity, the cinematic, and the divine monarchy while denying the contingent. The lover’s pursuit of popularity only increases as he attempts to spread across multiple genres. He writes songs, sponsors TV dramas, and uses his own life-size cardboard image as a photo for patriotic children. But so far, the aesthetic strategies appear unable to fulfill his designs. Propaganda is easy to create, but not always successful at achieving its objectives. General Prayuth desires requited love, but the videos he has created are insufficient to achieve it. His visual image captures celebrity but fails to grasp the power of divinity.

Beyond Flatness: How a Bhutanese Contemporary Artist Uses Aesthetics to Reckon with Tradition and Modernity

By Jason Hopper

During a visit to one of the six or so contemporary art galleries one can now find in Bhutan’s capital city of Thimphu, a contemporary artist explained to me that “artists talk about freedom, but freedom is not free.” He elaborated that “human beings need restriction, we have to live as a society and not just as individuals. If we just do whatever it leads to junk.” As I interviewed artists for my research, a tension between “freedom” and needing to “live as a society” manifested around the dilemma of figuring out how to simultaneously respect and distinguish themselves from “tradition.” Examining the work of an established Bhutanese contemporary artist, I argue in this essay that one way artists manage this dilemma is by positioning their work as an engagement with tradition rather than a rejection or open critique of it.


Much of the official discourse on culture in Bhutan portrays modernization as a threat to “traditional” Bhutanese culture. Bhutan’s five-year development plans, for example, have argued that in the absence of a large population or military power, Bhutan’s independence depends on the preservation of a unique cultural identity, and have sought to carefully regulate foreign influence (Ueda 2003). Elsewhere, intellectuals have written about how the principle of freedom of choice when it comes to culture may actually work against the goal of preserving tradition (Ura 2007). Understanding modernity as a threat to traditional culture, official definitions of Bhutanese culture often exclude more modern cultural practices. For example, the most recent Gross National Happiness[1] survey uses knowledge of traditional arts and participation in traditional culture as a metric of happiness, but not contemporary art forms growing in popularity in Bhutan, such as b-boying,[2] photography, or contemporary art (Centre for Bhutan Studies 2016). Even the recent inclusion of film into more recent five-year development plans emphasize the film industry’s value for preserving national language and dress (Gross National Happiness Commission 2013, 231).

Vajrayana Buddhism, in particular, has become a key symbol of Bhutanese culture. From household shrines to government buildings, Buddhist symbolism is everywhere in daily life in Bhutan (see Figure 1). Practiced by approximately 75 percent of the population, many Bhutanese during my fieldwork told me that Bhutanese culture is Buddhist culture. Even the constitution, which guarantees the right to religious freedom, defines Bhutan’s spiritual heritage as specifically Buddhist in article 3, section 1.

Reflecting the larger discourse on culture in Bhutan, representations of traditional Bhutanese art explicitly link traditional art to Buddhism and contrast Bhutanese art with foreign art forms. Writing for an exhibition of Bhutanese religious art done in collaboration with the Bhutanese government, the director of Bhutan’s national museum, Khenpo Phuntshok Tashi, explains that “icons are never arbitrary and are created according to specific canonical requirements rather than to bursts of creative imagination” (Tashi 2008, 37). A Smithsonian folk-life festival brochure emphasizes that Bhutanese arts “were never considered merely decorative” (Tshering and Wangchuk 2008, 30). These representations explicitly contrast Bhutanese traditional art with art as something driven by individual creativity or independent aesthetic appreciation, two ideas central to modern fine art practice.

In their work, contemporary artists must engage with the understandings of culture described above. During my fieldwork, artists often complained about rigid cultural policies and the lack of value placed on contemporary art. Yet every artist I spoke to also affirmed the importance of tradition. To understand how contemporary artists worked out this tension, it is important to look at their artwork.

Figure 1. A wall painting or debri depicting one of the guardians of the four directions (the east), Buddhist deities found at the entrance of many religious sites. This image is from a dzong in Bhutan. Dzongs serve jointly as sites of administration for the government and central monastic body. (Photograph by author)


Known by the affectionate nickname “Asha,” or maternal uncle, one could read Kama Wangdi’s art as a reflection of his own experiences growing up at the cusp of Bhutan’s modernization, which began in earnest in the 1960s. Born in 1957, Kama Wangdi was part of the generation that enrolled in Bhutan’s expanding modern public education and that benefitted from the ample jobs that a growing civil service and changing economy required. In fact, Kama Wangdi’s earliest exposure to fine art came from his middle school art teacher, Naresh Sengupta, an Indian artist who came to Bhutan from Uganda in the 1970s. After failing to pass his exams in class 8, Asha first tried to study modern fine art in India before apprenticing to learn Buddhist art at the National Fine Art Centre, a handicraft emporium and traditional art training center, in Thimphu in the 1970s. Upon finishing his training at the National Fine Art Centre, Asha worked as an illustrator and designer making materials that communicated development projects to the public for the Development Support Communication Division. Finally, in 1991, Asha was able to obtain government support to study communications media at the Kent Institute of Art and Design in the United Kingdom where he graduated with first-class honors. As I will show, Asha’s artwork shows his training and dedication to both traditional Bhutanese art and modern aesthetic practices.

Figure 2. An example of the precise proportions and composition required of traditional painters. Taken from a student’s workbook, the green lines by the waist and arm are corrections from the instructor. (Photograph by author)
Figure 3. Prayers II by Kama Wangdi. (Photograph courtesy of artist)

Part of the visual power of Asha’s images, and one of the markers of their originality, is the way they break the norms of traditional icon painting. Though certainly not static, Buddhist art does not prioritize originality. Instead, Himalayan Buddhist art emphasizes the proper depiction and reproduction of the ideal figures of Buddhas and gods following prescribed conventions regarding measurements or iconometry, color, and composition (Figure 2). The paintings prioritize the integrity and wholeness of the final image, and their surfaces are burnished to a smooth finish.

Contemporary artists, in contrast, often pursue an identifiable personal style. Indeed, it is one of the criteria contemporary artists in Bhutan use to judge success. This is one reason, though certainly not the only, that Asha has become admired among artists in Bhutan. Asha has become best known for large, textured compositions that strongly feature a red-and-gold palette, mantras, and elements of Buddhist iconography. His paintings at times contain almost expressionistic clouds of color, peeking between a tattered fabric of impasto paint, and an asymmetric composition that includes thickly blocked-in mantras, portions of a Buddhist icon, and sometimes monks.

Created as part of a series, Prayers II distinguishes Asha from traditional artists, showing that what he is doing is different: not religious art, though it uses religion (Figure 3). He demonstrates his individuality in part by breaking the rules. At the upper left, he exposes the iconometric scaffolding used to create Buddha images and overlaps it with text at the center that describes the proper positioning of the Buddha’s waist.[3] The piece is playful: Asha draws attention to the strict rules of thangka painting even as he breaks the rules. Thangkha, or icon painters, would never paint just the head of a Buddha or a partial image the way Asha does here. I was told by the traditional artists I interviewed that not using the prescribed proportions would have negative karmic consequences, such as the artist being reborn deformed.

Figure 4. “Asha” Kama Wangdi at work using a palette knife to create texture. (Photograph by author)

Likewise, Asha’s use of texture is significant (Figure 4). He fills the bottom of the composition with the textured impasto paint applied with a palette knife. Traditional icon and wall paintings in Bhutan have largely a smooth, flat quality to them, the paint carefully applied to give them an even finish. Asha’s rough impasto work looks messy, uneven, and aleatory in a way that contrasts with the discipline and control implied by the even surface of much traditional art.

However, Prayers II is also respectful of Buddhist art, and Asha is clearly careful not to cross certain lines in his paintings. In an interview with Kinley Wangmo, Asha remarked that he made sure never to “disfigure” his religious subjects and that even if he used an incomplete image, he always kept the proper color and proportions (Wangmo 2015, 59). Asha’s care for the integrity of Buddhist imagery shows up in how Prayers II uses the conventional yellow-gold color and seated “earth touching” pose associated with the historical Buddha. On the left side of the painting, Asha displays the lines icon painters use to ensure proper proportions. By placing the image of the geometric scaffolding and text in front of the completed visage of Shakyamuni Buddha, Asha prioritizes the meaning behind religious images. Pairing instructions about how to paint with tsa-tsa or small stupa figurines often placed by holy sites and with “Om Mani Padme Hum” also seems to equate them, the act of making various religious art forms and the act of prayer become one. Despite breaking from tradition, there is something devout about Asha’s painting.


Asha Kama’s artwork responds to the fixity of definitions of tradition in Bhutan but does not reject tradition outright. Making sense of these artistic choices is tricky. In many ways, the work of contemporary artists like Asha Kama looks like what Michel de Certeau describes as “tactics,” a type of “making do” or “bricolage” where the “weak” subvert the mechanisms of power toward their own ends (de Certeau 2011). Artists in Bhutan do indeed largely take the definition of national culture as given. However, the problem with looking at artistic choices as “tactics” is that it prioritizes artistic resistance over the way artists choose to engage with and even reproduce tradition. This is a problem with accounting for agency or freedom more generally in anthropology (Laidlaw 2013; Ortner 2006). In order to understand what contemporary artists are doing, I have found Jessica Winegar’s (2006) use of the term “reckoning” to be useful. Reckoning captures the sense of artists “having to deal with (or discover) things that appear to have already been set” but without prioritizing the choices artists make to resist (6). As contemporary artists make art, they do indeed resist certain elements of the discourse on culture in Bhutan, but they also see themselves as part of the social fabric and strive to “live as a society.”


Resembling Reality: Rumors of Child Sacrifice in Uganda during the 2016 Presidential Elections

By V. Y. Sigounas

It was during the hours upon hours we spent trapped in Kampala traffic that David,[4] an aspiring filmmaker, first told me about child sacrifice in Uganda. Initially, I thought his interest in child sacrifice was a personal idiosyncrasy, but it was actually a fairly common topic of conversation in Kampala. Parents of young children pulled me aside to tell me that their children were not allowed to play outside by themselves, lest they be kidnapped by witch doctors and sacrificed.[5] Signs were posted on buildings warning children not to walk home alone from school because hundreds of children a year were abducted and sacrificed. The newspapers published stories about the anti-child-sacrifice task force established by the Ministry of the Interior, though my understanding is that the task force consisted of one guy driving his boda-boda (a small-engine scooter) through the surrounding villages (Ajiambo 2017).

I began writing down rumors of child sacrifice in the margins of my field notebook, not sure if there was any basis of truth to them, and also not sure if the truth of them mattered. Like Kroeger’s (2003) ethnographic research on AIDS rumors in Indonesia and White’s (1997) work on vampires in Central and East Africa, I came to believe that what had started out as a collection of urban legends actually signaled contemporary concerns about Ugandan society. During my fieldwork in the spring of 2016, Uganda had just undergone another contested presidential election,[6] and the outcomes of local and national elections once again seemed to be influenced by the large amount of wealth and power concentrated in the hands of the winning candidates (Muhumuza 1997). Although rumors of child sacrifice in East Africa are not new, some of the rumors I heard seemed to suggest that child sacrifice during the elections was associated with wealthy, powerful people seeking more wealth and power at the expense of those who had neither (Gaffey 2016).

In this essay, I examine how rumors of a large increase in child sacrifice in Uganda reflect some Ugandan people’s concerns that they are living in a society with wide economic disparities. These rumors of child sacrifice illustrate the notion that the underprivileged are literally being sacrificed in order to increase the wealth and power of already wealthy and powerful individuals. I also describe how Ugandans deploy public rumors surrounding child sacrifice as a way to register their unease with the nation’s elected officials, a group that has subverted the nation’s democratic ideals and consolidated power and wealth among a privileged few. By discussing the commodification of children’s bodies through these rumors, my interlocutors make visible the socioeconomic tensions between the general public and the wealthy and powerful individuals that they may otherwise have few opportunities to address.


Rose, an economist and mother of two young children, explained to me that even though rumors of child sacrifice “are seasonal,” she believes that child sacrifices have been increasing in recent years. She told me that a child’s dead body will be found by the side of the road and it’s clear that it has been used in a ritual. Rose said, “these rituals are used to gain money or power because people think it isn’t enough to bring in an animal as an offering: it has to be a young child. They will think, ‘Oh—that family has a lot of children, I’ll take one.’”

Although these are by no means the only rumors I have heard about child sacrifice in Uganda, three of the rumors I heard in 2016 loosely followed the narrative set out by Hubert and Mauss (1964) in their book about sacrifice. The sacrificer was a witch doctor or traditional healer, a valued member of the community who “stands on the threshold of the sacred and the profane world and represents them both at one and the same time” (23). In the handful of rumors I heard, the sacrifier was a wealthy businessperson and/or politician, often involved in real estate, who stood to gain even more money and power as a result of the sacrifice. The victim of the sacrifice in these rumors was often a vulnerable child from a low-income household, living with a grandmother or some other member of the extended family. The wealthy businessperson achieved his or her wealth and status overnight, and the neighbors all suspected that black arts were responsible for his or her sudden financial and political success. The witch doctor quietly acknowledged that s/he had something to do with this improvement in the businessperson’s fortune. As the businessperson became increasingly successful, s/he demanded more and more powerful spells from the witch doctor: what started out as the donation of inanimate objects became the blood sacrifice of chicken and goats. The most powerful spells require human bloodshed, and the story ends with a child’s death.

However, my interlocutors were not conjuring these rumors of child sacrifice out of whole cloth. In fact, these rumors hewed closely to the criminal case of a man named Godfrey Kato Kajubi. In 2008, Kajubi, a Kampala real estate developer, hired a witch doctor to kill a twelve-year-old boy in order to improve his business prospects (Bindhe 2012). After the case was initially thrown out for lack of evidence, the witch doctor and the witch doctor’s wife became informants and confessed to their role in the child’s death (Vision Reporter 2012). Charges were dropped against them once they agreed to serve as witnesses, but Kajubi was retried and convicted of murder in 2012 (Kaaya 2012). By the time I was doing fieldwork four years later, Kajubi’s case had become a Rorschach test, a means by which my interlocutors expressed their thoughts about religion, politics, and social relationships.

Some people, like David, began talking about child sacrifice in order to segue into a discussion about the tensions between evangelical Christianity and the traditional religions practiced by witch doctors. But discussing these rumors was also a way for people to illustrate their concerns about social disparities and political corruption. For example, David discussed child sacrifice as an element of a corrupt system benefitting a wealthy few. In contrast to the Akedah, where God ordered Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, children sacrificed by witch doctors are not sacrificed under a Judeo-Christian God’s command. Rather, modern child sacrifice is the murder of a child and, most significantly, the payoff is literally payment: frequently, the whole reason for killing a child is for the sacrifier to benefit financially.

Money played a central role in the way some of my Ugandan interlocutors described child sacrifice. The whole point is that wealthy businessmen use their money to purchase the death of another human being in an attempt to make even more money (Onyulo 2017). In the court of public opinion, the sacrifier is the culpable individual, not the person employed to make the sacrifice. That was why in newspaper reports and oral stories, I repeatedly read and was told that the witch doctor went free, while the person who employed the witch doctor was apprehended and would likely be found guilty of murder (Bindhe 2012). Government officials were also frequently found culpable (Englund 2006). In some of my interlocutor’s rumors, wealthy businesspeople bribed local law enforcement to look the other way when witch doctors stole children. In other rumors, government officials tried to pay off the child’s grieving mother or grandmother to drop the investigation into the child sacrifice. This was the point in the narrative when the individual body, the social body, and the body politic converged. I believe that people’s indignation about child sacrifice comes about because child sacrifice devalues a child’s life, particularly when that child’s family lives in poverty. It reminds the public that the government does not care about the lives of the people, and it underscores how powerful individuals could destroy the lives of innocents for personal gain.


Rose was not alone in believing that there had been a recent increase in child sacrifice, and concerns that wealthy and powerful individuals were using nefarious means to increase their wealth and power seemed to be tangentially related to the local and presidential elections. Approximately six cases of child sacrifice are reported yearly (Ajiambo 2017). However, Ugandan newspapers were reporting the abduction and sacrifice of hundreds of children from poor neighborhoods around Kampala in the six months prior to the Ugandan elections (Gaffey 2016). Although factual evidence is thin, several newspaper reports used the same Reuter’s quote from Shelin Kasozi of Kyampisi Childcare Ministries, who said, “Child sacrifice cases are common during election time as some people believe blood sacrifices will bring wealth and power” (Kakande 2016; see also Gaffey 2016)

Perhaps rumors of child sacrifices related to the election are one way that Ugandans collectively “work out concerns about relationships among the individual body, the social body, and the body politic” (Kroeger 2003, 243; see also Douglas 1966). As Shibutani (1965) described sixty years ago, rumors are a collective way for the community to understand and explain ambiguous events. Rumors of child sacrifice during a tumultuous election may work well as explanatory idioms for understanding contemporary etiologies of misfortune—whether the misfortune is a child’s violation and murder or a political system that relegates the majority of voters to positions of abject poverty while increasing the fortunes of an enormously wealthy and powerful few (Evans-Pritchard 1976; Whyte 1997).

In a stratified society, where the general public rarely has the opportunity to address wealthy and powerful individuals, rumors allow people to express how they feel about lopsided power dynamics and social inequalities. As Kroeger (2003, 250) writes, “Rumor narratives are often characterized by oppositional speech in which official versions are challenged and counter narratives are offered as explanations.” In other words, rumors of child sacrifice allow people to express oppositional beliefs within an alternative sphere of public discourse (Perice 1997; Scheper-Hughes 1996, 9). The government’s response to anonymous rumors was to create the aforementioned one-man task force without any actual clout, superficially addressing the public’s concerns while also attempting to reappropriate the narrative. However, this action did not extinguish the rumors. Instead, child sacrifice rumors continued to proliferate, vividly tying together the ways some Ugandans build their wealth and power on the sacrifices made by the poor and powerless.

Banned Films, C/overt Oppression: Practices of Cinema Censorship from
Contemporary Turkey

By Sonay Ban

The Minister of Culture and Tourism Numan Kurtulmuş reacted to the broadcast ban on Turkish telenovelas in the United Arab Emirates. “It is not acceptable that three politicians decide who is going to watch which movie,” he said. — Gazete Duvar (2018)

It was soon after completing fieldwork that I saw the news above posted on Facebook by one of the Kurdish documentary filmmakers whom I had interviewed. “Could have been great if you didn’t make us laugh. I emailed you the list of all the movies you, politicians, did ban and censor, my dear Numan—yet it went to spam!” he wrote. While trying to set up a time for an interview with him via WhatsApp during fieldwork, he had half-jokingly texted me, “Better hurry up to conduct the interview: they may put me in jail for my latest project [instead of] only censoring it ☺.”

In this essay, I explore how censorship shapes film production and circulation in film festivals and commercial release after the 2000s in Turkey. Based on observations and interviews during intensive fieldwork between July 2017 and January 2018, I examine how films circulate among and between various actors and institutions[8] over two decades that has witnessed increasing polarization that has shaped the social, political, and economic landscapes of the country for the worse.

Figure 1. Poster of Yeryüzü Aşkın Yüzü Oluncaya Dek (Love Will Change the Earth, 2014)

Cinematic censorship in Turkey has been a taken-for-granted practice that can be traced back through the foundation of the republic in 1923 to the late Ottoman period, since the arrival of cinema in 1896. Before the 2000s, especially during the 1970s and 1980s, the Turkish state was the sole executor of censorship for movies through laws and censorship boards.[9] This is a good example of the traditional definition of censorship, underlining “removal and replacement” with censors demanding cutting materials from works of art and authors coming up with “solutions” to replace the cut material as a response. Censorship, in this sense, is what Richard Burt (1998, 17) indicates as “implicitly defined as strictly repressive activity centered in the court and implicitly opposed to the antithetical practice of uncensoring” as he proposes reconceptualizing definitions of censorship (which I will touch upon later) in modern English theater. Here, it is important to mention the Cold War era (with its repressive mechanisms at both the state level and international level regarding anticommunism) around the world and the specific conditions of Turkey, which was witnessing an ongoing civil war and coup d’états that led to increased state repression and violence. What is significant after the 2000s is that, compatible with modern politics in Foucauldian sense, censorship mechanisms became more dispersed, contrary to previous decades. The Turkish state had always been ideologically consistent in promoting and conducting censorship since its foundation in 1923; the novelty in this new era was that the state was not the only agency operating through ultimate impositions and repression over the works of art and their producers. I argue that mechanisms of cultural constraint and censorship started working through more complicated ways than mere prohibition, removal, and replacement in the classical sense of the action, not least because it involved various actors granted state-sanctioned power and authority over cultural works and their producers. Due to limitations of this short essay, I only focus on a couple of examples that illustrate the complexities and multiplicities of practices and only shed light on certain mechanisms that cannot always follow similar patterns for each and every case out of over thirty-five I have examined so far.

An example of censorship took place in September 2014, when the Festival Committee removed the documentary Yeryüzü Aşkın Yüzü Oluncaya Dek (Love Will Change the Earth) from a list of documentaries preselected by a jury (a producer, a film critic, and a filmmaker invited by the committee) for the 51st International Antalya Film Festival. Depicting the Gezi Park resistance of 2013, the film was “suspected” of insulting the prime minister of the time, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (now the executive president), based on Articles 125 and 299 of the Turkish Penal Code.[10] The director of the film was called by the committee and told that the film could only be screened if she removed the English translation of the alleged insult from the subtitles.[11] She accepted this deal, though a group of directors and producers announced that they were withdrawing from the competition, accusing the committee of carrying out explicit censorship.[12] The committee blamed the whole affair on the prejury and the director. In the end, the documentary competition was canceled since thirteen documentary filmmakers withdrew their works (Karan 2016, 3).[13]

Another incident happened in April 2015, when the crew of the documentary Bakur (North) was told by the organizers of the 34th International Istanbul Film Festival that the film would not be screened the next day in the festival, organized by İKSV,[14] unless they applied to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism for a registration certificate within two days.[15] The film depicts the lives of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) guerillas[16] in three camps in Eastern Turkey/North Kurdistan just before their withdrawal to northern Iraq in 2013. Organizers stated that they had to ask for registration since an armed conflict occurred between PKK guerillas and the Turkish military in North Kurdistan the day before the screening. The regulation for registration had been in place since 2005, yet festivals were not asking for it since the regulation was not strictly applied until this delicate case occurred. Organizers said they tried persuading ministry officials to show the film, yet permission was not granted. The film, however, was screened in a packed theater as part of an independent film festival, Documentarist, two months after the attempt at Istanbul Film Festival. In his short introduction to an enthusiastic audience, the festival director emphasized that the screening and the Q&A session would be held in this independent festival without official registration. And as of writing this essay, the codirectors of Bakur, Çayan Demirel and Ertuğrul Mavioğlu, are being tried on an antiterror law and facing charges of making terrorist propaganda, with a possible sentence of up to five years jail time. Mavioğlu’s hearing was held on February 5, 2018, while Demirel presented his defense three days after. The trial was held on May 29, 2018, in Batman Criminal Court. The next one was scheduled for October 23, 2018, but defense lawyers did not attend, and the trial was postponed to February 21, 2019. The directors did not stand trial, yet the producer, Ayşe Çetinbaş, was present as an observer. The final hearing was postponed to May 2, 2019 where the judge will decide whether the directors will be sentenced to prison.

Figure 2. Still from Bakur (North).

Lastly, partially funded by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the movie Zer (2017) was granted a registration certificate by a committee from the ministry on condition that certain scenes be taken out for commercial screening. Director Kazim Öz faded out these scenes in the 36th International Istanbul Film Festival screening in April 2017 with intertitles reading “You are not able to watch this scene since the Ministry of Culture and Tourism General Directorate of Cinema Supervisory Board found it objectionable” (Figure 3). After finding out about the director’s protest at the film festival, the committee canceled the first certificate they had provided for theatrical release, asked the director to remove the faded-out and intertitled scenes, and then granted a certificate again. Though the certificate for theatrical release was obtained at the end, the film ended up being screened only in eleven movie theaters across the country, compared to initially agreed release in one hundred movie theaters.

Figure 3. Still from Zer (2017) with intertitle that the director put to inform the festival audience.

Turkey has been notorious for being “the largest jailer of journalists in the world with a total of 151 journalists in prison by the close of 2017.”[17] Both before and after the coup attempt in July 2016 (where a faction of the Turkish army attempted to seize power over the current government and the president), the country has witnessed the expulsion of public servants and academics,[18] purges in judiciary offices, increased military and police presence as a result of the two-year state of emergency and executive orders, and indefinite imprisonment of twelve deputies from People’s Democratic Party (the HDP) and many NGO activists and students, to name a few. As an extension and product of this social, economic, and political context,[19] censorship cases in cinema keep increasing every day.

Figure 4. Image of the map of recorded threats to press freedom on an annual basis by Mapping Media Freedom.

Censorship has been relevant to media studies for decades but has drawn renewed attention by scholars in recent years (Fenner 1995; Freshwater 2004; Müller 2004). As Bunn (2015) has discussed, “new censorship theory” since the 1980s onwards looks at the multiplicity of forms of censorship and its generative effects. Encompassing traditional definitions of censorship as being repressive and removal- and replacement-oriented, new theories, including by scholars Richard Burt, Wendy Brown, and Judith Butler, aim to offer “more complex and nuanced models of censorship involving dispersal and displacement among a variety of regulatory agents and practices” (Burt 1998, 17). Along with being “productive [rather] than prohibitive, involving cultural legitimation as well as delegitimation” (17), as cultural anthropologist Banu Karaca (2011, 158)—who studies freedom of expression in the arts in Turkey—points out, “the domain of the unspeakable remains unclearly mapped; its boundaries are not always visible, or infallibly discernable,” This unclarity, combined with strategies and practices applied by various state institutions and nonstate actors, creates arbitrariness as to how works of art are treated, censored, or remain untouched for the time being. Since laws and regulations for cinema in Turkey are neither strictly practiced nor clearly defined, yet have loopholes for various interpretations and initiative-taking strategies, as Karaca furthers, “not all [political] expressions . . . are seen as transgressive and met with censoring strategies at all times” (178).

Sometimes it is not even the state directly censoring a certain work of art but nonstate actors—namely “proxies of the state,”[20] such as festival organizers, bureaucrats, mayors taking initiatives, officials in local or central administrative strata, and even cultural producers—doing the work for the state. In the first case mentioned at the beginning, the festival committee in Antalya Film Festival acted as the proxy of the state to impose censorship because, first, the festival receives funding from the ministry, and, second, the festival president is the elected mayor of the municipality from the Justice and Development Party, the current ruling government. In the second case, the 2015 Istanbul Film Festival, the role of the İKSV, the NGO organizing the festival with funding from the ministry, is significant: the economic dependence to the ministry and the political ties of the industrial group that the NGO belongs to with the government led the NGO and the festival committee to clear the way for the ministry to act in full force. Yet, for the last case, the ministry again took to the stage in the same festival two years later to display its authority (as it provides funding for the festival and gets to grant registration to the films) over a director who criticized its actions at the expense of making contradictory decisions along the way.

Displacing censorship practices among different actors brings feelings of uncertainty and insecurity to cultural producers about what kind of work would get censored. That, in turn, creates an environment where one cannot differentiate where censorship starts and ends or goes further (as the ongoing trial against Bakur’s directors illustrates). This, for instance, also holds for the Kurdish filmmaker I quoted at the beginning as he jokes that he got away with only censorship with his previous project, yet there is a chance he may be put in jail for his latest project due to political conjuncture.

The uncertainty and insecurity result in different opinions as to how censorship in cinema is perceived, defined, and contested among filmmakers in Turkey, as well. Cultural producers take different if not conflicting stands when it comes to censorship for economic and ideological reasons, and their take on the meaning of solidarity and trust within the film industry differ. A crucial example, as some of my informants suggested, would be that there has been an apparent divide in responses among documentary and fiction filmmakers as to whether filmmakers should have boycotted the festival committee’s decision during the 2014 Antalya Film Festival and not have attended the festival. Most of the documentary filmmakers I interviewed were not content with the way the majority of fiction filmmakers “sided with the festival committee” by attending the festival. They named certain directors and producers of fiction films who showed up at the festival allegedly denouncing censorship while not renouncing their position as cultural producers since they benefit financially. These documentary filmmakers (with other informants) also uttered that there should have been unconditional solidarity for boycott and withdrawal of all the works of art.

Along this fault line, dispersal and displacement of cinematic censorship practices through financial, cultural, and bureaucratic webs of coalitions between different actors and institutions indicated at the beginning are highly related to how economic and cultural capital control, regulate, cooperate, and decide; how politics is played through careful allocation of financial and cultural resources between these actors; and how, in many cases, in line with Karaca’s (2011, 155) point, the actors and webs of coalitions can actively “delegitimize and discourage artistic expressions.”

The reason why I focus on the 2000s for my research is not least because the current cinema law passed in 2004,[21] which superseded the previous one from 1986, and the related regulations passed in 2004[22] and 2005,[23] are significant to mainly control two processes: the current evaluation and the rating system for domestic and foreign films screened in Turkey and the ministry funding for domestic film productions. The law was prepared to make necessary adjustments for Turkey’s ongoing candidacy for the European Union, as academics and people from the film industry that I conducted interviews in person explained. However, an anecdote by one of my informants during fieldwork would be illustrative as to how the law is both interpreted by and became arbitrary even to the lawmakers: during our more-than-two-hour interview, the former minister of Culture and Tourism who served between 2003 and 2005 and passed the current law said the passing of the law in 2004 had nothing to do with the EU candidacy adjustments, yet “it was purely due to his personal efforts and experience as a worker in film industry during the 1980s.” He also revealed that he had recently finished shooting a film by his own means. Having applied for the ministry funding, the very structure established during his term, he stated that his application was rejected due to his dissent of the current government.


Anyone can shoot anything they want—there is no censorship in cinema in Turkey– Nuri Bilge Ceylan (2012)[24]

Exemplifying a wide range of cases, these accounts—based on a work-in-progress field report, in relation to the historical conjuncture and current circumstances—lay the ground for understanding systemic yet displaced and dispersed forms of censorship in cinematic works of art in Turkey. I argue that censorship in cinema in Turkey is not solely composed of strict state repression anymore (after the 2000s) yet composed of a spectrum of forces (including both “hard” or “soft,” in Burt’s words) executed along with the state by its multiple proxies through various forms of economic, cultural, and political coalitions. With its practices being multifaceted through vague or even arbitrary legitimizations and its definition changing constantly from the vantage point of the actors involved, its impact on cultural production and politics of everyday life begs for detailed analyses and takeaways paving the way for answers.

Democratizing Literature: Notes on Editoriales Cartoneras in Santiago, Chile

By Cecilia Salvi

“It’s like a slap in the face to the industry,” Rodolfo told me as he and I sat selling books outside Santiago Library. Making cartonera books “is like a slap in the face to the [publishing] industry,” he repeated, this time swiping his hand and adding “Pa! Pa!” for emphasis, “because it shows we can do it ourselves.” His grandiose comment—very characteristic of other conversations I have had with this graphic artist and cartonero—struck me as apropos of the work editoriales cartoneras carry out in Chile.

In an era of rapidly advancing and easily accessible technology, the editorial cartonera (or simply cartonera) movement in Latin America opts instead to hand-craft book covers from repurposed, upcycled cardboard. Artists and writers, collectivized into micro print shops, create these book covers while using digital technology to print pages en masse. Each book is hand-bound and hand-painted, resulting in a unique—and significantly time-consuming—object. Through the intersection of art and technology, cardboard collected from the streets becomes valuable again.

The use of cardboard links cartoneras to the larger history of recuperación in Latin America, in which materials collected in public areas, such as the street, factory dumping sites, or trash bins, are recycled, repurposed, or reused. The first cartonera, Eloísa Cartonera, was born in 2003 of the economic crisis in Argentina, which drastically changed the nation’s politics and remapped the urban landscape of its capital (Grimson 2008). Trash collectors who collect mostly cardboard became ubiquitous signs of Argentina’s failed neoliberal policies. While unemployment soared to over 20 percent, citizens responded by protesting daily, taking over closed factories and workplaces and entering informal employment sectors. More radical groups established community-based collectives to cooperatively manage resources. A collective of writers and artists in Buenos Aires began printing published materials by repurposing cardboard that was initially bought from trash collectors at above-market rates. The success of the cartonera model can be seen in the more than one hundred cartoneras that now exist in Latin America, which continue to prosper as worker-run collectives or as individual artistic projects, undergoing cycles of “transformation and continuation” (Álvarez 2011) over the past decade and a half.

Figure 1. The Eloísa Cartonera workshop in Almagro, Buenos Aires. Front door and window painted by cartonera worker and the author. (Photograph by Eloísa Cartonera member)

In this essay, I focus on the most lauded and socially recognized characteristic of cartoneras: the idea that they participate in the “democratization of literature,” which asserts cartoneras’ ability to intervene in questions of public access regarding the right to literacy, the right to the city, and civic participation. Newspaper articles favorably depict cartoneras holding poetry-writing workshops for imprisoned youth, working with school-aged children and adults to fight illiteracy and make classrooms more accessible. By way of example, the NGO CILSA recently partnered with Cartonera Accesible to publish a series of cartonera books designed to increase social awareness of accessibility issues (CILSA 2018). As Bilbija et al. (2009, 30) note, when compared to the publishing industry, “The cartonera publishing houses create new readers with literacy campaigns, democratization, and other methods to bring the book closer to a public previously unable to obtain books because of their excessive prices.” Nonetheless, the fieldwork I conducted over the course of three site visits to Santiago revealed disjunctures, frustrations, and challenges in how the process of democratizing literature is carried out.


The discourse of the democratization of literature in Latin America has been a recurrent topic of conversation and in my interviews. It centers around two interlinked concepts: affordability and accessibility. Interlocutors constantly reminded me that “books in Latin America are very expensive” because of publishing costs and the approximately 20 percent IVA, or value-added tax, that is tacked onto the purchase of books. This tax is a particularly sour point as it was first imposed in 1976 under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, thus recalling the censorship of the era. Using discarded material and photocopied pages is seen as a practical means of reducing those costs and getting around the IVA to make books affordable, as well as an emblematic rejection of that era.

Accessibility means being able to reach the general public, primarily in communities considered marginalized. This outreach relies on selling and circulating books in areas open to the general public, such as book fairs, libraries, or on the street. On-site mapping conducted during fieldwork brought to the fore the relationship between public space and access to affordable literature. Santiago’s monthly cartonera book fair was held until recently in the Providencia city library, where its director has lauded these books as a “breeze of fresh air” running through the windows of presumably old, dusty library collections. Cartoneras participate in a variety of local and regional book fairs, including for the first time in 2018 in the Primavera del Libro (a four-day city-sponsored event) and the Feria International del Libro en Santiago (FILSA, an eighteen-day international event with publishing-industry funding). A collection of cartonera books has also been incorporated for circulation at Santiago Library, which hosts a yearly international conference and get-together for cartoneras.

Figure 2. Collection of more than one hundred books that can be checked out at Santiago Library. The most popular book to check out in 2017 was The Little Prince. (Photograph by author)

Despite growing public recognition and acceptance, cartoneras face a number of challenges, including costs, transportation, and difficulty selling. Many cartoneras operate in the red, so cartonera participants often spend money from their own pockets to purchase materials. If there is a profit, it is reinvested in the cartonera (Kudaibergen 2018). Additionally, many members of the public choose not to purchase the books precisely because they are made of cardboard. Franchesca, a college student who operates a cartonera in Santiago, noted during our interviews that customers frequently complain that a product is made of cardboard, but will buy it anyway because “she’s young and they’re trying to help her out.” In other words, despite these books being labor-intensive, requiring a specific skill set and often much training, cartoneras constantly contend with the presumption that their product is either not art at all or is devalued art because of the material used.

My field research indicated that the novelty and the affordability of books that would otherwise cost much more in traditional bookstores was what initially drew members of the public to cartoneras. At book fairs, customers would often browse the various styles of books before buying a few, whether for personal use or as gifts, often haggling. Teresa, who has been publishing for more than four years, has an MFA and works as an art teacher, described another major issue when she commented, “the people that go [to the book fairs] are the same ones. We never had good attendance. Suddenly, the cartonera’s public was us, the cartonera editors.” As she and I sat drinking fruit juices at a local café in downtown Santiago, she continued: “It’s a huge conflict. How much do you sell it for? For how much do you sell an illustration that is unique, that is produced [hand-drawn], you manufacture the book and the illustration, but it’s made of cardboard. . . . The goal of the editorial cartonera is to sell, I don’t know if at a low price, but at the most fair price possible.” It is often the case the cartoneras will sell few or even no books at fairs and community events. More than once, I noticed cartoneras leaving an event early or not returning the following day. This was the case at the most recent Encuentros I attended in October 2017 and October 2018. Hosted by Santiago Library, the Encuentro is a yearly gathering of cartoneras from Latin America that includes workshops and scheduled talks. I saw patrons browse through the tables of international cartoneras, but few made purchases. The talks, including screenings of two films and an academic lecture, had no more than thirty audience members, almost all of them cartoneras and their friends.

Despite the challenges to democratizing literature, cartoneras create the possibility of an alternative publishing space where people that come from traditionally marginalized communities—indigenous, black, queer, working class, rural, leftist—can represent themselves and write for themselves through a medium that is comparatively cheaper and easier to produce and disseminate. This was made patently clear in my interview with Daniela, a transvestite activist who spoke eloquently about the need for self-representation. “We transvestites are illiterate”—“Las travestis somos analfabetas” was a phrase she often used—“because we do not tell our own stories.” While cartonera’s catalogs publish a wide range of texts—The Little Prince, Civil Disobedience, well-known Latin American authors and poets, and local or up-and-coming writers—it is not uncommon to see poems written in portuñol, stories for children translated into indigenous languages, autores recuperados (authors who were censored and now “recuperated”) from the dictatorship-era, and other stories that would not easily find a mass audience. For cartonera researchers such as Kudaibergen (2018), it is this “bibliodiversity” and the networks created among cartoneras, rather than the “success” of the democratization of literature, that defines the movement.

Moreover, in part because she began writing and publishing through her cartonera, Daniela was able to secure a publishing contract with an independent publisher in 2016. Publishing within the industry is a contentious topic, as some cartoneras see themselves as working against an industry that excludes them. For others, like the workers in Montecristo Cartonera, self-publishing and editing others’ writing in the cartonera format is the first step in creating the social capital, editing skills, and network to gain access to the publishing industry. Washington Cucurto, one of the founders of Eloísa Cartonera, himself has published several non-cartonera books (which can be purchased steps away from the Eloísa magazine stand at a chain bookstore). While this may seem a betrayal of the principles of accessibility and affordability for all, I want to emphasize that without first publishing as cartoneras, Daniela and Washington would not have had the social capital and network to gain access to commercial publishing. Instead of functioning as antagonistic or counter to commercial publishing, the social acceptance of cartoneras has made the publishing industry recognize writers who otherwise would have received (or have already received) rejection letters.

Figure 3. Cartonera books at community fair in Conchalí. (Photograph by author)


Through the demanding labor of democratizing literature, cartoneras ultimately challenge and bring into dispute what constitutes “literature” and what constitutes “a book” itself. A recent call for an event, post on Facebook, has one talk listed as “book launch for the ugly, lazy, drunk, romantic, potentially terrorist book by Alan Paillan Manquepillan.” Book covers made of reworked cardboard, milk containers, newspaper collage, found objects, and even a beer can make visible the ephemeral, the unwanted, the discarded, the profane. They purposely call attention to the methods of production and publishing to reveal the possibilities and limits of how forms of knowledge production and democratic ideals circulate in society. As Griffin (2016) notes, what makes cartonera books different from those published by the industry is “that it is realized through living human bodies rather than industrialized technology” (24). Editoriales cartoneras exemplify a movement borne out of necessity, a necessity that is both economic and creative, but which, by transforming trash into art, invites us to rethink who can write and whose voices can be heard.

Acknowledgments. I wish to thank my interlocutors for their generosity and Liza Shapiro and Celeste Elbulok for their comments.


Delving into casual small talk, love ballads, popular movies, hand-crafted books, and modern takes on ancient religious iconography, the projects individually and collectively demonstrate the strength of research in which multimodality is a central component of fieldwork. They “illustrate how the partnership of ethnography and multimodality has enriched [our] empirical work” (Dicks et al. 2011, 228). Multimodality can lead us to explore the contradictions we may find during fieldwork and the data collected there. It can also provide a deeper understanding of the “murkiness” of fieldwork experiences and the challenges involved in thinking and writing about them. Ban’s consideration of the multiple vectors of censorship through independent films and the conversations surrounding them allow us to experience its ambiguities, as sometimes filmmakers censor themselves. Hopper investigates how traditional elements enter contemporary artists’ work even as they complain about the seeming rigidity of the former. Salvi’s research demonstrates that trash and upcycled art converted into literature may still depend upon industry-sponsored projects while simultaneously claiming marginality. Through it all, this collaborative piece “evokes the heterogeneities of anthropological research across multiple platforms and collaborative sites, including film, photography, dialogue, social media, kinesis, and practice” (Collins, Durington, and Gill 2017, 142).

The multiple mediums through which the local workings of power flow are also made evident in these articles. The authors address the power of contemporary censorship and artistic control (Ban, Hopper, Isaacs), the role of avant-garde medias (Ban, Hopper, Salvi), the movement of alternative and unexpected voices (Salvi, Sigounas) as well as the amount of work expended, and sometimes the failure, in circulating the images and voices of the powerful (Ban, Isaacs, Sigounas).

The forms of art and expression analyzed in these short essays also manage to slip through the grasp of those in power to demonstrate contested forms of representation. We see how each of the authors addresses the circulation of media projects under conditions ranging from outright censorship and political intervention to subtle cultural interventions. These visual art forms often undermine and subvert the political intentions of those in power in a number of unexpected ways. Sometimes, the circulation of the art form itself directly undermines the predominant message. In Uganda, lurid rumors about wealthy and powerful people sacrificing children to gain more wealth and power have proliferated and spread, despite the government’s public attempts to confront these alleged crimes. In Thailand, the love ballads written by General Prayuth to the Thai people have become less popular as this form of gauzy, soft-focus propaganda has become more ubiquitous. Other times, the way people interpret the art form changes as a result of transformations in the political (Ban, Sigounas), social (Hopper, Isaacs) and economic (Salvi) landscape. Nonetheless, they draw from mediums that are already at work in the society, as both Isaacs and Hopper demonstrate, but find new forms of expression. Finally, the various social actors may collectivize in order to (re)negotiate their relationship to each other and to the media. Cartoneras are often at or linked symbolically to the margins of society and form networks of solidarity and support that allow them to enter the established publishing market. Turkish filmmakers can also be involved in the process of official censorship. As Ban reminds us, this murkiness and ambiguity are central to the complicated and often contradictory nature of these art forms.

Finally, multimodal anthropology calls on us to refocus our attention “on these pre- and post-fieldwork encounters” (Collins, Durington, and Gill 2017, 142). In addition to conference presentations, the authors wish to underscore the collaborative nature of writing, editing, and publishing collective essays such as these, in which numerous online dialogues, emails, Google Doc drafts and revisions, and a Skype meeting among its five participants, along with communication with the editors of this publication, also form an integral part of the unseen work of collaborative post-fieldwork anthropology.

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Álvarez, Raúl Néstor. 2011. “El derecho a la recuperación de basura, desde una perspectiva crítica.” In Recicloscopio II: Miradas sobre recuperadores, políticas públicas y subjetividades en América Latina, edited by Francisco Suárez and Pablo Schamber, 75–92. Buenos Aires: Ediciones CICCUS.

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[1] A term attributed to the fourth king of Bhutan as an answer to development programs focused on “Gross National Product,” Gross National Happiness is Bhutan’s guiding development ideology. The first Gross National Happiness (GNH) survey was conducted in 2010, with a second conducted in 2015.

[2] A dance style sometimes also known as “breakdancing.” B-boying is the term preferred by dancers, including those I interviewed in Bhutan.

[3] In Dzongkha, the text reads (Wylie transliteration): sngon dang khyab ‘gro ba’i srgas dang byang sems kyi bris rgyun sked pa sor bzhi las med stabs. This roughly translates to: “From ancient times the image of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas has flourished and the space above and below the waist is no more or no less than, measurement of four thumbs.” Thank you to Rinzin Dema for helping translate this.

[4] All names have been changed.

[5] The term “witch doctor” was universally applied by everyone discussing child sacrifice without exception. Although I use it here, I acknowledge that it is a highly controversial term.

[6] Uganda’s last four elections have been contested for reasons ranging from the unlawful detention of opposition candidates to “ghost voters” (nonexistent voters) and the disenfranchisement of registered voters.

[7] I would like to thank my dear friend Deniz Çoral for reviewing various versions of this paper in addition to her wonderful friendship and support over the years.

[8] Filmmakers (narrative, documentary, and in-between); producers working with different production companies or working independently and/or freelance); the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, and the General Directorate of Cinema as a sub-branch; organizers of film festivals; (representatives from) several art institutions; (members from employee) associations and/or unions in film industry; local municipalities; film critics; academicians and researchers working on the subject; and activists.

[9] As some of my informants indicated during the fieldwork, and I agree, censorship boards have never disappeared in practice yet evolved into boards with different names to this day.

[10] According to Article 125, any form of physical or verbal action of defamation/insult against anyone would result in jail time from three months to two years or in judicial fine. Being one of the articles allocated to offenses against the state and its organs, Article 299, on the other hand, states that anyone insulting the Turkish president would be punished by jail time from one to four years. Prosecution for this offense depends on the permission granted by the Minister of Justice. Turkish Penal Code is available at:

[11] The film is in Turkish with English subtitles in an international festival in Turkey, seen mostly by a Turkish-speaking audience.

[12] Siyah Bant (2014) and Altyazı Editorial (2014).

[13] IMC TV (2014) and Zete Editorial (2014). Important footnote: IMC TV was shut down on October 4, 2016 during the then state of emergency and I saved the news from their website on August 6, 2016, almost 4 months before the shutdown. As of the end of 2018, the website no longer exists.

[14] Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts, an NGO founded in the 1970s by Eczacıbaşı Holding, one of the leading industrial groups in Turkey.

[15] According to the current law, every film produced in Turkey should apply for official registration to screen commercially or in festivals as well as for DVD distribution.

[16] Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê‎ (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). Founded in 1978 as a guerilla organization, the party waged war to the Turkish state in 1984 (as the state labeled them as a terrorist organization) due to systematic state violence against Kurdish population dating back to the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923.

[17] Mapping Media Freedom (2017).

[18] Among academicians purged (starting before the coup attempt) are Academics for Peace who signed a petition on January 2016. In an open letter, they condemned the Turkish state for systemic violence and military curfews over Kurdish villages and in turn, they have been called by the state and president Erdoğan as terrorists. For more information, see Barış İçin Akademisyenler website:

[19] As of writing this article, the country had faced a referendum in April 2017 and witnessed both presidential and deputy elections in June 2018, all during the two-year state of emergency.

[20] As Banu Karaca defined during personal communication and Can Candan, an academician and a documentary filmmaker, presented as an example in a panel, ironically, during the 35th Istanbul Film Festival in 2016.

[21] Law Pertaining to the Basis and Procedures of Evaluation and Rating of Film Products.

[22] Regulation Pertaining to the Basis and Procedures of Support of Film Products.

[23] Regulation Pertaining to the Basis and Procedures of Evaluation and Rating of Film Products.

[24] One of the most prominent directors from Turkey, Ceylan’s project Winter Sleep (2014) received the highest amount of production support from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism in 2013 and won the Palme d’Or in Cannes Film Festival the next year.

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