Ocean Matters: An Anthropological Study of Marine Scientific Imaging in, on and with Icelandic Waters

Fine Brendtner, Visual Anthropology, Aarhus University, September 2020.

Full text upon request via email, fine.brendtner@gmail.com


This thesis takes a multi-disciplinary approach, combining insights from visual anthropology, marine science, and recent scholarship on the more-than- human in order to re-position imaging practices, as well as the role of vision in embodied research, on and under the sea. In expanding notions of visual knowledge making to subaquatic environments the research has come up against the insistent curiosities of material influences, such as the ocean ́s waters as the medium in which imaging tools and vision are embedded, which cannot be accounted for by human-centric analysis alone. It therefore argues that through looking to the practices around and outcomes of visual tool use in deep sea science, oceanic knowledge (be it marine scientific or anthropological) can be seen as a dynamic system that is co-created in interaction between human and other-than-human actors.

The underlying hypothesis of this thesis is that anthropology and visual theory can gain novel viewpoints when they re-position methods and concepts on and under the sea. In order to explore this hypothesis, the research follows marine biologists at the Icelandic Marine and Freshwater Research Institute Hafrannsóknastofnun (in short Hafró) on their visual survey cruise, mapping seafloor habitat. In recent years Hafró has made seafloor mapping one of the institute’s major initiatives. The marine biologists of their benthic division are specifically tasked with mapping the seafloor habitats of marine organisms and with locating vulnerable marine ecosystems (VMEs), with a view to protecting them from anthropogenic impacts. Empirical data for this thesis has been gathered from June 24th to July 4th in 2019. During this time the author has accompanied Hafró ́s biannual habitat mapping cruise in the subarctic waters south of Iceland. In order to locate VMEs, the marine biologists deploy a deep-tow underwater camera system from aboard an oceanographic research vessel. They chose sample areas based on predictive computational models from hydroacoustic data and film the sea bottom along those areas. Simultaneously the marine scientists analyse the subaquatic footage via life stream in their shipboard laboratory.

In conducting research for this thesis, the author has followed a methodology of ship-based fieldwork and participant observation. They have interviewed Hafró’s marine scientists as their main interlocutors. Additionally, they have undertaken analysis of the cruise ́s scientific deep sea images, which have been handed over to them by the courtesy of Hafró as ethnographic source material.

Focusing on the material properties of both oceanic waters and of the bodies of those undertaking research, the thesis highlights the agency of the ocean as the co-creator of scientific data. Approaching, after Haraway (1998), natural as well as social science knowledge making as situated, embodied and material the author pays specific attention to the technologically embodied imaging practices and skilled vision of Hafró’s biologists, as well as to their own embodied research experience. This speaks to one of their main research questions, investigating how the materiality of human bodies and of oceanic waters matter to anthropological research done on and with the ocean. By considering embodiment in its material dimension, through investigating such phenomena as physical alignment and bodily fluids, the author highlights how anthropological research at sea is produced in inter- relation between bodies and oceanic waters.

The thesis moves on to examine how subaquatic imaging can be analysed as a useful tool to re-consider concepts of visual theory, such as performative viewpoints in camera practice. In order to critically analyse how filmic imaging techniques translate on and under the sea, the author draws a comparison between the experimental underwater footage of the ethnographic film Leviathan and the seafloor images taken by Hafró’s marine scientists. It uses the subaquatic images of both cases as visual entry points to read back registers of sight under water. It goes on to explore how these visual readings open up a surface- versus depth-perception of the ocean.

Concluding that Hafró ́s marine scientific images allow humans to dwell with the alterity of vision for other-than-human creatures of the deep sea, the thesis argues that the ocean invites its own type of visual sensorium that not only expands the physical articulations of vision but is a laboratory for what vision can be. The work concludes by opening up still more nuanced questions concerning non-visual modes of seeing, as prompts to further research.

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