Visual Ethnography

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This blog was originally written for Camra, a collective of researchers and educators committed to participatory, experimental media making at Penn. 

Visual Ethnography is a camra affiliated course taught by Stanton Wortham and Amit Das. Designed as a year long course, it engages with the ethics, aesthetics and technical aspects of producing filmic representations of research. In addition to exploring theoretical issues, students are also required to produce their own films in groups. Here Fatima Tassadiq, a first year doctoral student in the anthropology department, blogs about her experience with this course and learning to film for the first time.

Post #1

24th October 2014

What is the point of working on an important social or political issue if the only people who are ever going to read your work are those who already agree with you? This is a question that started bothering me as I spent night after night holed up in the library writing up my master’s thesis last summer. I was working on the very controversial blasphemy laws in Pakistan and was frustrated by the fact that far from starting a conversation, my work would probably only be read by my two advisors who already knew more about this issue than I did. Even if I managed to publish a paper out of my thesis I would not even make a dent of a difference ‘out in the real world’. The proverbial man on the street does not browse JSTOR. Frustrated by this insularity of the academic world I started thinking about other ways of representing my work that would be more accessible to a non academic audience. I knew about Camra before I arrived at Penn this fall to pursue a doctoral degree in cultural anthropology. Film seemed like the perfect medium to communicate to a non academic audience. I remembered being blown away by Anand Patwardhan’s Ram ke Naam which explored right wing nationalism and Hindu militancy in India in the early 1990s – issues similar to those I have been working on over the last few years. But I wasn’t sure of how and where to start since my technological expertise with visual media starts and ends with taking pictures with my phone and instagramming them. That’s when I found out about the course Visual Ethnography being taught by Stanton and Amit. To my relief the course assumed no prior expertise. That was really all I needed to hear. It is literally my favorite course this semester. Not least because it is relatively less reading intensive than most courses – although we did have to wade through phenomenology at one point! In addition to the weekly readings we also have to watch an ethnographic and/or documentary film every week. This course has really made me aware of the huge breadth of innovative combinations of aesthetics, technology and ethnography deployed by film makers and how these have developed over the last century. Leviathan, for example was a complete revelation. I was surprised at the possibility of capturing the sensory experience of something like deep sea fishing through a visual and audio medium in a deeply visceral way. I practically felt nauseated by the raw images of slashed fish heads, unsteady camera movements that imitated the movement of the ship and the sound of fish being sliced, dripping blood and squelching boots. In addition to familiarizing us with different aesthetic and technological approaches, the films also help us grapple with questions regarding the relationship between film and the academia. Can an ethnographic film do the work of a written ethnography? How do you weave in social theory in a film without loosing the interest of the audience? Do we even want to do that? What is the point of working with a different medium if we just want to replicate the discursive strategies of the written text? These are the questions which we will continue to engage with as we start working on our group projects for the course. And that brings me to the most fun part of the course – the filming. When Amit first gave us our equipment kits, I literally felt like a baboon trying to use tools for the first time. But once you learn to put your ego aside and stop worrying about asking stupid questions, figuring out how to set up and use the equipment is pretty straightforward. The harder part is lugging around the equipment bags with your dignity intact. For my part I have become pretty good at ignoring half amused and half sympathetic looks of people watching a small person struggling with bags that look heavier than her. To make things worse I always refuse help because I am constantly haunted by the possibility of the benevolent stranger taking off with one of the bags knowing that I’d collapse under the weight of the second one if I tried to run after him. So yes, I’m pretty sure I’ve lost a couple of pounds over the last few weeks – and we haven’t even started filming yet! But we hope to start shooting this week. My group is making a short film on the experience of transitioning to graduate school. We have decided to focus on only two students so as to explore their experience in greater depth than would be possible if we took on more participants.  One of our participants is a first year doctoral student in the Economics department and the other is a first year in Wharton’s MBA program. I am really excited about exploring their stories which promise to be really interesting especially since one of them is an international student while the other is a war veteran. Watch this space for more as we start shooting our film!

Post #2

4th November 2014

After familiarizing ourselves with the filming equipment, Lindsy, Jiawen (my project group members) and I finally started shooting a couple of weeks ago. As mentioned in my previous post, we are making a short film about the transitioning experience of two first year graduate students as they adjust to a new life at Penn. One of our participants is Tina, a first year MBA student at Wharton and the other is Hira, a first year doctoral student in the Economics department.  I have to admit that one of my first experiences with filming was rather disturbing. We were shooting some A-roll with Tina and I was behind the camera while Jiawen was in charge of the sound. I was so worried about getting the right camera angle, sufficient sound quality, making sure the top of Tina’s head didn’t slip out of the frame as she leaned back on the couch and a million other technical details that I barely listened to anything she said. As a result, my follow up questions were sloppy and failed to probe several issues that came up. Talking in front of a camera is always hard. To make things worse I think I transferred some of my own agitation to Tina and stressed her out even more!  Moreover, I kept comparing ‘traditional’ methods of ethnography with this visual approach which only made me even more uncomfortable. For starters a pen and a notebook in the hands of an anthropologist are a lot less intrusive for the participants than a camera mounted on a tripod and a mic hovering over their heads. An anthropologist is to some extent always marked as an outsider but it is much easier to momentarily efface this distance between yourself and your subjects if you are not pointing a camera at them. In addition, it is always possible to refrain from note taking during an interview or while conducting participant observation in order to blend in and put the participants at ease. Your thoughts and observations can be jotted down and analyzed later. But a visual medium is inextricably tied to the present, the now. All your ‘data’ needs to be captured as it is happening. Given Tina’s wooden answers to my distracted questions, I was really tempted to pack away our equipment and settle down on the couch next to her and try and hold a more ‘natural’ conversation.  But I am really glad I didn’t. Reflecting on that slightly ‘traumatic’ experience with Amit and Stanton later made me realize that most of my anxiety was the result of my lack of experience. Once I got used to the equipment and stopped thinking of the camera as something with a life of its own I would probably be able to conduct an insightful interview and film it at the same time. I think I just need to keep reminding myself that my camera is not possessed and will not switch off on its own or stop recording sound if I don’t monitor it constantly and obsessively. Amit also gave us some really useful tips on ‘demystifying’ the camera for our participants in order to put them at ease before we start recording. Our next filming experience was much better because we let the participant play around with the camera and film her surroundings a little before we started the actual shooting.  It is also helpful to remember that our presence as researchers inevitably changes the situation being studied even in the absence of a camera. It might be tempting to think that a pen-and-notebook anthropologist elicits ‘natural’ responses from participants as compared to a someone working with a camera but the fact is that participants will always modify their behavior in response to the presence of an observer. Hence, it is not very helpful to romanticize more traditional methods of data collection as a means to capture ‘reality’ as it really is.

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