October 31, 2011

Visual Research Materials from Data to Knowledge

Camera is 'weapon' Visual Ethnography

Above I described our video tours of my informants’ sensory homes. I encouraged  my informants to discuss and show what most interested them. However, our interviews were structured by my research objectives and, unlike observational cinema, a checklist scripted each tour. We had just one hour of tape and rather than waiting for events to unfold we consciously used this technology within a constrained time period to explore and represent each informant’s home and to discuss human and material relationships, sensations, identities, emotions, memories, creativity and activity associated with this domestic space and its material and other agencies.
The videotapes are consciously framed realist recordings and products of this experience. They also show my own subjective ision of my informants’ homes and are a product of the intersubjectivity between my informants and myself and the material context we worked in. The tapes thus represent simultaneously my view through the camera and my informants’ own representations of their selves and homes (performed to myself and the camera).Their content might be analysed to produce conclusions about how they presented self and home on video. However, the tapes are clearly not direct realist representations of the everyday lives of my informants. This does not mean they reveal nothing about how the relationship between self and home is articulated and produced in everyday life. Indeed, our task included discussions and demonstrations of how everyday domestic activities were performed. Thus my informants described through embodied performance and visual and other sensory props what mattered to them about their everyday activities and the objects and sensations they involved. These were likewise not realist representations, but expressive performances of the everyday. Henley suggests defining ethnographic film in terms of how it was produced. Drawing from the parallel between observational cinema and participant observation, he argues that both represent the common belief that ‘understanding should be achieved through a gradual process of discovery, that is, through engagement with the everyday lives of the subjects rather than by placing them within predetermined matrices, whether a script in the case of the filmmakers or a questionnairein the case of anthropologists’ (2000: 218). According to this definition of conventional ethnographic discovery, my tapes would not measure up to the yardstick of good ethnography. However, new research contexts demand new approaches. This is particularly pertinent for work that bridges the gap between applied and academic anthropology, and I take this issue up in chapter 5. It is also an important issue for academically driven projects. Following Miller (2001a), we need to rethink research methods to work with individuals in the intimate spheres of their lives. Moreover, as argued in the 1990s (for example,  Amit 1999; Kulickand Willson 1995), new ethnographic narratives that depart from notions of discovery and exploration are more appropriate in circumstances where the everyday lives of researchers and informants are not separated by great geographical or cultural distances. This implies a range of researcher–informant relationships: Miller classifies research in the home as intrusive in its impact on informants’ lives, and Cool seeks to represent her informants’ voices alongside her academic voice. By working with a video camera I invited individuals to present their own versions of the intimate worlds they inhabit. Each tape tells me a story about an individual’s life in and relationship to her or his sensory home, comprising a case tudy – often biographical, frequently self-reflexive – containing knowledge and representations that were verbalised, visualised and embodied. As ethnographic footage the tapes are descriptive, but informed and shaped by the anthropological principles and questions that structured my interview checklist. If my research had a discovery story this was the narrative of my own journey of comparison and difference though different homes. Although my video methods departed from the principles of participant observation, they were informed by my training at the Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology (University of Manchester), where I learnt reflexive observational ethnographic film methods. For Ruby reflexivity is key, achieved when ‘the producer deliberately, intentionally reveals to his or her audience the underlying epistemological assumptions’ behind the particular ways she or he formulated and sought answers to questions, and presented her or his findings (2000a: 156), and is synonymous with ‘proper’, ethical anthropology (2000a: 167). My interviews unfolded as conversations, rather than questionnaires, making the relationship and intersubjectivity between researcher and informant clear, and acknowledging the role of the camera. Pushing the definition of observational cinema further, the tapes are observational and reflexive because they are about a research experience. My video footage references the observational and reflexive strands in conventional ethnographic film, but is not best classified as observational cinema. The tapes also represent some of the dilemmas and departures of doing  ethnographic research in the home as expressed above by Cool and Miller. By developing a methodology that reflects the concerns of both written and filmic anthropology I hope to have produced materials that are relevant to both. The remaining question is how these materials can be published in a text that will also be relevant to both written and visual anthropology.

Courtesy of The future of visual anthropology : engaging the senses / Sarah Pink Routledge.                          2006.

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