November 12, 2010
As part of our course, we are required to engage with the local community by collaborating with a local organization and producing a multimedia document that will contribute to their concerns and issues. This is part of a move towards creating a more engaged, public anthropology based on reflexivity, collaboration and advocacy. So, after several weeks trying to find a good placement location, today was my first visit to the Canterbury Open Centre, run by the independent Canterbury-based charity, Catching Lives.
The Canterbury Open Centre is staffed entirely by volunteers and is open from 9am until 1pm, Monday-Friday, to provide a variety of facilities to the homeless of Canterbury. This includes breakfast and lunch, showers and access to donated clothing. They also provide a mental health clinic, as well as dentist and GP services. I thought this would be a fascinating place to do a multimedia project that will not only benefit me, but the organization itself.
And so, today, I visited the Canterbury Open Centre after it had closed to the public and was shown around the building by Terry, the Deputy Service Manager. I brought a still camera with me, so that I could take photos of the location itself (a similar exercise to what we did in Week 1 of the course). As anthropologist and linguist Stephen Feld writes, “as place is sensed, senses are placed; as places make sense, senses make place.” I thought that getting a sense of the place – minus the people – would allow me to better understand the people themselves. They would clearly have their own senses of place and their own attitudes, feelings and associations with the Canterbury Open Centre so, perhaps, getting my own sense of place would help me understand this. What’s more, Jean Rouch writes in The Camera and Man that “the ethnologist should spend quite a long time in the field before undertaking the least bit of filmmaking.” This particularly influenced me in my approach; although there are obvious time constraints to this project, I thought I should not rush into it and, instead, take time to better understand the subject matter. Taking a few simple photos of the Canterbury Open Centre today, I think, allows me to do this.
November 9, 2010
In 1955, filmmaker and anthropologist Jean Rouch made Les Maîtres Fous, considered the first film of the ethnofiction genre. Ethnofiction, a branch of Docufiction, blurs the line between documentary and fiction, using actors and scripts (or, in some cases, improvisation) to portray and represent ethnographic issues. Although it is sometimes a difficult genre to define, according to Wikipedia (often a useful source in defining such contemporary terms), it can refer to “any fictional creation with an ethnographical background.”
The other week, we were lucky enough to be given a talk by a prominent figure in the study and making of ethnofiction films, Johannes Sjöberg. Working at the University of Manchester and focussing on the overlapping of Anthropology, Media and Drama, Sjöberg discussed his recent ethnofiction film, Transfiction. After 15 months of fieldwork in São Paulo amongst transgender communities, Sjöberg asked Fabia Mirassos and Savana Meirelles to use improvisation to act out scenarios that they felt represented transgender identity in São Paulo. As the film’s website explains, although Transfiction is a fiction film, “it is made as an ethnographic documentary where story and dialogue are created in the moment.”
Hearing Johannes Sjöberg speak and learning about ethnofiction reminded me of an article I read a few weeks ago, David Samuels’ Alien Tongues. In this article, published in the book E.T. Cultures: Anthropology in Outerspaces, Samuels speculates on what an alien language would sound like, whilst also revealing a lot about human language. As anthropologists often try to describe the “other” – or “alien” cultures – Samuels believes it would seem appropriate to discuss the anthropological aspects of the belief in real aliens. Suddenly, science fiction films such as Blade Runner, Planet of the Apes and District 9 came to my mind. I realized that many films (including science fiction films) can, to some extent, be regarded, as works of ethnofiction. Indeed, at times, some of the most powerful critique of present day culture can be found in fiction, where filmmakers create whole worlds, stories and characters based on the issues of today. Perhaps the genre of ethnofiction is wider than we imagine…
As well as being a pioneer of Cinéma Vérité (the genre to which his most famous work, Chronique d’un été, belongs), Jean Rouch is also widely regarded as one of the forerunners of the French New Wave movement. Therefore, we can compare, for instance, Rouch’s Chronique d’un été with Jean-Luc Godard’s New Wave classic Breathless, which depicts a realist 1960s Paris. Jean Rouch and Jean-Luc Godard were even friends, often exchanging ideas and critiquing each others films. French New Wave, in turn, was heavily influenced by the Italian Neorealism movement of the 40s and 50s, which includes a favorite film of mine, Vittorio de Sica’s Umberto D. This film follows the elderly Umberto, as he copes with poverty and desperation in post-war Italy. Typical of Italian Neorealist films, it aimed to reflect the difficult economic and social conditions of every day life, whilst also using non-professional actors and on-location filming. More recently, we have films such as City of God, which draws upon these traditions of the French New Wave and Italian Neorealism, depicting organized crime in Rio de Janiero and using actual residents of the favelas as actors. This brings us nicely back to Sjöberg’s Transfiction.
To briefly sum up, as Jean Rouch points out in his article The Camera and Man, there has been a close link between anthropology, ethnography and film since the very dawn of cinema itself. And, since 1895, when Felix Regnault used “time sequence photography” to study the movement of the human body in motion, it is clear that this link has evolved in countless ways. Many anthropologists, such as Jay Ruby or Marcus Banks, claim different, sometimes quite narrowminded, definitions of what they call “ethnographicness” in film and photography (Ruby, it should be pointed out, believes only an anthropologist can make a true ethnographic film). But, in my opinion, “ethnographicness” is not even something found exclusively in documentaries, although these are, perhaps, the only types of films where “ethnographicness” is intentionally made explicit. Many films, whether we realize or not, may contain aspects of ethnofiction and, to varying extents, use fiction to deal with anthropological issues. I think the genre, if we can call it that, really is wider than it seems.
November 8, 2010
I fell upon an article earlier which looks at the way rock engravings, far from being simple visual representations, have a far more sensual aspect to them, in which sound and feeling is as important as vision, at least within the San of Southern Africa. It’s very interesting, and well worth a look:
Ouzman, S. (2001) ‘Seeing is deceiving: Rock Art and the Non Visual’ World Archaeology Vol 43(2) – Archaeology and Aesthetics (october 2001). Pp 237 – 256.
November 5, 2010
Anthropologists, such as George Marcus, have often discussed the effectiveness of photos and film in comparison with text. But, for now, I would like to leave this debate aside to discuss what I think is an even more fundamental issue: determining the “meaning” of images. In the course so far, I have found that determining the “meaning” of an image (if such a thing exists) is an extremely difficult task on a variety of different levels. As someone who has a background in the visual arts, I think any understanding of any image (which, of course, is central in Visual Anthropology) must begin with a basic, elementary understanding of the philosophy and psychology of the medium itself before moving onto cultural and anthropological critique. So, during the first week, we were asked to take in a photograph, that we had taken ourselves, to our seminar for Visual Anthropology Theory (SE859). I brought in the photo above, which I took on a short visit to Paris earlier this year (the photo, coincidentally, looks almost exactly the same to a scene from Jean Rouch’s Chronique d’un été!) We were then told we must analyze each other’s photos, according to Marcus Banks’ three questions he poses for use in social research with pictures. These three questions are:
i) what is the image of, what is its content?
ii) who took it or made it, when and why?
iii) how do other people come to have it, how do they read it, what do they do with it?
While these questions represent one way of determining the “meaning” of an image, this opens up a whole other set of questions revolving around photography, visual media and the discipline of Visual Anthropology itself. As this is the first post in my blog, I would like to briefly introduce some of the important questions I have come across in my reading and experiences so far. I will do this, as I will in the rest of my posts on this blog, by discussing both my work (in this case, the photo I brought into my seminar) and the theories, opinions and research by other anthropologists I have read.
I found John Berger’s article The Ambiguity of the Photograph particularly thought provoking in its discussion of photography. Berger argues that photography’s raw materials are light and time, creating “unforeseeable consequences,” which he goes onto describe. His main argument is that, if we are shown a photo, there is irrefutable evidence that the event photographed existed. However, we do not know anything about this event. According to Berger, a photo preserves a certain moment in time, which isolates it, disconnecting it from time itself. But “meaning” is created through what connects; without connections, without a story, there is no meaning to anything (for instance, numbers and facts alone have no meaning). Therefore, when a photographer takes a photo, he is choosing or creating a representation of an event that gives it an appropriate past and future and, hence, a “meaning”. Of course, viewers of a photo may choose to apply other versions of a past and future. So, although it is irrefutable what a photo is of and that the event pictured existed, its “meaning” is unknown. Can a photo ever show “reality” or the “truth”? Berger concludes that “all photos have been taken out of continuity” and, most importantly, that “all photographs are ambiguous.”
But, of course, as Berger says, photos are also a “cultural construction,” not least in the sense that a photographer chooses what he wants to photograph (and, more importantly, what not to photograph). Of course, photos and photography are “cultural constructions” in more ways than just one, as I have seen in other readings. But, I thoroughly enjoyed Alan Klima’s article Corpore Obscuro: Meditation on the Dead in Thailand, which I thought exemplifies one aspect of this issue very well. According to Klima, Buddhists in the Thai monastery of Toong Samakhi Dhamm Temple meditate over corpses in meticulous detail, in order to confront the inevitability of death. After studying the corpse itself, the monk has a detailed image of the body in their mind that they can focus on as they meditate day after day for weeks on end. They literally obtain a photographic image of the corpse in their mind, so the actual physical object itself is no longer needed. This practice is strikingly similar to photography itself and, it is therefore quite ironic that the Thai government has forbidden the use of real corpses (as a result of British tabloid newspapers depicting the practice negatively) in favour of actual photographs. As a result, many Buddhist temples will, according to Klima, have autopsy photos on display to the public, often with captions reading “I was once like you. You will one day be like me!” I find this fascinating for two reasons. Firstly, it almost undermines Berger’s view that “all photos have been taken out of continuity”; rather, the Buddhist monks use photography to instill a sense of continuity in their lives. Secondly, and most importantly, Klima’s article shows that photography is, indeed, a cultural construct and that different cultures use it in different ways.
A similar point is made by Stephen Sprague in his article Yoruba Photography. In this article, Sprague explains how the Yoruba tribe in West Africa have largely replaced their traditional sculptures with photography and, in the process, created a distinct photographic style with very particular rules and subject-matter. Essentially, photography has been integrated into their existing culture. Whilst questioning whether photography is “universal” (rather than an art-form and mode of representation specific to the “western” world), Sprague concurrently highlights Berger’s view of photography as a “cultural construction.”
Now, let’s return to my photo. In the seminar, as the others analyzed the photo, people speculated on a variety of different aspects of the image. It was first thought that my photo was taken in a foreign country – perhaps the south of France. People questioned how long I waited until I took the photo. And, interestingly, it was thought that the photo must be of a place I was not familiar with; I had, apparently, clearly taken it out of discovery and curiosity. However, I found it amusing that nobody asked, for instance, whether or not I knew the people in the photo or with what sort of camera I took it with – both of which I thought would be crucial questions in understanding the meaning of the photo to me. In reality, I had waited perhaps 10 minutes to take the photo with a clear idea of how I wanted the photo to turn out. I did not know anyone in the photo, although Paris is a special city to me (I lived there for several months a few years ago). What’s more, I had taken it with a black-and-white disposable camera, something that I thought added novelty and interest to the photo. Yet, to others the “meaning” of the photo was entirely ambiguous: all they could do is speculate. So, I think that, while Banks’ three questions for social research with images are certainly useful, there is clearly much more to it. Photos are taken for many different reasons by many different people, for a variety of purposes and are then seen in a totally different way by different people and different cultures. We can barely agree on whether a photo really does represent the “truth” or “reality,” let alone what it means to someone.
November 5, 2010
Can a photo ever be the material realisation of the relationship between photographer and subject? This diagram explores the relationship between the subject and the photographer, and whether it can ever meet in the middle and become a true collaboration, or whether some vestige of power always still remains with the photographer? I’m just not sure…