Posts tagged ‘anthropology’
February 13, 2013
Francesco Bondanini, a University of Kent alumnus, uses participatory visual methods to explore and empower the lives of migrants and detainees in Spain and Germany. In the interview about his work below, he describes how the use of visual methods not only enables a greater depth of experience and knowledge, but more importantly, allows people to become involved and benefit from his work in a much more meaningful way.
Tell us about the project you are involved in right now?
I have just finished the first part of a project called “Marcaré” in Melilla. Together with a team we worked in the periphery of the city with vulnerable groups, mostly from Amazigh origin (Berbers). We used art and audiovisuals as a tool to empower people and as a means for them to recover their surroundings. It was a participatory project, in the sense that we worked together with young people and women with the aim to transform the area where they lived.
How and why did you get involved?
Knowing about my PhD, in which I used many art and audiovisual methods, Dr. José Luis Villena, a professor at the University of Granada, believed I could coordinate the project, and the Instituto de las Culturas, a public institution that works on cultural projects in the city, funded it. Together we started collaborating with local NGO Melilla Acoge with whom I had worked during my PhD, with the Red Ciudadana por la Paz, and with neighbourhood associations that made it possible for us to get into these areas.
‘Marcaré’ uses visual methods developed during your PhD: can you tell us about your PhD and how you started to use these techniques?
I studied Communication at the Lumsa University in Rome and I have always been very interested in Social Sciences; once I started my PhD I believed I could use what I learnt at University about photo and video in my anthropological research.
Throughout my PhD I broadly studied the situation of migrants dwelling in a particular place – the so-called European border zone. Specifically, my research focuses on the everyday-lives of migrants living in the CETI (Temporary Permanence Camp, as per its Spanish acronym) in the autonomous city of Melilla, a Spanish enclave in Northern Africa. Through qualitative criteria and analysis, I researched into the way a wide variety of migrants, such as Subsaharan Africans, Algerians, and Asians, rebuild their lives in this border zone. I paid particular attention to migrants’ strategies of integration and their structural and social exclusion.
In this research I used a participatory methodology that employs audiovisuals and art. I ran workshops on photo, video, radio and theatre to migrants and then debated the results with them. I also used audiovisual techniques during interviews.
What methods do you use in your current work and how have these developed from those used in your PhD?
During my fieldwork I used a sort of participatory approach with the migrants that were living in the CETI of Melilla. I ran audiovisual workshops; that was also a way to get in touch with migrants. Following these we organized exhibitions of their works, a Seminar and a theatre piece too. The visual work provided a way to create an open climate of opinion about their problems in the city, and a way to make their stories visible to the rest of the citizens. In the new project (Marcaré) I used the experience gained from the projects in my PhD and applied them within a different group and context. I worked with an amazing team, and with a higher level of organization (and a higher budget) we were able to reach more people.
What difference do you think visual methods make?
I believe the use of visuals is a way to make the work accessible to a larger audience. This kind of work sometimes risks not being so “academic” but I believe it helps to make some kind of advocacy. On the other hand, I believe in the approach that is based on the fact that the groups with whom we are working make the visual and artistic products; we often limit our role to coordination of activities only.
What happens to the work produced in this project?
I believe in the importance of showing the works, to prove what has been done and to share peoples’ stories and reach a wider audience. I spend a lot of energy preparing exhibitions within the districts of the people in order to show to the other inhabitants their work. These exhibitions are also a way to make visible ideas of transforming the surroundings. We also worked through performances, murals and artistic installations in the districts, and each of these enabled many other people to share and understand.
We worked a lot in a district called Monte María Cristina. We held three exhibitions of photos made by the young pupils that participated in our workshops. We usually held these in the Neighborhood associations that we had worked in for the original workshops. On one occasion some of the pictures were pasted on the walls of the district. At the opening of another, the pupils performed an “action painting” in front of an improvised audience.
We also painted two of the patios of the prison of the same barrio. The two murals were created and painted by the prisoners. This was the process: we presented our idea (to paint the patio) and told them to think about what they wanted to see in their patio, something they didn’t have or couldn’t see inside the prison. Karima Soliman, an artist who is part of the team, put together their ideas and sketches and then we moved onto the wall. We spent almost two weeks working with them on the mural, debating ideas and the painting process. This was one of the best experiences of the project; and this is how I conceive the participation approach.
Good stories? Bad stories? Things you would change?
Good stories: Fortunately many. Last week Trini Soler, a technician of the RNE (National Spanish Radio) that also collaborates in “Marcaré”, told me that she met a young pupil who had taken part in our radio workshop. The pupil discovered that Estitxu González, another member of the team, was performing a theatre piece and she decided to go. When the young pupil met Trini, she asked her when we would be going back to the Monte to follow up with the workshops, because she had lots of things prepared. We are possibly the first team that is using artistic and audiovisual tools to involve people, especially the younger people in cultural activities in these areas. The fact that the girl went to the performance of my colleague made me think that we are going in the right direction, trying to make culture delve into these barrios.
On another occasion, we painted a mural in a park in the Pinares, a zone in another marginal part of the city. When we arrived the park was in a bad condition. We followed the same process as we did in the prison; in this case working with young pupils. They created and painted the mural with the help of Manolo López, a professor at the Schools of Art in Melilla and part of our team as well. We were afraid that the mural would only last a few days before being destroyed, because as they told us, this is what normally happens. Instead, after almost six months the mural persists intact on the wall. The mural was our way to improve the park and give it back to the youth that are living there; to transform it into a space to play.
Bad stories: There are a few anecdotes related to bureaucracy and our relations with the Centre in Granada that was our partner in the project; unfortunately the relation was not so fluid.
I would like to continue with this project. We would like to transform it into a sort of Programme, i.e. something that could be permanent. The team is now working on parallel projects but we would like to start again with “Marcaré” in a few months, so yes, we would like to change into something bigger.
Have you noticed any changes in people through being involved in these visual projects?
Yes. I believe audiovisuals are a way to let people express their feelings. We gave them training and then they were able to express better their need to transform the reality where they are living or improve their quality of life. Audiovisuals and art give people the power to express themselves. We also tried to give them useful feedbacks and suggestions. Once a young student from a public school where we held a photo workshop confessed: “maybe I will not be a professional photographer, but I hope that in the future I will travel all over the world to immortalize every place and moment with my camera”.
How has your work changed through the process (academic and none)?
I started using Visual methods because I find it fascinating. Then I started to use participatory methodologies because I felt that the result of the interviews was better if I moved from behind the camera to beside the camera; making the subject feel more comfortable while he could manage the situation better. I believe that in this way I could reach different and better data, more in agreement with the kind of research I do. On the other hand, l believe in the methodology I use, because it gives me the chance to know the world I am studying from the inside; the workshops are a way to get in contact with people and establish relations that eludes from the duality of interviewer-interviewee.
When I started “Marcaré” I felt that I should be surrounded by a team of professionals of audiovisuals and art, for this reason I looked for people with this profile to join the team. As a result, the quality of the workshops and the works produced definitely improved.
What advice would you give to people trying to work in visual methods?
I would suggest they get in touch and talk with the people with whom they are filming, establishing the way to use visual methods. Sometimes these people feel uncomfortable but we don’t understand it. I also suggest trying to collaborate with the interviewee, in this way the work will surely gain something from the experience as well.
And what’s next for you?
I have just landed in Cologne (Germany). I will be here until June developing a research project funded by the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) at the University of Cologne that involves Spanish migrants living in the city. I will use visual methods and a participatory approach in the research. And as I mentioned before, we hope to take “Marcaré” to the next level in the not too distant future.
Francesco B. Bondanini (interview by Caroline Bennett)
For more info about the project MARCARÉ, visit:
Web (in English): http://marcaremelilla.wordpress.com/in-english/
On Facebook: Marcare Melilla: arte y transformación social
On Twitter: @marcaremelilla
January 26, 2013
Last week my friend Paul Christensen invited me to attend a ceremony of spirit mediums with him. The day was fascinating – full of sounds, smells and sights and whole new part of Cambodia I had not yet experienced. I spent the day taking photos (as usual), the full gallery of which can be seen on my flickr page here. I’ve also added a few below.
People in Cambodia mostly don’t visit spirit mediums to negotiate and understand the past; they visit them to deal with the present and plan the future. Between the pair of us (Paul and I), and many other researchers besides, we were expecting spirit mediums to be one of the avenues people used to negotiate the terrible period of civil war and conflict in the 1960s and 70s, and in particular the horrific violence wrought by the Khmer Rouge from 1975 – 1979. But this appears not to be the case. That period of history is not approached through ghosts and spirits; it is experienced and integrated into today’s life in a million different ways, some of which I am exploring in my research on mass graves. But the mediums are an important part of Cambodian life for a whole host of other fascinating reasons, and if you want to know more I’d drop Paul a line!
January 10, 2013
Back in August 2012 I spent a day at the Vietnamese floating village at Kampong Chnnang, central Cambodia. Lying at the mouth of the Tonle Sap Lake, much of the town of Kampong Chnnang spends half the year beneath the water. Allowing for this, many of the local people have adapted their lives and homes, whilst the local Vietnamese community lives entirely in a floating village; living their lives on the water in floating houses, shops on boats, and livelihoods which make the most of the surrounding water and wetlands: subsistence based on fishing and wetland rice farming. I took a lot of photos that day documenting the everyday life on water of the floating village, and I was fortunate to have some of the photos I took selected to be part of the Intimate Lens Festival of Visual Ethnography in Caserta, Italy in December last year. Now you can see the full gallery on my flickr page. Here’s a taster below. Enjoy!
November 9, 2012
‘Then tell me who that
me is, or the
you understood, the any of us….’
(excerpt from Human Atlas by Marianne Boruch)
A couple of months ago I had to have an operation. On fieldwork in Cambodia at the time, I flew to Bangkok, and following a couple of uncomfortably contained weeks in hospital, I was discharged from hospital clutching a folder brimming with papers – the record of my time in hospital. A few weeks later, on a sweaty afternoon in Phnom Penh, I sat looking through the folder and came across a CD of pre-operative CT scans. As I flicked through the images, I started thinking about my perception and conception of my body and its place in my interactions in the world, something I had become acutely aware of through being sick.
As anthropologists we are encouraged to reflect on our position within our work. But I had not really considered the place of my body within my research beyond its colour and gender. Thinking about the body is nothing new to anthropology of course; in 1935 Mauss wrote about the body as a tool for experiencing the world, and hundreds of others have examined it since, but as I considered the scans, I started to think about the place of the visual in this articulation. I spent the afternoon examining each image, fascinated by this exotic presentation of my self, at once both recognisable and completely alien. A central method in anthropology is the decentralisation of the self; that movement in perception back and forth between the known and the unknown, from that which is familiar to that which is not. Looking through the images I found myself experiencing this othering, and thus contemplating how we know our physical selves – our bodies – our ultimate research tools through which we interact, communicate and contemplate.
The physicality of the body is often de-emphasised in social anthropology in favour of approaches that examine the culturally constructed meanings inscribed on it, the symbolic aesthetics presented, or the performance of power that the body enables for example. But as I slowly recovered in the unbearable heat and humidity of Phnom Penh, the physicality of my own body was impossible to evade; it was impossible to think of the understanding of my body as simply a product of specific social, cultural and historical perspectives. Kirmayer argued that the body provides a ‘structure of thought that is, in part, extra-rational and disorderly’ due to its relation to emotional, aesthetic and moral worlds; my thought processes and engagement with the world and others within it were entirely disorderly at this time due to their connection to the physical and the altered control of agency of myself and others on my body. Examining the images, meanwhile, made me contemplate the relationship between the visual and the body: how much of our understanding of the body (our own and others) is influenced by what we see and how those images are presented, particularly in a medical setting?
These images were central to the relationships I became enmeshed in during this period. They also marked a distinct interplay of power relations. In his 1991 examination of terror in Northern Ireland, Feldman argued that power is embedded in the body and thus the body is an instrument of agency in power relations. Whilst I am not suggesting that my experiences are anything resembling those faced by people in Northern Ireland during the troubles, I certainly became aware of the power the body wielded – both to myself and to others – and it was through the imaging that power was often articulated. I lost the power of control and interpretation of my body and others gained it – only certain doctors could take the pictures, certain others could read those images, whilst still others could decide the actions taken on me. My ‘docile body’, to steal Foucault’s term, caused a period of ontological insecurity which lasted some time and it seemed, as I contemplated these images, that it was initially through the visual that I began to regain power over my body, and my feeling of self.
The interactions that occurred in the hospital, although in Thailand, were firmly embedded within Western medico-legal theories and histories. I wondered how a spirit-medium or soothsayer in Cambodia would interpret the pictures (particularly as I first got sick whilst visiting a mass grave), or how others would interpret them as a layperson. The images of my body were not simple transmitters of information. They were articulations of power, tools of communication, mechanisms of thought. As I travelled through my body, via the CT images, I experienced an odd disjuncture: my inners looked alien and animal-like and brought to mind the dehumanisation I had felt whilst in hospital. At the same time I felt belonging: I recognised elements of a body that exists only inside me – my peculiarly crooked spine for example, which bends at the top of my lumbar vertebrae, but which is invisible from outside to another person. I made a journey in understanding of my body from pure physicality and hyper-awareness of its workings to aesthetic appreciation and awareness of its symbolic nature.
Now several weeks on I am intrigued by the process my body has gone through, and part of my reflecting on this caused me to produce the visual journey through my body that you can see here. There is a form of Buddhist sect in Thailand that attempts to understand the cosmos by meditating over the corpse. Perhaps I am performing some such form of meditation; right now this period is central to my fieldwork experience and has informed my initial interactions with Cambodia. How does the way I use and view my body affect my communication and relationships with others and therefore my research? Have the physicalities and resultant impact on my sense of being affected my sense of self and therefore how I interact in the world? Certainly they did at the start. The images and charts provided a shared language to certain members of my social circle and were completely exclusionary to others including, at first, myself. What effect has this had on my understanding of my place in my fieldsite?
My current research looks at contemporary understandings of and relationships with mass graves in Cambodia. I feel a more embodied concept of how the body is used to influence and coerce people, how it can be a focal point of power relations, how our own understanding of ourselves is central to the understanding of the world we engage in. The bodies that fill the graves in Cambodia are perfect examples of the manipulation of power using the body. More than that, my understanding and views of the graves themselves has been altered through this visual approach to contemplation. The CT scans offer a slice of my body in time and space; they represent a small, fragmented part of a much bigger whole, which each image hints at but none shows. The graves that exist today in Cambodia are layered by years of living; each year as the rains come the layers move and elements of bodies begin to emerge before being hidden again – bone shards, small pieces of cloth – visible in part but hidden in whole and wholly incomprehensible if you do not know what lies beneath. As I think about my own journey through my body, I also start to think about relationships with the graves; this ebb and flow of visuality that at once both offers power and voice to those skeletons whilst simultaneously removing it. I don’t mean to be facile; I’m not trying to claim that my experience lends me any deep understanding of the graves, only that it has offered a new way of looking at them as they are manifested in everyday life.
I’m not sure exactly what the visuals of my own scans symbolise to me. The losing of myself perhaps – the loss of control over myself, and the uninvited and uncontrollable agency of other people within my body. The physicality of my interactions with the world. The place of my body as a tool of communication, and as an embodiment of power relations. The beautifully alien aesthetic of the body. And the way that something that I know and own so intimately is also something from which I am completely disconnected.
July 17, 2012
Not too long ago I was fortunate enough to be invited to be a discussant at the Göttingen Ethnographic Film Festival Symposium, Participatory – what does it mean? Participatory cinema and participatory video under consideration. Participatory is a word we hear with increasing frequency in visual anthropology, particularly in relation to filmmaking (indeed I have used and written about participatory video on this blog). But the word is often bandied about with little consideration to what it actually means, either in theory or in practice.
During the GIEFF symposium we spent three days talking about this term, and its practical applications. Turns out there is almost no consensus on how the term is used, with just about everyone using and understanding the term differently: from hardcore believers who advocate no input in the video / film-making process themselves, to others whose use of the term relates only to their seeking feedback from certain participants. To still others anything anthropological is participatory, because anthropological knowledge is built through intersubjective relations with others, and thereby participatory in their very nature. Neither did we come to a consensus on the term during the three days. But we did have a lot of interesting debates, some of which were fairly energetic, particularly those concerning whether the methods robust enough to be used in academic research?
Participatory video and participatory cinema essentially have two different theoretical foundations, but as time goes on and their popularity grows, the terms are becoming increasingly blurred. Evolving out of Development, Participatory Video (PV) is about working as a group to solve a problem. It assumes an issue to be dealt with, and insists on limited or no video-making from the ‘facilitators’, but on all elements of the video-making process being done by the participating community. But there are many issues caught up in these assumptions: to assume a problem in a community inevitably creates one, although it may not be the one that is the most important or pressing to various people in the group. To assume that a group or a whole community is inherently honest, cohesive and homogenous is both unrealistic and problematic. To insist that communities would be video-making if only they knew how, and we are the ones who can teach them that is both paternalistic and derogatory.
Participatory cinema meanwhile was a term initially developed by David MacDougall in opposition to Observational Cinema: participatory cinema encouraged an active participation from the film’s subjects, although mostly with the control being maintaining by the director / film-maker. It shares some intellectual concepts of Jean Rouch’s ‘shared anthropology’, not least in that in reality the levels of participation are somewhat limited and in some cases appear to be more a wave in the direction of a contemporary buzzword.
Narratives on participatory methods tend to be celebratory. Many filmmakers and researchers (myself included) have been somewhat over simplistic in their discussions on the subject, and whilst the positive aspects of the methods have been repeatedly emphasised, there is almost no critical discourse on the subject. It does exist (for example Wheeler’s (2009) article on her work in Brazil outlined several issues) but it is hard to find. One of the subjects that repeatedly arose throughout the symposium was the potential of participatory methods in anthropological research. Anthropology is about learning about other peoples’ worlds. This might be explored through participatory methods, but can we really learn the intricacies and nuances of life in a group? Anthropological knowledge is built on intimate relationships of trust, which are invariably built up one-to-one. How do you build trust and intimacy in a group? How can you avoid ‘invisible’ power relations from acting? Can you get to the discords that are so telling about informants’ lifeworlds? What about the missing voices: who doesn’t take part and why? Do participatory methods encourage a simplified version of events that ignores the complex nuances of community issues? Is a film made using participatory methods really any more ‘honest’ and ‘authentic’ than a more traditional film? What effect does the participatory method have on the actions and attitudes of the community?
The disjunctures that inevitably exist within communities, and the nuanced complexities of life are rarely (if ever) made apparent in participatory film or video, which almost exclusively present communities as cohesive, homogenous groups with shared aims and desires. As anthropologists we should be careful of presenting such simplified stories. On the other hand, good anthropology includes reflection by the researcher on their position, assumptions, presentation of the other, and effect on the research. Participatory methods potentially help this reflection, especially where participants have active control of the media: by enabling people to present themselves, participatory methods encourages the researcher to question their presentation of others, and it potentially can encourage a more collaborative, inter-subjective building of knowledge. In addition, using methods such as PV may allow us to align our research interests with the concerns of the community, which is an ideal ethical position.
To really explore the potential of PV as a research tool we need to push beyond the celebratory nature of most presentations and critically analyse both the potentialities for use, and our motivations for using it. We need to avoid the assumptions and paternalistic approach that so often accompany discussions on participatory methods: that they avoid hierarchy and power relations; that the story heard is the most important one; that everyone who wants to be involved is able to; that visual methods are the best (or automatically culturally appropriate) mode of exploration.
This post may sound extremely critical of the use of participatory methods. That’s not my aim: I think there is a strong potential in their use both as a research tool and as a means of encouraging collaboration and a more engaged, public anthropology. But before unquestioningly adopting these methods, we have a duty to ourselves, our discipline and, more importantly, to our participants to question our motivations behind their adoption, and to assess their place in our work. Only when we have asked these questions of ourselves, and addressed our concerns, should we jump in to participate.
July 10, 2012
Don’t worry if you were not able to make the screening and exhibition of Visual Anthropology projects completed by undergraduate students from the University of Kent this year, you can see the winning films here, and the photographic exhibition has now gone virtual below. We hope you enjoy it.
(You can also see the photos in all their glory on our flickr site here)
May 6, 2012
This post is posted on behalf of Gabrielle Fenton, a third year undergraduate at the University of Kent, and founding member of both TRIBE, and co-organiser of Breaking Bubbles, a conference supported by the RAI, the University of Kent and Radical Anthropology Group.
On the 3rd and 4th of March, I was one of many other anthropology undergrads from the University of Kent to organize a national undergraduate anthropology symposium. The theme was: Breaking Bubbles, Anthropology For Our Future. We weren’t quite sure what was going to come out of such an enterprise, but we knew that we wanted to meet other passionate students, to be confronted to other approaches to anthropology, to collectively aim at an anthropology that would be for the future. We hoped that as long as we created a good platform, interesting content would follow.
Over 100 students attended from 8 different universities, bringing with them their different anthropological backgrounds: biological, material, visual, social, etc… Over the two days, students presented projects and ideas on topics as varied as ‘human roots’ and ‘lived futures’, but through the variation, one theme was recurrent: undergrads want and need fieldwork, they want to physically engage with anthropology.
As an undergrad who sometimes feels that it is difficult to get out of a passive learning mode when sitting in a lecture room, this experience allowed me to engage in a much more dynamic form of learning. The presentations also showed how creative students are when enacting and using anthropology outside of their lecture rooms, such as a group of students from UCL who are trying to make anthropology available in primary schools. This creativity definitely enhanced my enthusiasm for the discipline, and I am pretty sure that this sentiment was shared by many others as the discussions after the talks were always very animated.
I think we succeeded in breaking bubbles, and that an anthropology for our future was a main driving force over the weekend. However, we do not see this as a finished project at all, which is why we have uploaded all the videos on this OAC page and invite every one to take part in the online discussion. You can also check out more photos from the event here. Also, the means that we used to create the platform were quite primitive and we hope to receive critiques and advice so that future events can break many more bubbles…
February 23, 2012
Ever wondered what visual anthropology is all about? What does it include, and what sort of research is conducted by visual anthropologists? We thought you might, so we’ve put together a short video compiling some of the work from the MA programme at the University of Kent, UK.
The programme teaches students a range of visual techniques to allow students to explore the world of anthropology – techniques ranging from still photography, to digital video making, to social media. With a number of external experts teaching on the course (for example the photographer James Kriszyk, the editor Alan Miller, campaign filmmaker Zoe Broughton to name but three examples), as students on this course we learnt a huge amount, not just about the academic applications of visual anthropology, but also how it can feed into the wider world at large, and ultimately therefore a more publically engaged anthropology. As a result our final projects have ranged from exploring life within a community of people with and without learning disabilities in Kent, to documenting threatened traditional medical systems in Ladakh, to looking at the impacts of their work on human rights workers, and much more besides. But enough from me: watch the video and explore what visual anthropology is all about yourself.
November 4, 2011
The use of visual research methods is often celebrated as a useful method in participatory research. But what happens when the research centres on vulnerable people, including people with quite profound learning disabilities? How can you conduct participatory research in these communities? Are visual methods appropriate?
During the research for my MA dissertation I had to confront all of these issues. I spent the summer of 2011 with the community of L’Arche Kent as part of the research for my MA thesis. My research explored concepts of home and community, and how it is within these structures that the community enables an environment of acceptance and equality for people with learning disabilities that is so rarely achieved in the wider society. The final product of my research was a dissertation in two parts: the film Living Together (above) and a written thesis (read it here).
Who are L’Arche Kent?
Part of the wider L’Arche International community (5,000 people in over 130 different countries), L’Arche Kent is a community of over 100 people with and without learning disabilities living in six houses across Kent. The severity of disability in the community varies from mild with only minimal support needs to profound with intensive one-to-one, or sometimes two-to-one 24-hour support needs. The ages in the community range from 0 – 60 something, and right now there are people from 17 different countries in the community.
Evidently, if I wanted to conduct inclusive research in such a community I had to use a method which not only cut across age barriers, but which was also understandable to people from different countries as well as accessible to people of many differing abilities. Which meant I needed a very accessible research methodology, something that would enable participation by even the most disabled people. And so I decided upon video.
Video lent itself to this research because of its flexibility and the number of ways it encourages participation between the researcher and the people they are collaborating with. It also meant I could produce a final version of the research which was accessible to the community. Video really lets people take part in a way that more traditional research methods do not. This is especially true with people who are non-literate and / or non-verbal, or with learning disabilities of varying degrees, who may not be able to undergo long conversations or interviews.
Cameras, video and TV are a part of everyday life here in the UK, and as such are understood and understandable to the majority of people. Add to this the flexibility that filming provides and we start to see some of the advantages of using this method: I had people filming me, filming themselves, filming each other, putting on plays for the camera (alone and in groups), directing me and each other, interviewing me and each other, helping in the editing, taking part just by being in the room and occasionally shouting suggestions. People borrowed cameras to film their own lives; some people simply enjoyed watching what was going on. The beauty of a camera (both still and moving) is the number of people who want to take part. And because people were having fun it made my research really easy – I had no issues with access, no problems with getting people to take part and most importantly no issues of people feeling disconnected and therefore exploited by the research. This also meant that the community had equal ownership of the project. All of these meant that most people within the community wanted the project to succeed as much as I did, which made a huge difference, and helped balance the ethnographer – informant relationship in their favour.
Using Steady Wings to improve accessibility
One of the major factors helping make video accessible in my research was the use of Steady Wings. Designed by filmmaker Leonard Retel Helmrich, Steady Wings are an amazing piece of equipment which offer a range of filming possibilities outside of the traditional norms. You can see them in use during Sarah’s portions of Living Together – nearly all of her filming was done using this equipment. In my research they helped make a camera easy to use for less mobile people, and less intimidating for many others – having the camera mounted on a set of Steady Wings allowed people to easily hold and move with the camera, pass it amongst themselves, or simply explore different angles and views – offering different views of the world, smoother movements, and the freedom to play without worry. They took the worry out of handling unfamiliar equipment and made it fun, and ultimately led to a much greater involvement by some of the disabled members of the community than I originally imagined possible.
Of course as with any research there are some aspects of using film that need care and consideration: informed consent was a concern; ensuring people understood what was happening was sometimes challenging, although not as challenging as managing the expectations of some members of the community who thought they were going to become famous Hollywood stars following my time in the community, and the one problem that I did not forsee was the difficulty in getting back some of the borrowed cameras at the end of the research period! Whilst some have argued that any research with vulnerable people is exploitative, I personally believe that so long as proper care and consideration is taken, these issues are no more complex in conducting research with people with learning disabilities than with any other group, and in fact film offers quite the reverse, allowing people to speak for themselves, rather than have others speak for them.
I really enjoyed my time with L’Arche Kent. As well as being integral for my MA thesis, the filmed work has enabled me to produce a number of shorts which L’Arche Kent are using on their website, and I continue to be involved in the community. My findings on home and community made a contribution to the literature, but in the end the learning I will take away from this was that research in difficult circumstances becomes, if not easy, then at least possible, if you use a method that allows people to be involved as much as possible and to feel really involved. I’m not sure there is a better method than video for this, but that point remains open to debate.
April 10, 2011
In her film Rehearsing Reality, Nina Simoes explores the lives and faces of Brazil’s Landless Movement and their struggle for land at the point of interaction with Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, a technique that breaks with the conventions of traditional theatre by transforming passive beings into active participants of a theatrical scene. As part of the Film & Advocacy Series, Nina Simoes participated in a Q&A on the 2nd of February 2011 concerning the above issues.