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Filmmaking and photography in anthropological research

TomMcDonald12 June 2014

Baby in fieldsite using Kiki Wang's camera (Photo: Tom McDonald)

Child in north China fieldsite explores Kiki Wang’s camera (Photo: Tom McDonald)

As part of the project’s ambitious plans for telling people about the findings of our research, I’m fortunate to have been able to collaborate with the incredibly talented and creative Gillian Bolsover and Kiki Wang who have just finished a short visit to the north China fieldsite, in order to produce a series of photographs and films with the aim of bringing the ethnography to life for people all around the world.

It’s been a particularly intensive week of work for us all, as I have been taking both of them around many places in the fieldsite, trying to introduce them to as many of my friends here as possible and to help them to capture as many different aspects of life in the town and villages as we can.

But I’ve found the exercise to be useful in another sense; it has forced me to reflect on the key relationships and friendships that I have made with people in the town during the past year of fieldwork. These people have been both great and wonderfully understanding about participating in our photos and films. I had assumed that they would be reticent about the process, but often they have been really positive about appearing in the films and see it as a chance to tell people around the world about their hometown and their lives. Traditional anthropological papers and books have always attempted to tell the stories of ‘faraway others’, but it is a shame that so few people tend to read ethnography. I hope that through these photos and videos I can bring the lives of the people in our fieldsite who have been so generous in participating in this project to more people and in different formats.

Having two fresh pairs of eyes in my fieldsite has also helped in other ways. Speaking with Gillian and Kiki over the past week and hearing their opinions on my fieldsite has made me reconsider aspects of my own ethnography and many times they have asked my research participants questions that I had never thought of.

It will take some time for the final results to be ready; however, what I have seen so far suggests they will be a success in every way. The entire experience of working with photographers and filmmakers has confirmed my belief in the value of collaborative anthropological research projects, which draw on the skills of people from all kinds of backgrounds. Before last week I was hesitant about conducting research that involved taking photos and making films, but now I honestly can’t imagine doing research without it.

The cost of an internet connection when there is none available

JulianoAndrade Spyer10 November 2013

Pots, pans, and an antenna on the left. Photo by Juliano Spyer.

Pots, pans, and an antenna on the left (Photo by Juliano Spyer)

Carcará is one of the songs that was popular among politically engaged youth of Brazil in the 1960s. Caetano Veloso’s recording of this song starts with the comment: “It is funny [to see] the force that things appear to have when they need to happen.”

The song describes how a small predatory bird that lives in the northeast of the country survives during the dry winter time by biting the bellybutton of young calves, consequently resulting in their death. The song is a sort of suggestive tribute to the bestial survival strength shared by the millions of illiterate migrants originally from that region.

I thought of this song the other day as I was visiting the home of a friend that is the president of the association of the residents of a squatter area in Baldoíno, my field site. Land invasions take a lot of effort to be legalised, and people must hang in there without official services such as electricity and running water while the government processes the claims and, if that is approved, make the new ownership official and distribute the documentation among the squatters. It usually takes many years to happen, but despite the odds, my friend was showing me his internet connected computer, which was the first of its kind in the neighbourhood.

You can see how important the internet is just by looking at the excitement of the family around the computer screen. But the process of connecting that computer was rather costly and involved ingenuity both from my friend and from the person that is providing him with the radio connection.  First, it was necessary to understand that there are products such as surge protectors that must be bought and installed in order to prevent the computer’s hardware from burning due to the instability of electricity supply. Additionally, a person – a friend of my friend – had the idea of re-selling internet connection and he found that it was possible to subscribe to a broadband service and transmit it by radio signal to places far away. He first studied this through YouTube videos and was then successfully testing the experiment by supplying our friend with his much desired internet connection.

I think the point of this post is self-explanatory: “It is funny [to see] the force that things appear to have when they need to happen.” Teenagers at my field site are crazy about the internet. It serves as a marker of distinction and as a place that is mostly exclusive for them to use in relation to their (normally illiterate) parents and adults in general. Parents seem to mostly feel favorably toward the attention their kids devote to using the internet, because then kids will stay at home rather than spending time outside the home unsupervised. They also will be doing something that  at least appears to be intellectual or related to the acquisition of knowledge. These are some of the reasons  the poorest people in my field site are pushing to find alternative ways to bring this service to their homes, especially in the case of squatting areas.