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Aynur Kadir

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October 21, 2016

Multimodal Ethnography and the Possibilities for Engaged Anthropology

October 21, 2016 | By | No Comments

In our scholarship, we strive to strike a balance between anthropological theory-building and social engagement. To do so we use digital technology – inexpensive cameras and social media platforms – in our respective ethnographic projects. Our turn to the digital began during graduate school when we, along with faculty and fellow graduate students, imagined and developed camra. camra is a University of Pennsylvania organization dedicated to multimodal and community engaged research. Here we briefly discuss the ways in which digital technologies provide avenues toward achieving a more collaborative and engaged anthropology. Collaboration has been part and parcel of our discipline since its inception. The digital offers a way to explicitly broaden the scope of collaborative engagement in ways that allow not only for greater participant involvement but also to foster cross-disciplinary projects that put anthropologists in conversation with colleagues in the academy and beyond who grapple with the pressing issues of our time.

Taken from Sweet Tea, portraying E. Patrick Johnson’s performative work on the lives of Black Gay men in the South and his long term relationships with them (2015).
Sweet Tea, portraying E. Patrick Johnson’s performative work on the lives of Black gay men in the South and his long term relationships with them. Photo courtesy Nora Gross

camra was launched in 2011 as a forum connecting graduate students with established scholars interested in legitimizing non-textual production. Our small collective first organized a speaker series followed by a media festival at UPenn that celebrates scholarship at the intersection of ethnography and the audio-visual.  As we developed camra, Philadelphia community-based organizations were eager to learn, partake in and integrate our digital approach to knowledge production. Various institutional actors within and outside of the University of Pennsylvania reached out to us to see if camra members were interested in partnering to create audio-visual work. Projects emerged that allowed camra members to experiment with a digital methodology before they began their dissertation work.

From Dattatreyan’s collaborative film project, Cry Out Loud: Hafes is getting to know the equipment on a wintry day in Delhi (2013).
From Dattatreyan’s collaborative film project, Cry Out Loud: Hafes is getting to know the equipment on a wintry day in Delhi.Photo courtesy E. Gabriel Dattatreyan

In 2013, two camra members developed a filmic and photographic essay on the after-effects of an asbestos plant in Ambler, Pennsylvania (Tarditi and Zuberi). camra members also worked with the Penn School of Design and the Ward to create two short oral history films about Tindley Temple Church, one of the oldest Black Methodist churches in Philadelphia. Other projects that emerged include an HBO-funded short documentary series, two experimental metafilms featuring the travels of a Rastafarian community in South Africa, a PEW-funded film on scientific racism and the Morton Skull collection, the film project Sweet Teabased on E. Patrick Johnson’s performative scholarship concerning the lives of Black gay men in the south and a curated installation in collaboration with Ethnographic Terminalia.

Shankar with students as they begin participatory photography project (2013).
Shankar and students’ participatory photography project. Photo courtesy Naveen Kumar

camra influenced each of our unique audio-visual ethnographic projects as well. In 2012, Dattatreyan began an ethnographic project in Delhi, India with young migrants who were coming of age in an era of post-economic liberalization. He produced several music videos with his youthful participants as well as a feature length film with a group of young Somali refugees, focusing on the racialization of Africans who make the city their home. They screened the film at Khoj Arts in South Delhi to a large audience soon after a series of violent racialized incidents against Africans living in South Delhi. The screening fostered a dialogue around the politics of difference amongst a broad spectrum of South Delhi’s residents. Dattatreyan’s forays into audio-visual projects enabled participant driven ethnographic opportunities, created public discussion around pressing social issues and have fostered ongoing collaborative projects with Delhi based artists and academics around the growing salience of race and racism in urban India.

In 2013, Shankar began research in Bangalore, India working with both NGO personnel and rural youth to understand the changing nature of development. He conducted a participatory film and photography project intended to complicate simplistic representations of village life. Youth in one field site worked in groups of three to articulate what they found curious about their rapidly changing lives. They effectively reversed a dominant gaze that traditionally saw them as impoverished, deficient, and “in-need-of-development” through their playful performances on and off-screen. The collaboration also produced a traveling photography exhibit mounted at their school as well as several university contexts. Shankar’s theoretical insights were heavily influenced by these visual co-productions and shifted how he articulated ideas of aesthetics, auteurship and value.

From Shankar’s participatory photography project: Naveen, ninth standard student, takes shadow selfie against the backdrop of his home (2013).
Naveen, ninth standard student, takes shadow selfie against the backdrop of his home. Photo courtesy Naveen Kumar

Both camra and our work parallel the multimodal turn in anthropology. Ethnography, as a method by which to understand and engage the world, creates opportunities for collaborative knowledge ventures. We suggest that the digital image is opening the aperture of social life in a way not seen before. What we once perceived as bound and local is now clearly saturated with global connection. Here we use aperture and saturation to point to the relationship between the ways we see as anthropologists and the choices we make when we take photographs or film. What our work with camra has pushed us to confront is how our discipline should grow as we explicitly and consciously open its aperture in a media saturated world and strive to consciously integrate ways of seeing that challenge disciplinary understandings while engaging with the pressing problems plaguing our world. Given this, perhaps the question at hand is how we might open the aperture of anthropological knowledge without risking oversaturation. One answer, suggested here, is to consciously integrate the digital into our anthropological imagination, both as theory and practice, an approach that attends to global circulation, audience, collaborative praxis and the ethical and engaged possibilities therein.

 

 

camra members included above are Sandra Ristovska, Emily LaDue, Kate Zambon, Mariam Durrani, Matt Tarditi, Jabari Zuberi, Tali Ziv, Corrina Laughlin, E. Gabriel Dattatreyan, Nora Gross, Arjun Shankar, Andrew Hudson, Melissa Skolnick

Jens Kreinath and Jennifer Reynolds are the editors for the Society for Visual Anthropology

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