on cinematic anthropology, the use of sensation in ethnographic filmmaking

reflections from a sensory ethnography class at McGill University

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Professor Lisa Stevenson at the event. Source: Claire Avisar Professor Lisa Stevenson at the event. Source: Claire Avisar

To most people, the image of a farm on the outskirts of Montreal, the routine of a professional bodybuilder, and Afghan lullabies have little to do with one another. To students of the Anthropology department’s ANTH 408: Sensory Ethnography course, however, they represent the subjects of a semester’s worth of work documenting, creating, and reflecting upon the process of ethnographic filmmaking.

On January 20, held within the historic limestone walls of Thompson House, McGill’s Anthropology Students’ Association hosted the students, their friends, and professors of a class whose central work focused on sensory ethnography (a practice that privileges audiovisual representations of living subjects and rejects the mediation of dialogue, narration, or subtitles). Prefaced by a cocktail hour, this event provided its attendees an evening of food, drinks, and the chance to engage with the students whose work was showcased. With a…

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A Visual Research at a Shelter for the Dying in Kolkata (an Online Gallery) By Egor Novikov

The sketches, photographs and field notes collected in this online gallery were made in April 2016 during an anthropological fieldwork at Kalighat Home for the Dying Destitutes. The shelter is founded by Mother Teresa and run by her monastic order Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata (Calcutta)*. My research was focused on the life changing experience of the western volunteers working with the bare life of the marginalized Indians. I found this experience being tightly bound to corporeal phenomena: physical contact, monstrous images of suffering and transgression of spatial borders. Hence, the visual methods were irreplaceable while working with these hard-to-describe matters as well as for the consequent presentation of the research outcomes.

A few years ago the nuns of the order introduced a ban on photographs in the Home on the pretext of protecting human dignity. As one of the signs on the wall explains it: “…our patients are not animals”. While carrying out participant observation in the premises of the shelter as a volunteer, I had to go back to the old anthropological method of sketching inhabitants of the shelter and their daily life taking advantage of every break in service. The method came out being effective in many – often unexpected – ways. The work on the sketches gave me a reason to stay for a longer period focused in one direction, which usually doesn’t happen: the volunteers mainly spend their working time in constant movement. Thus I could pay attention to details and witness the slow pace of the patients’ life and their interactions.

Besides various side effects such as closer relations with nuns and other volunteers and involving them into my research the sketches provided me with a much more profound access to the values and the mental conditions of the disempowered patients of the Home. Brought to the shelter at the verge of death from streets of Kolkata they are predominantly silent and passive, subjected to the totality of religious charitable service of the sisters. In spite of multiple symbolical and structural borders which separated me (a western socially acknowledged volunteer) from them (nameless inhabitants of a human dumpster of Global South), we could establish a certain personal contact where sketching functioned as a universal mediator delivering multiple unclear but powerful messages through the linguistic, cultural and symbolic borders.

Clearly, when looking closely at the patients of the Home, processing the visual perceptions through my body and imprinting their images on paper, I functioned as a politically active subject objectifying their stripped bare life into a social product. Apparently, for these forsaken inhabitants of social bottom such recognition from a western stranger who embodied their image in an intimate act of representation often was an important experience. At some cases upon seeing their portraits usually apathetic people came out of their desperate indifference and showed strong emotions so irregular in their condition seeming almost frightening. Some of them found it important to write their names on the sketches. For instance, in one case a patient revealed his name for the first time since he got to the shelter asking to sign the portrait. Another one was asking me to let him see all the sketches whenever he saw me passing by with the journal in my hand, though I don’t know for certain what was that he found there for himself. Meanwhile, that might be another value of these brief visual reflections: they are tangible pieces of the field experience which bear imprints of various actors. They are points of attention where anxious gazes of the patients, the nuns and the volunteers cross, where all of them find essential meanings of their own.

A couple of words about the technical side: for sketching and the fieldnotes I used a moleskine-type A8 notebook with a waterproof cover (small enough to carry around behind the trouser belt) and a regular ‘Pilot’ gel pen. For the photo (also video) shooting I used a compact high-resolution mirrorless Ricoh GXR camera with a ‘normal’ 50mm lens, which provides a view angle close to that of a human eye.

*          Following a call from Virgin Mary Mother Teresa founded female monastic order “Missioners of Charity” in India in 1950. She started bringing critically ill people from the streets of Kolkata to an old shelter for Hindu pilgrims at the main Kali temple in 1952, which was the beginning of the Home for Dying Destitutes. Today the Kalighat Home gives place to almost a hundred of local people in critical health condition. About ten nuns and novices, a dozen of volunteers and a few paid workers provide daily care to the residents. A few patients die in the shelter every week. The Mission remains one of the most known symbols of religious charity in the world. For decades it has invoked severe discussions being an object of both furious criticism and blind veneration.

 

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Ethnographic Fieldwork Equipment That (Hopefully) Won’t Break the Bank: Camcorders by Matthew L. Hale (Indiana U)

from Anthropology News:

Ethnographic Fieldwork Equipment That (Hopefully) Won’t Break the Bank: Camcorders

Having considered digital audio recorders and cameras in the first and second installments of this four part series, I now turn our attention to digital camcorders. Once again, a disclaimer before I begin, this column is not an endorsement nor is it a review of any particular product, brand, or service. It is intended to provide student and professional anthropologists with an overview of the kinds of digital camcorders currently available on the market and to highlight several key features that one ought to consider when investing in or upgrading their field equipment.

Why a Stand-Alone Camcorder? 
As in the previous installments, we begin with a simple question: Why do I need this device? For most anthropologists, the answer is simple. You don’t. If you own a smartphone, tablet, or digital camera that will capture relatively high quality audio and video, these devices will suffice for most basic applications.

For many ethnographers, video footage functions as a secondary medium—a means to create better written texts. You might use video footage as a kind of audio/visual set of jottings, a tool for generating transcriptions that better attend to the embodied or material dimensions of a particular cultural practice, or a resource that could be incorporated into a conference presentation. In each of these instances, video footage is a means to an end, but not the end itself. If these are the sorts of methodological practices that your research demands, you almost certainly don’t need a professional grade camcorder.

If you intend to use video footage as a primary medium through which to produce and disseminate ethnographic knowledge, you’ll want to learn to use and invest in professional grade tools. This caliber of equipment will offer you precision controls, the highest quality audio and video content possible, long battery life, adaptable design features, and an ergonomic form factor. The downside to all of this is that it is going to cost you.

What To Look For
If you are on the market for a prosumer, or professional grade digital camcorder, there are several features that are essential for ethnographic research.

  1. Onboard stereo audio inputs with manual controls is a must. Minimally, you’ll want to have two channels (hence stereo) with independent gain or volume controls of each channel. While many small camcorders will feature a single 1/8” stereo input, this won’t be sufficient for your professional audio needs. You ideally want two separate XLR inputs (large round connectors that typically house three pin connectors) and “phantom power” (the ability to send power from your battery through your XLR cables to your microphones or other equipment).
  2. While automatic control features have become amazingly adept, you’ll nonetheless want to have manual control over your white balance, zoom, focus, and again, your audio. Although you might be tempted by touch screen technology, manual buttons are your friends. When you’re in the field, you’ll want to reduce the amount of work that you have to do to adjust a parameter on the fly—physical controls are simple, effective, and reliable and they will prevent you from missing a shot.
  3. If you are going to invest money in a professional camcorder, you owe it to yourself to try several devices out in person. You want a camcorder that feels good and balances well in your hands. You’re going to be holding this hunk of metal and plastic in the air for hours at a time, so finding an ergonomic and well balanced camera will help you reduce camera shake and will minimize the inevitable pain you’ll feel the next day after a 10 hour shoot (trust me on this). Your camcorder-to-be shouldn’t feel like a plastic toy. It needs to have some weight to it, but shouldn’t be too heavy. You’ll want to look for camcorders that fall in the range of 3-6 lbs. excluding the weight of the battery, microphones, and cables.
  4. Ensure that your camcorder records its data in a format that is compatible with your preferred editing software.
  5. Finally, although high-definition audio and video recording has become the new standard for digital camcorders, new 4k resolution devices are quickly flooding the market. While you might want to invest in these products—and this isn’t meant to discourage you from doing so—keep in mind that recording raw data at this quality will require that you have massive amounts of storage.

The DSLR: The Contemporary Ethnographer’s Swiss Army Knife 
If you are a investing in their your first camcorder, don’t underestimate the power and value of DSLR cameras. These devices are an excellent alternative to digital camcorders for several reasons.

  1. They are capable of producing both high-resolution still photographs and video. While some camcorders can produce still images (the Sony NEX series for example), they aren’t suited to this application.
  2. They have interchangeable lens systems unlike most prosumer level camcorders (exceptions are noted below).
  3. Although most DSLRs do not have XLR inputs or phantom power, you can easily sync audio captured from a stand-alone digital audio recorder to the video content that you generate with your DSLR.
  4. The price point of a suitable video capable DSLR is far below that of a professional digital camcorder.

Options At Various Price Points 
$100-$500

  • GOPro Hero4 (especially, though not exclusively for Point of View footage)
  • Any entry level DSLR camera, especially the Nikon D5500 or Canon EOS 7D.

$1,000-$2,000

  • Canon XA10
  • Canon XA 20
  • Panasonic AG-AC90A
  • Sony 96GB HXR-NX30 Palm Sized
  • Sony PXW-X70

$2,100-$5,000

  • Canon EOS C100 (interchangeable lens system)
  • Canon XA25
  • JVC GY-HM600
  • JVC GY-LS300CHU (interchangeable lens system)
  • Sony HXR-NX3/1
  • Sony NEX-VG30H  (interchangeable lens system)
  • Panasonic AG-AC 160

Salemann Photos and Blog Blurb

Jennifer’s Photo Essay Winter 2015: Blog Post

I wanted to take this course in order to learn how images can be used to tell stories about the past. Once a photograph or film is made, it automatically becomes part of the past, a past that is more or less recent. For my photo essay, I chose the media of photography to explore how I “see” my life here in Budapest through different gazes. As the title of my essay implies, I am questioning my own gazes in my changing role as a tourist-cum-resident alien. I am exploring my own recent Budapest past over the last eight months—both the ways in which I feel a member of various local communities, but also how I remain an outsider. This approach is very self-reflexive, but I find it parallels the duplicity of roles played by an anthropologist in the field. An anthropologist becomes an insider in some ways, but remains an outsider as well. While Budapest is not a completely foreign culture, it is not my home culture, and therefore it can serve as an anthropological field site. I have organized my images as diptychs to be read in relationship to one another.

NYTimes.com: Albert Maysles, Pioneering Documentarian, Dies at 88

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Albert Maysles, Pioneering Documentarian, Dies at 88

By ANITA GATES

Mr. Maysles and his brother, David, made notable films like “Gimme Shelter” and “Grey Gardens,” and received a National Medal of Arts in July.

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Copyright 2015 | The New York Times Company | NYTimes.com 620 Eighth Avenue New York, NY 10018

Making a trailer…without an actual movie

This post radically differs from the previous ones, as this short 2-minute movie that I made is not a documentary film per se. That is, when I was making it, I did not necessarily intend to bring together simple video clips, talking about Central European University and fusing them together to create a realistic video diary of the life at the university.

Rather, I wanted to assemble this promotional video for a student contest in a creative and unorthodox way. Considering the length of submissions (up to 2 minutes) and wanting to create a maximal impact in this short span of time, I chose to use a framework of a movie trailer. This framework usually delivers excellent results as in a very compressed way it gives the main idea/s about the nature of the film and what one can expect from it. Yet, regardless of great potential of such videos, I had faced one formidable foe here. I had raw footage to make a trailer out of it, but there was no actual and already-made film to extract pieces from in order to create a trailer. It is much easier to make a trailer when the full movie exists, than when it does not. Of course, I took lots of video shots of Budapest and CEU, but some of these shots got connected only when I was about to assemble them. In the professional film-making industry, a movie is done or almost done, and this is when people begin to copy certain shots from a movie into a trailer. For me, I just had a loose collection of shots that I had to link in a meaningful way.

On the other hand, working like this, from scratch is good because in trailers they usually want to hide the best special effects/best scenes or only show them for as little time as possible in order not to spoil the movie-going experiences for prospective audiences. In my case, I was able to use the best special effects (well, the best ones as represented by Ulead VideoStudio Editor anyways) and best scenes in the trailer itself, as I knew that there would not be a full movie coming out any time soon. Thus, in a real movie, the scene of fighting hussars (especially fighting for several long seconds) probably would not go into the trailer as it might spoil the experience for movie-goers. Yet, in my case it was ok to use it.

Since the trailer is about the university, I wanted to make a creative film about some sort of secret order or organization and, in this way, to make the trailer a memorable one. Also, the whole trailer is built on an idea of suspense. In order to capture the attention of viewers, one needs to set an interesting riddle in the beginning of the film and answer it only somewhere at the end, so the viewer will be forced to watch the entire clip. Thus, I dropped some remarks about the secrets of Budapest and the secret order and revealed this order right at the end of the trailer. Hense, I created a sense of awaiting climax which came at the conclusion of the film.

Cheers,
Nikolay

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