On ethnographies, documentaries and collaboration

(UPDATED)

The three films produced by Studio 12 and Left Eye Blind are online at the BBC Three Fresh Website:

Writing Britain: Mandlenkosi Maposa
“Live how you sleep. Live how you dream.” Ma reflects on the power of dreams in this uplifting
Writing Britain: Saph Holden
Addressed to Mr Cameron and Michael Gove the film is an agonizing tale of her teenage self and how she coped with the death of her sister at this time.
Writing Britain: Hassan Abdullahi
This film provides a poetical perspective on growing up in Leeds.

I strongly recommend that you watch them. As part of my ethnographic work with Studio 12, we did a supporting documentary for the films (below). There are multiple and interesting ways to explore collaboration between academia, third sector organizations, government and, upon all: people. Engaging in media production is one of them. As Sarah Pink states in her text: “Applied, activist and public uses of (audio)visual anthropology allow, in a very direct way, the experiences of those who are normally invisible to be seen and their voices and feelings to be heard”

 

More about the research

As part of an on-going research, I spent six months doing fieldwork in Studio 12 (from March 2013 to December 2013), observing how young people used, learned and engaged with media and arts production. This fieldwork was related to two projects, one about screen cultures and the other about the welfare reforms and its impact in different communities. I did participant observation[1], both inside the Studio and online watching the products that these young people used to produce (mostly music videos but also animations, films, photography and design). I also carried out interviews with several Studio 12 users. With my research I was trying to understand issues of ‘authorship’, ‘expertise’ ‘empowerment’ and ethnicity for individuals around Leeds and contrast these findings with claims about Digital Culture, creative industries and participatory culture. My main findings are organized in three interrelated vectors: The struggling of many of these young people to find opportunities; the city as the location of these struggles (as opposed to the space of the Studio that seems to nurture a different cognitive emplacement, extended by the young people’s use of online platforms); and, finally, the embodiment of these struggles in these young people’s identities.

As in any ethnographic fieldwork, I found key people with whom I engaged in longer conversations and with whom I created closer relationships and that were especially useful to illuminate my inquiries, they are what ethnographers usually call “key informants”. In this sense, Ma, Saff and Hassan were very open and kind to discuss their views about the world (which is the quintessence of fieldwork). They talked about their views of the world as informants of my research; but they also talked to me (and you, and everyone), as writers and actors through their films, and finally, they also talked to the project and to the Studio12 in the documentary. These different overt subject positions, as informants, as writers, as users of the Studio, have each differing consequences for notions of authorship, empowerment and how to positioning them in an ethnographic fieldwork. Each of these positions is equally pertinent and important to notice it[2].

But what happens when our informants, those from whom we’re trying to account are themselves reflecting on their own lives? What if the object of our academic inquiry (in this case the everyday struggle of people in an uneven society) is actually the content of three extraordinary short-films written by the same people we are writing about? How to make sense and be accountable for those for whom we speak when they raise their own voices in multiple ways and formats? What you are about to see could problematize these questions further. The videos in the Writing Leeds project could easily be understood as ethnographic. Not only because our three young writers talk about themselves, their lives, their communities and struggles in a reflective way but, because along with the cinematic production, they combine visually these accounts with a very powerful device in ethnography: imagination. And this is precisely one of my main findings about the Studio 12; it is a space to imagine (more on that to come). These short-films present thoughts that, more than “emic”, could be regarded as “epic”.

In Studio 12, young people are introduced, treated and recognized as musicians, producers, filmmakers, designers, animators, writers, etc. They are the “raw talent in the making”, as the Studio12 webpage states. While this could refer to the music projects or photoshopped images that the young users of the studio want to create, it could easily stand for their own identities. In Studio 12 these young users perform their ideas and visions about themselves and make them happen by creating digital media that extend that performance online: uploading videos in YouTube, creating artistic Facebook accounts, using twitter to talk about their latest song, etc.

It is not a coincidence that many of the Studio 12 users talk constantly about dreams (you’ll hear and see more about this in Ma’s film), because dreams are the territory where the imagination could meet the real feeling of it happening.

I like to think that my ethnographic work was an ethnography of the imagination, or, since the production of images and the digital world are central to perform that imagined self: an ethnography of imagenations.

[1] Interestingly, these observations were less “participant” than in other fieldworks I’ve completed, probably because the activities they carried out were highly individualistic and always in interaction with computers and screens

[2]And I thank Helen Thornham for making me notice it.

2 thoughts on “On ethnographies, documentaries and collaboration

  1. Pingback: Cerrando un ciclo I (Recuento académico) | Imagenaciones

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