Advantages of a Multimedia Ethnography

As mentioned in the previous section (About the Project and Methods and Theory), during the course of this research project many changes and adjustments have been made concerning the use of appropriate research methods, the adaption of the research questions and the thematic emphasis, the embedding of the gathered data into the theoretical discourse, and eventually the shift from the initial goal of producing an ethnographic film, to creating this website. After we returned home from fieldwork and began to extend our knowledge concerning different strategies of working with visual material in the field of ethnographic film, we came across a very promising approach established by Jay Ruby. In his text A future for Ethnographic Film?, he elaborates his search for an appropriate way to ‘publish’ his findings, which also included a more active engagement of the often rather passive audience:

Soon after I started this study, it became clear that I could not successfully publish my findings in a film or book. As I shot more and more video footage, I could see that these media would not allow me to convey the anthropological insights that I was beginning to discover. So I started considering alternatives. I knew I needed to be able to include the texts that I was writing and the photographs of the community and family snapshots. In addition, I had come to the conclusion that I could not edit the videos I had shot into a coherent film. I therefore selected clips that allowed people to talk about their lives in a manner similar to a life history. Finally I needed to find a way to put all these media together in a way that would allow people to understand the ways in which they enhanced each other. So I started experimenting with various interactive, multimedia solutions. (Ruby 2008, 8-9)

From this perspective ‘ethnographic video’ does not need to conform to specific film styles or conventions. Rather, it becomes ‘ethnographic’ when it is used as such. Therefore video representation of any length or style that are used to represent ethnographic knowledge may be referred to as ‘ethnographic video’. (ibid.)

Some clips may be realist references to actions and events that respect the order these occurred in. Other might be edited to represent ‘real’ sequences of events, that divert from the original chronology of the footage. (Pink 2001, 148-149)

After a thorough examination of our raw footage and the written accounts and photographs we had accumulated, we went through a similar search: “By examining how different visual and written materials give meaning to one another, […] some video footage is best used as realist recording, while other sequences communicate expressively” (Pink 2001, 141). Due to the comprehensiveness of the various topics we dealt with during our research and the broad subject matter of trying to convey the experiences we made at Olala Farms to the audience – such as trying to recreate the atmosphere surrounding the place – we also felt the need to combine our videos with text and photographs. On the grounds of trying to communicate our ethnographic insights, that were gathered and produced with the aim of reaching some sort of ‘holism’ of everything we experienced during our four-weeks on the farm, we also needed to find a way of putting together all the different and complementary media to accurately present our insight. Just like Ruby, we also felt the need for the viewer to play a more active part, because our aim was to convey our own experience of arriving at the farm, not knowing much about the place, and starting to explore the property. Seeing as we only spent four weeks on-site, we only managed to document, explore and study a fraction of the ‘totality’ of Olala Farms, which lead to the idea of letting the viewer actively explore the farm in a similar way we did, but in his or her case by means of using this website. The aim was to get the viewer to understand how this data was gathered, what methods were used, and how we actively and subjectively experienced the entirety of our research, consequently we “wanted them [the audience] to be self-conscious and thinking throughout the experience”, comprehending our research process as a whole (Ruby 2008, 7). It should be clear that we, agreeing with Ruby, don’t believe “that film can never be an expression of anthropological knowledge” (ibid., 6) without a complementary text. Therefore, we needed a platform of research presentation through which we were able to keep the audio-visual material (resp. ethnographic video) as the core of our research.

Since we collected roughly 50 hours of audio-visual material during our four-week period of conducting fieldwork, we argued in the previous texts that we did not simply use video as a data collecting tool, “but as a technology that participates in the negotiation of social relationships and [as] a medium through which ethnographic knowledge is produced” (Pink 2001, 138). On this account, we want to address the meaning we attribute to the ‘audio-visual material’ that we produced, and use Sarah Pink’s term of ‘ethnographic video’, “to refer to any video footage that is of ethnographic interest or is used to present ethnographic knowledge” (ibid., 139).

Therefore, after thorough evaluation of the ‘ethnographic video’ we accumulated while conducting our fieldwork, we came to the decision that we “could not edit the videos […] into a coherent film” (Ruby 2008, 9) without having to omit most of what we intended to present and communicate to the audience (as elaborated above). However, “[w]hen video plays a key role in the research it seems appropriate to incorporate video in its representation. This does not necessarily mean editing a documentary ethnographic video, but, for example, using video clips, stills or transcripts in conference presentations or hypermedia texts, or with written descriptions in printed publications” (Pink 2001, 142).

Consequently, we decided to represent our research by incorporating ‘ethnographic video’, text, photographs, and hyperlinks on a platform – in our case this website – with “no defined beginning, middle, or end” (Ruby 2008, 10). This way of representing and communicating ethnographic insight created new and appropriate opportunities of dealing with the countless hours of ‘ethnographic video’ at hand. The “[f]ootage of activities, actions, events, interviews, landscapes […], or other visual aspects of culture can be carefully edited or simply [be] selected as unedited footage. While a set of clips may not fit together coherently as a full-length documentary narrative, they may be combined with written or spoken words, sounds or stills to tell another story. Each clip may itself represent a short story, demonstrate an activity, or represent an informant’s spoken narrative or visual self-representation” (Pink 2001, 148).

 

By working in this manner we began incorporating ‘ethnographic video’ in the form of (edited and unedited) clips throughout the website: adding written descriptions of the clips if necessary, adding photographs and excerpts’ from selected interviews, provide information of how the different media enhance each other, use links to connect the different pages with each other, or to include links “to Web sites that expand on things that are only superficially covered on the original page” (Ruby 2008, 10). This alternative way of representing our research made it possible to choose from different options in how to use each ‘ethnographic video’ - depending on our vision of how we intended to situate the ‘clip’ in relation to the other media (i.e. such as text). Leaving each video clip to tell its own ethnographic story:

Apart from these advantages of incorporating ‘ethnographic video’ in the representation and communication of ethnographic insights about the activities, the people and the atmosphere surrounding Olala Farms, and our own personal experiences we made, the nonlinear fashion, with no clear beginning, middle, or end, that is encompassed in the use of a website, turned out to be very rewarding as well. Because this research was conducted on the basis of rather explorative research questions, a nonlinear approach gives the audience the possibility to “ignore anything that doesn’t interest them”, and the provided links “allow anyone interested to pursue a topic in more depth" (Ruby 2008, 10). We conclude that this alternative way is best suited for the presentation of our research and for conveying ethnographic knowledge to the viewers and readers.

References:

Pink, Sarah. 2001. Doing Visual Ethnography. Images, Media and Representation in Research. Sage Publications: London, Thousand Oaks and New Dehli.

Ruby, Jay. 2008. “A Future for Ethnographic Film?” In: Journal of Film and Video, Vol. 60, No. 2, pp. 5-14.