Ethnographic Films: Supporting Visual Assignments

FestaEditor’s note: Dr. Elizabeth Festa is the Associate Director at the Center for Written, Oral, and Visual Communication at Rice University. I thoroughly enjoyed her presentation at IWCA 2015 and asked if she’d be willing to share more about the Center’s unique workshop.

Earlier this spring, our Center supported a graduate course in ethnographic research methods. The students were assigned to make short ethnographic digital films informed by a theory they had encountered in the course. The instructor wanted to introduce them to current film projects that embrace more experimental approaches to work in the discipline. I was intrigued by this opportunity to address visual argument beyond the familiar topics of slide design, poster design, and data presentation; ours is a relatively new center (we opened in 2012) and supporting visual communication is an important part of our mission.

Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 12.47.38 PMI designed a 2 ½ hour workshop in which we discussed some recent examples of visual ethnographic work (or film/videos of anthropological interest). I participated in a 3 hour film screening 8 weeks after the initial workshop to offer feedback on the students’ films alongside the instructor and film scholars and filmmakers from the Visual and Dramatic Arts Department. I was fortunate to share our vision for the workshop through an Ignite session at IWCA 2015 and later, to benefit from a broader conversation about visual engagement in writing centers at the lively roundtable facilitated by Daniel Emery, Holly Bittner, and Rachel Wolff.

The workshop that we developed was inspired by a film by Stephanie Spray that the course instructor, Cymene Howe, had seen at the “Ethnographic Terminalia” series at the AAA conference. The collective’s mission is to “develop generative ethnographies that do not subordinate the sensorium to the expository and theoretical text or monograph.” Defining “terminus” as “the end, the boundary, and the border…a site of experience and encounter,” the series encourages audience engagement, interaction, and discovery.   Spray’s film, much like an interactive digital media installation produced for the series by anthropologist and artist Lina Dib, an instructor in Rice’s Program for Writing and Communication, appropriates the visual as a responsive medium through which viewers might explore the nature of human experience.

We began our workshop by contrasting two very short digital stories by anthropologists,  “Participant-Observation” by Wynne Maggi and “The Machine is Us/ing Us” by Michael Wesch to demonstrate the difference between projects that depend primarily on narrative telling rather than filmic showing to make a point and those in which image and sound convey content and argument.   In the course of the workshop, we limned some of the historical values and principles of ethnographic film and contemplated how more recent digital projects draw upon, eschew, and/or transform these values. We referenced a variety of samples, not all of them ethnographies, to illuminate a range of interests, audiences, and tactics including photojournalistic work such as that produced by Media Storm; experimental projects at MIT’s Docubase ; non-profit “client work”; and activist, participatory and applied visual projects.

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