Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Ethnographers That Record A Changing World

Shi Pei Pu died July 2, 2009. If you boil the story down to the essentials this is a story about a man who pretended to be a woman who fooled another man into loving him. He was the real life person that inspired the play and the movie "M Butterfly." Ethnographically speaking, it is a journey into many lands where I am an outsider trying to understand.

There are questions about the world of 1960s spies. The Chinese Theater and men performing as women. The boundaries of lies, truth and love and how they intersect when there is a heart involved. If you read the New York Times obituary you'll find that the real life escapades are a tad more interesting than the play or the movie. As I read the obituary I was aware of what I didn’t know about male boarding schools, Chinese culture, French culture and how easy it is to be fooled.

Learning about other cultures can help you from feeling like a chump. Ethnography is branch of Anthropology. An Ethnographer visits people, environments and cultures. They observe, record and document what they see and experience. We all study other people and have questions about differences in life, social order and culture. If you write, read or perform some kind of artistic skill you might be an involuntary Ethnographer.

Mia at Kahliyah-logue is an artist who loves making hand made materials. This led her to her seeing textile books as metaphors for the important things a culture wants to express. Mia was in a Cypress bookstore and discovered books that had examples of Cypriot historical textiles. One of the things an Ethnographer can do is compare her present life with that of her ancestors.

From the first moment I set eyes on this ”experience”(the written booklet with the set of photos)I was immediately stricken by a magic spell which took me at once to this ancient land in its original version,another time,when oddly enough,it seems as though ”less” was ”going on” but everything had ”more” meaning…

Some folks get paid to document those type of experiences.  Professor Karen Nakamura is a Photo-Ethnographer – she use both digital and analog cameras to record her journeys into various communities.

My own interest in photoethnography comes from a merging of two sides of me that have previously been kept strictly apart - my vocation as an assistant professor of cultural anthropology and my avocation as a photographic artist. At times, these tensions operate synergistically, at other times they threaten to tear me apart.

At her blog you can learn about her current activities, processes and what kind of software/equipment she is trying out to help her tell the story.  You can view photos of her work and check out other Photo-Ethnographers she recommends.

One of her recommendations was the work of Masaru Goto and the portraits of the Burakumin people of Japan. If this gets you interested you should also check out Global Compassion for other photographic representations of communities seen and unseen.

Traveler Laura Greeman at Ecoescape.org combined her honeymoon and a bit of ethnography when she visited Denmark and Sweden. Laura gives observations about transportation via bicycles, the behavior of the citizens and that there did not seem to be "hover moms" around the kids:

There is not only real life ethnography but digital ethnographers as well. Dr. Michael Wesch at Kansas State University is looking at environments like YouTube to get a sense of the cultures, the behaviors and the type of comments that are shared publically. What would that tell us about the users, the needs and wants of that community and what is acceptable and what is not.

Cynthia Van Guilder at Ethnography.com wonders about the constant documentation that occurs as she observes the world of her 15-year old daughter. How much do we need to record everything in a person’s life?

The fact is that what makes a person recognizable to those not fully indoctrinated in visual culture is a whole set of sights, smells, sounds, movements, and personal energy.  What does this tell us about identity, humanity, and perhaps an awareness of ourselves and the people around us, that we might be in danger of losing?

I confess I am a little biased. I say shoot first and sort it out later. But always with permission and respect.  Photographically speaking no, means no and ease up on the Photoshop. Oh, one more thing. When in doubt, everybody get naked.

Gena Haskett is a Contributing Editor at BlogHer where this post originally appeared.

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