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The living image as recognition

The use of photography and film for ethnographic purposes is nothing new. But vivid images are more than just entertainment and storytelling.



When anthropologist Paolo Favero made field work in Delhi a few years ago, he discovered something interesting. Each morning he went out to meet his informants and the environment that surrounded the informants. Favero studied tourism and traveled among local, Indian tour guides and backpackers from around the world. Part of the fieldwork was the everyday small talk that Favero both listened to and also participated in. At one point, almost by chance, Favero began to take photographs as he walked around talking. He took pictures of various motifs, but many of the photographs mimicked the images that thousands of Westerners had taken before him: the street life, the colors, the costumes – the whole menagerie, so to speak. Favero didn't think about this, but it did, in turn, inform those who surrounded Favero. Thus, they pointed to other objects, other motifs that might be interesting. "Why don't you photograph that building," they said, for example, pointing to a building that was not very "Indian" and therefore not particularly obvious to photograph as a Westerner. Favero began to listen to the informants' photo suggestions, and this made it clear how Favero's gaze was suddenly pushed in new directions. As Westerners, we always look the same. We notice the same things and want to freeze the same moments. The local man has a different look. This became especially apparent when Favero started photographing.

Paul Favero

Three years later, Favero is back in the same area. This time to record a movie. He sees many of the same things, and one of the methods in the film is to recreate scenes that he experienced three years earlier. Although something is recognizable, something else is new. The material then contains, at one and the same time, something familiar and something unknown and by using the film medium, Favero can clearly feel that the medium itself is something that helps to clarify this recognition and probably affect not only the look, but also the ways in which that can be thought of.

"It becomes very clear when we look at the camera in front of other media. The live images provide an access to the world that the text cannot accommodate. "

The shortcut to other senses. The use of photography and film for ethnographic purposes is certainly nothing new. The camera is so well suited to collect many of the objects that ethnography studies, whether it is "dead" objects such as buildings and tools or more living objects such as the people, their actions and the relationships that are among them. The camera as a document collector has thus been very widespread since the infancy of ethnography more than 100 years ago.

But the camera is also more than just a collector of information. Ethnography is also a study in seeing other perspectives. In understanding how other people live, experience and occupy the world that we may be able to observe, but may not really recognize in the same way as those who live in it. This is where the camera comes into the picture.

The visual anthropologist David MacDougall is among the pioneers when it comes to the use of the camera, which he called a "shortcut to other senses" and thus suggested that the camera could actually provide something that other media could not. This is also the experience of Paolo Favero:

"It becomes very clear when we look at the camera in front of other media. I am also used to thinking in writing and to writing academic articles, and here it is my clear experience that the camera and the live images provide an access to the world that the text cannot accommodate, "Favero explains when Ny Tid interrupts the anthropologist's holiday and discusses the subject with Favero over Skype. Favero is particularly excited about the openness that the film medium seems to have inherently:

“I find that the film medium does not rule out any interpretive possibilities. This polysemy of understanding is a strong quality when one wants to use the film medium to create knowledge. In fact, I would argue that the film allows something to happen while we are in the world. Understood in that way, the film medium is a special kind of realization, "says Favero.

"The film allows something to happen while we are in the world."

When discussing the cognitive potential of the film medium, it may also be relevant to distinguish between the film camera of the person standing with the camera and recording and thus being in a realization that takes place while the film is being made, and then those sitting in the hall or auditorium , experience the film and perhaps gain a realization Wed the finished product. The film medium has often been characterized as being more democratic than text because it is so straightforward and does not exclude anyone, but the film medium may also have a special strength in the dialogical. At least Favero thinks so:

“The vivid image creates space for two kinds of dialogue. We experience both a dialogue with those who are in the film, and this is a dialogue that happens both while we are filming a film, but also when we afterwards watch the film with the actors. At the same time, there is a dialogue with the audience who sees the film, but who in no way has a role in the film. They are subsequently creating a dialogue that leads the film's life further and thus also expands or at least changes the film's cognitive potential. "

This co-creative potential may be given an extra level when it comes to the newer types of films that we could call interactive or empathetic (immersive) film, a format that Favero has also adopted in recent years:

«Making the films interactive naturally involves the viewer, which in itself can be interesting, but I also think that a force of this kind of film is that they manifest that the product is not exactly final, but a continuous, dynamic entity, which that can be further recognized on. It is possible that the traditional film, which is more predetermined, wins points on emotional engagement because it is difficult to establish emotion in the interactive, but in return, the interactive film achieves an intellectually stimulating genre that we only just know the potential, 'says the assessment from Favero.

Challenges the idea of ​​one national narrative

Once you have seen / experienced / tried out different interactive documentaries, it quickly becomes apparent that you can not just transfer any documentary and any topic to the interactive format. The strong interactive documentaries are the films where there is an intelligent link between the theme and the form. One such film is 17.000 Islands, created by Norwegian Thomas Østbye together with the Indonesian filmmaker Edwin ( But before we go a little closer into that project, I want to link a few words to the genre. An interactive documentary must be understood as an audiovisual production that (at least for the most part) is rooted in a documentary content. Typically, it will consist of movie sequences, graphics, sound, stills / photographs as well as a form of interactivity that can be anything from the ability to start the individual elements themselves to create new content or to recreate the existing content. These interactive elements can at best have an activating function in the user, who thus may live more into the product and feel it more relevant, because one takes ownership of it in another way. Conversely, the interactivity can also cause the product to appear fragmented and strangely unresolved.

The strength of 17.000 Islands is the good match between theme and form. The project challenges a piece of propaganda in the form of an amusement park created by the authorities to stage an idyllic account of a homogeneous and united Indonesia. The interactivity of 17.000 Islands allows the user to compose new narratives and thus challenge both the notion of homogeneity, but also put their own versions of Indonesia in the world, which in itself helps to problematize the notion of one national narrative.

Steffen Moestrup
Steffen Moestrup
Regular contributor to MODERN TIMES, and docent at Denmark's Medie- og Journalisthøjskole.

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