‘Lights, Camera, Action!’: PhD reflections on doing audiovisual ethnography in pairs

Hanna Charlotta Wernersson & Simone de Boer | 11 April 2022

A photo depicting Hanna as she is filming the farmer when he is trimming and treating the back hoofs of a cow.
Simone photographed Hanna filming the dairy farmer trimming and treating dairy cow hoofs. Photo by the authors.

This digital post is a collaborative reflection on our experience of working together in the field and beyond—doing ethnography in pairs—with audiovisual methods at the heart of the research process. It challenges the notion of scholarship as an individual endeavour and the text-based hegemony of science. We want to encourage you to explore how you can enrich and challenge the routines of your academic work using audiovisual methods and doing ethnography together.


A drawing showing us co-working in the field with cameras, notebooks, mics, and gumboots.
Co-working in the field with cameras, notebooks, mics, and gumboots. Drawing by the authors.

At the end of January, we participated in a two-week Winter School on collaborative and digital (audio)visual research methods organised by the Food Citizens? research project at Leiden University, the Netherlands. As part of the Winter School, we conducted a short research project on an organic dairy farm where we audiovisually explored the relationships that shape the farm's life, and how these relationships can be captured using sound, moving and still imagery. At the end of the two weeks, we presented our research materials in an interactive web documentary. Below we will guide you through the insights we gained and how we gained them.


First things first, let’s spell out what we mean with collaboration. Firstly, collaboration between researcher and interlocutors is a different rabbit hole for a different blog post. Here, we discuss collaboration between two researchers. For us, doing ethnography in pairs is a multifaceted mode of working intimately together that is aimed at accomplishing shared learning, creation, and reflexivity and evolves around relationships of care, trust and respect. As we will explain, audiovisual methods and ethnography in pairs marry well because they can build on each other’s strengths and account for each other’s weaknesses.


Over the course of the project, we worked according to a circular logic of crafting ‘perspectives on perspectives’ and ‘experiences of experiences’ by sharing and discussing all our material produced in the field—photos, videos, drawings, soundscapes, and written notes. We observed that sharing and making sense of someone else’s audiovisual fieldnotes offers opportunities for rich and layered reflection and analysis, as the affect and indexicality of audiovisual material allow each person to (re)experience the event in question for themselves. As Simone engages with Hanna’s audiovisual fieldnotes (and vice versa), she 1) gets a sense of Hanna's perspective and experience, 2) is reminded of her own experience in the field, and 3) might notice and engage with certain things in the material that Hanna had not.


The entrance to the Boterhuys farm and the ‘entrance’ to the final product of our joint project, an interactive documentary (hopefully to soon be published).



Engaging with each other's audiovisual fieldnotes thus creates the opportunity to add layers of experience, interpretation and analysis. This is different from sharing only Hanna’s written notes, which are exclusively the product of her selection and interpretation, and therefore more directive in structuring Simone’s experience and perspectives. They only expose Simone to what Hanna chose to note down and the way she noted it down. This is not to say that audiovisual materials are free of curation—after all, the camera must be pointed somewhere—but it is a question of degree, and a degree that matters.


In the editing process, we alternated between working independently with the compiled raw materials and engaging with the edited creations of the other. Viewing and listening together, we stayed curious on the other’s interpretations, wanting to genuinely understand what the other had seen/heard/sensed/experienced. Rather than ‘resolving’ potential differences in each other's interpretations, we sought to use these differences to pose further, and different, questions. This circular logic of crafting multiple perspectives on the same event was possible because we worked hard to establish a collaborative relationship in which care for one another’s wellbeing, trust in the other person’s judgement and capabilities, and, importantly, respect for each other’s work were central—before, during, and after fieldwork.  


Another key point of this kind of collaboration is to expose one-self to the other, to constantly show the other what you are doing, how you are doing it, and why. Working together forces us to rigorously and continuously embrace and strive towards the academic precepts of reflexivity, transparency, and validity. In lay terms, working together puts emphasis on the process and offers an opportunity to dare to be vulnerable and potentially wrong: two terms seldomly recognized within academia. As researchers-in-training, we are constantly asked to present neat and logically consistent justifications for the methodological and theoretical choices we make. To work together underscores that the process of (creating) justifications is exactly that, a process in which we try and learn. A process in which we must expose ourselves to be wrong and, potentially, also right.  


A drawing showing us working together and together with our computers during post-production
Co-working during post-production, with one another and with computers. Drawing by the authors.

Finally, a few sobering words on audiovisual methods. They are, of course, not perfect. On the one hand, audiovisual methods can serve as an eye opener: they let you see/hear/sense/experience and think differently as you work together with your equipment to capture the world around you. On the other hand, there is a risk of creating blind spots—to, more or less consciously, adopt too narrow of a focus on what is nicely capturable, leaving some things invisible and inaudible. 


This is because, we argue, there is a tendency for visual methods to gravitate towards what is aesthetically pleasing. Anchored in popular culture, there is a presupposition that fieldwork creations resemble polished digital art. After all, we all like to (be told that we) create good looking things, don’t we? The beauty prerogative holds for both content and form. As an example, there was a general reluctance among Winter School participants to audiovisually capture death in food markets, for instance fish being slaughtered. This tendency is problematic not only in terms of validity and transparency; it also means that the critical questions may not be asked.   


To work in collaboration offers checks and balances to this pitfall of Pandora’s digital box. Working together, we can partly prevent these blind spots through adding onto and questioning each other’s interpretations, (tunnel)visions, and edits. Because two people see/hear/sense/experience differently, we can plug some blind spots by exploring how our individual interpretations of the field contrast, match, and complement one another. When it comes to the curation of data, what is left out by one might be put back in by the other.  


The video shows us mapping out the water flowing through, around, behind, and in front of the farm. Even though the farmer had told us about the implications of farming in a waterscape below sea level, and we had seen the many water channels bordering the farm and the fields, it wasn't until we coloured a black and white farm map that we came to appreciate just how omnipresent the water is. That is, the process of re-working the map made us really see the water.



But we say partly preventing blind spots because, as two researchers on a common research quest, we will inevitably develop and hold shared ambitions that (re)opens the door to blind spots. We will craft a collaborative interpretation with which we navigate the field, and we will adopt an aesthetical standard with which we edit the data (as it turns out, subjectivity also comes in pairs!). While working together is not a fool-proof solution to prevent blind spots, we nonetheless argue that it helps pointing them out for us (and subsequently, the audience) to see.  


Let us end by boiling it down to this: collaborative visual research—doing ethnography in pairs—is not about covering more ground by working together and by using more tools and toys, rather, it is about covering it differently: richer, deeper, and more reflexively. And, it is more fun.   


We are grateful to Gerard and Mieke, their children, and the animals at Boerderij Boterhuys for welcoming us on their farm and being patient with our hunger to learn, explore, experiment. We would also like to thank the Winter School team and fellow participants for their insights, support, and energy.   

 

Keywords: #Ethnography #Collaboration #Audiovisual #MoreThanHuman #MoreThanFun #Reflexivity

 

Hanna and Simone are PhD students at the School of Global Studies, in Environmental Science and Social Anthropology, respectively. They are both engaged in multispecies ethnography, Hanna of Swedish cattle farming and Simone of organic farming in Kyrgyzstan.