During my current fieldwork experience, I realized that I sometimes feel like the filmmaker in the Ax Fight (1975) by Timothy Asch and Napoleon Chagnon. I have no idea where to turn first, with the life and the themes in the village ephemerally flowing in front of my eyes – and unfortunately there is no Chagnon around to help me make sense of the scenes and words of my informants (I realize I am supposed to be the Chagnon character in this scenario). Besides the big picture of the fieldwork, I have experienced the same feeling with respect to my attempts to produce some visual data. There is no literal ax fight, but the proliferation of the possible themes and the available approaches to taking the pictures have had me running around the place, not knowing how to find a unifying link to my work.
Now, leaving my fieldwork aside for a bit, with the process of editing and adding concepts and explanations, the Ax Fight moves from a chaotic video to a structured narrative. Suddenly we get to understand the scene, the motivations of the chararacters and see an actual story unfolding in the video.
In the same class, we also watched Wiseman’s Titicut Follies (1967), a film from the asylum. The scenes from the total institution of this kind are often chilly, however, one of the strongest moments of the film that still gives me goose bumps was the conversation between the doctor and one of the patients, who seemed to be perfectly fine. The patient rather sensibly argues that he is well and that he is coercively being kept in the institution for no reason (maybe I just made this part up, but it seems to me that the character was simply gay, a thing that could easily be perceived as a diagnosis in the 1960s).
By including the scene and refraining from providing us with additional shots of the patient or his interactions with the environment, Wiseman intentionally planted a seed of insecurity about the functioning of the asylum, blurring the boundaries between the doctors and the patients, leaving us with questions about the nature of the institution.
In Visual Anthropology and the Ways of Knowing (1998) MacDougall writes that
“It is the viewer who discovers connections within a network of possibilities structured by the author. The viewer may make other discoveries too, just as a reader of poetry (or of a rich ethnographic description) may discover meanings of which the writer is not consciously aware.” (p.70)
He also quotes Strathern, who said while the modernist anthropologist explains, the postmodern one “leaves all that work to the reader” (p.90). In a way, that is exactly what Wiseman did – he threw in a disturbing scene and did not bother to provide any additional information. He left the confused viewers with their ontological insecurities about what exactly we get to witness, providing a range of possible interpretations. In his manner, his approach could be contrasted to the Ax Fight, where eventually, all loose ends neatly fit together, in almost a modernist way, as Strathern would put it.
Now, returning to my Ax Fight-like fieldwork experience. If I really was shooting a film as a primary outcome of my work, I guess it would be acceptable to go MacDougall/Wiseman way and present the ‘network of possibilities’ about what’s happening in the field. However, since I am to produce a text (and maybe this is just my take on the conventions of the discipline), I don’t think loose themes and impressions would do – my findings should be substantiated by the data evidence and including an ambiguous scene of a village life without providing analysis would probably not be deemed satisfactory. In this respect, I am forced to go the Ax Fight way and make sense of the everyday in the field, identify narratives, patterns and introduce them to the fellow academics.
The question arising from there is clear – if we accept and cherish one way of looking at the world in visual anthropology, why is the discipline so uptight when it comes to writing (even after Writing Culture, experimental writing never really made it to mainstream). And vice versa, in class we seemingly understood any kind of visual project in an anthropological manner, are there any boundaries?
I would love to say that there should be none. But in that case, let’s liberate the whole field, not just the researchers working with the visual.
MacDougal, David (1998) Visual Anthropology and the Ways of knowing. In MacDougall,Transcultural Cinema. pp. 61-92. Princeton: Princeton University Press.