Written by Fatima Tassadiq
After familiarizing ourselves with the filming equipment, Lindsy, Jiawen (my project group members) and I finally started shooting a couple of weeks ago. As mentioned in my previous post, we are making a short film about the transitioning experience of two first year graduate students as they adjust to a new life at Penn. One of our participants is Tina, a first year MBA student at Wharton and the other is Hira, a first year doctoral student in the Economics department.
I have to admit that one of my first experiences with filming was rather disturbing. We were shooting some A-roll with Tina and I was behind the camera while Jiawen was in charge of the sound. I was so worried about getting the right camera angle, sufficient sound quality, making sure the top of Tina’s head didn’t slip out of the frame as she leaned back on the couch and a million other technical details that I barely listened to anything she said. As a result, my follow up questions were sloppy and failed to probe several issues that came up. Talking in front of a camera is always hard. To make things worse I think I transferred some of my own agitation to Tina and stressed her out even more!
Moreover, I kept comparing ‘traditional’ methods of ethnography with this visual approach which only made me even more uncomfortable. For starters a pen and a notebook in the hands of an anthropologist are a lot less intrusive for the participants than a camera mounted on a tripod and a mic hovering over their heads. An anthropologist is to some extent always marked as an outsider but it is much easier to momentarily efface this distance between yourself and your subjects if you are not pointing a camera at them. In addition, it is always possible to refrain from note taking during an interview or while conducting participant observation in order to blend in and put the participants at ease. Your thoughts and observations can be jotted down and analyzed later. But a visual medium is inextricably tied to the present, the now. All your ‘data’ needs to be captured as it is happening. Given Tina’s wooden answers to my distracted questions, I was really tempted to pack away our equipment and settle down on the couch next to her and try and hold a more ‘natural’ conversation.
But I am really glad I didn’t. Reflecting on that slightly ‘traumatic’ experience with Amit and Stanton later made me realize that most of my anxiety was the result of my lack of experience. Once I got used to the equipment and stopped thinking of the camera as something with a life of its own I would probably be able to conduct an insightful interview and film it at the same time. I think I just need to keep reminding myself that my camera is not possessed and will not switch off on its own or stop recording sound if I don’t monitor it constantly and obsessively. Amit also gave us some really useful tips on ‘demystifying’ the camera for our participants in order to put them at ease before we start recording. Our next filming experience was much better because we let the participant play around with the camera and film her surroundings a little before we started the actual shooting.
It is also helpful to remember that our presence as researchers inevitably changes the situation being studied even in the absence of a camera. It might be tempting to think that a pen-and-notebook anthropologist elicits ‘natural’ responses from participants as compared to a someone working with a camera but the fact is that participants will always modify their behavior in response to the presence of an observer. Hence, it is not very helpful to romanticize more traditional methods of data collection as a means to capture ‘reality’ as it really is.