When I am working on a project I often feel like I do when entering a shopping mall, or when I walk around foreign cities or even just stand in a supermarket – I feel overwhelmed by the amount of choice offering itself to me, I am inundated with impressions. I don´t know what to take in or what to ignore. Similarly, when filming, I ask myself where to start, what to focus on. When have I filmed enough, and whilst editing, what do I need to leave out even though I might consider it essential? These are all relevant issues, and there is no easy solution. In the end it comes down to subjective selection processes that enable us to make decisions, but there will never be any certainty you made the right choice. Yet often I feel that by focusing on one preliminary question, a lot of these dilemmas could be simplified. What makes us grasp an issue to a fuller extent is the choice of our research tools and the familiarity with our subject. Just like writing a shopping list before doing groceries, asking ourselves before we start work on a project if it makes sense to use film, or if a mix of mediums or the choice of another medium suits the topic better, helps getting a better feel for the research. This again helps us decide when to start, when to stop, what to include or what to leave out.
At the Occpuy!Berlin demonstration I could have shot just another video of just another protest, but I wanted to particularly focus on the sound of this event. The beauty of working on a topic over a period of time, as CBiS has done with protests, is that you discover different aspects and that you have got the time to work out different ways of portrayal and representation. It allows you to carve out and compare the effects different media have.
In the case of sound I think it is fascinating how it changes throughout a protest, how it swells and ebbs away, how it alternates depending on the environment, the houses the march passes, the people watching the protest. Yet, I didn´t end up focusing merely on sound, as I felt I couldn´t tell a story based on the audio recordings I did. And in fact, one of my initial ideas of how to represent the protest was to try out ways of using sound in combination with maps. I had intended to create a kind of interactive map, where you´d click to play soundscapes of different places. This, however, proved too complex for a blog entry, at least how I had imagined it.
Nevertheless, I still wanted to use a map in order to emphasise the relationship between the different stages of a protest and the space it moves through. Using a GoogleEarth-created 3D map certainly is something which has been done various times before – yet, it suited best what I intended to show, the space of the protest. I think it is interesting how the sound is separated from the image, yet at the same time you can locate where something happened. As a further aspect I wanted to contrast my interpretation and the protesters’ voices to what newspapers write about it. Even though you can hardly make out, what the headlines and articles say, it makes you aware that the event has been translated into written information. This idea is emphasised by my own written comments, that is, my interpretation of the event. Conclusively, in my piece I use and portray different factors, which shape a protest: time, space, people and media.
Yet besides my fascination for sound in protests, why did I choose not to use video recordings or photography as an additional layer? I did take pictures at the protest, but simply, they haven´t been developed yet. So although I was also playing with the idea of adding another layer, consisting of protest photos, to the clip, I decided not to add any images that directly relate to the protest but to edit something with the resources I had access to then and there.
Another objection of mine to use photos is that almost all coverage of protests is visual or textual. We either read articles or see photos or video of it. Many protesters record things themselves and post short film clips online. By mixing different media and by emphasising the sound, I hoped to show different aspects of the event. Admittedly, I still put the final product into the form of a film clip and I used visual codes such as a map and writing – nevertheless I think the effect is different to seeing the actual protest or the protesters as such. The viewer is left with the space the march went through, with words and subjective impressions. It is somehow generalised, depersonalised, despite my subjective account of events and snippets of interviews.
I didn´t want to transform my experience of the protest using standard formulas and forms and I didn´t want people to consume just another visual account of it. Video is employed so excessively nowadays that we quickly become desensitised, inundated with visual stimuli. There is hardly any critical approach towards the use of film or video, probably more so in the general public rather than in academia, but even here film is often produced and used uncritically (for an anthropological debate of this see for example Ruby 2000).
This is just as valid for many news agencies and online newspapers as it is for people making clips for YouTube. Sometimes I get the impression that video is used to present oneself instead of an issue or, in case of online newspapers and magazines, to increase the space which can be used for advertising. As soon as you click the “play” button of a video in order to watch it, a commercial starts. Even YouTube is no longer ad-free. Additionally there is an issue with quality; private protest videos are often shot on mobile phones. They are shaky, blurred and only last seconds. In most cases they do not convey much information – of course, shaky shots, filmed whilst running can give an impression of what was going on, but if they are left on their own and are hard to decipher, their use is debatable. And even news videos lack quality, as they have to be produced quickly.
The accessibility of film and video production and the many possibilities of distribution through the internet encourage anyone to take up a camera and become a “filmmaker”. People employ video because they can. News agencies and online newspapers are no exemption. Yet, shouldn´t we ask ourselves if the use of video is always necessary and wise? There are topics when it might be more appropriate to use text or audio or some other kind of media. It is like using our senses. We don´t always use vision to grasp something, sometimes it is rather smell, touch or hearing which helps us understand what is going on around us (see also Pink 2009 and 2007). In similar ways, using different media can help us understand different aspects of a topic. Since video seems to come close to a synesthetic experience, it might be tempting to use it instead of other mediums. And indeed there is little debate about what exactly it is that film can do, what other mediums can´t. Often, film is seen as a mere translation of written information, neglecting the strengths and weaknesses inherent to this medium (Banks 2005: 22; Rouch 2003: 86).
Similarly to the inflationary employment of video the use of photo-sound-essays becomes ever more popular; people start using it more and more and just for the sake of it, because it´s a trend, without asking themselves if it makes sense. Of course, it will always be a subjective decision which medium is best to use and when it is best to use it, and there are always preferences in terms of what medium you feel more comfortable to use; however, once you really spend time on a subject, once you open up to different ways of seeing and contemplate what it is you want to say or achieve with a project, you will discover that the medium of your choice might not fit into what you want to do. I am certain there will never be a “perfect” medium to use, but I am also sure that we can get as close as possible.
As a Visual Anthropologist, I tend to show things visually. However, despite my filmic thinking, I am trying to be open to other media and to react to issues arising in projects which call for the use of different approaches and tools.
What I try to achieve in and through my work is to bring out layers, to show different dimensions and perspectives of a subject. By combining different media I hope to come closer to this. Trying out different tools allows us to create layers of information and insight. In the case of the piece on the Berlin Occupy! protest, I tried to build layers in a very literal way, by placing images over each other, but also by putting a focus on creating a soundscape out of different layers of sound.
A great source of inspiration was Mona Hatoum’s “Measures of Distance”. Hatoum grew up in Lebanon, her parents being Palestinian, and was exiled when war broke out in 1975. In “Measures of Distance” she translates her (and her mother’s) experience of her exile and displacement into a visual language, layering an image of her mother in the shower with images of her mother’s letters. Hatoum reads out what is written on them, whilst also leaving in the mother’s voice (www.tate.org.uk). I had watched the piece ages ago and stumbled upon it again, just before I started editing the material I had gathered on the day of the protest.
My piece of work does not display the protest as one whole, objective account. It is my glimpse on the event, or rather, my interpretation of it. Nevertheless I hope it opens up new ways of perceiving the space we move through and the sounds that surround us.
- Banks, Marcus 2005, Visual Methods in Social Research, London: Sage.
- Pink, Sarah 2007, Doing Visual Ethnography: Images, Media and Representation in Research, London: Sage.
- — 2009, Doing Sensory Ethnography, London: Sage.
- Rouch, Jean 2003, “The Camera and Man”, in: Paul Hockings ed., Principles of Visual Anthropology, 3rd Edition, Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 79-98.
- Ruby, Jay 2000, Picturing Culture: Explorations of Film&Anthropology, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
- Tate Collection 2002, “Mona Hatoum: Work” http://www.tate.org.uk/servlet/ViewWork?workid=26675, accessed October 17, 2011.