By Jon Garaffa ’20
Restricted from travel and close contact due to COVID-19, anthropologists are seeking ways to engage with cultures from a distance. Serving this need, a Rapid Response Magic Grant of the Princeton University Humanities Council funded graduate student Ipsita Dey to work, starting this summer, at the VizE Lab for Ethnographic Data Visualization. She focused on the lab’s Remote Ethnography Workshop, which serves ethnographers amidst the current pandemic.
The VizE Lab was established in 2017 by Carolyn Rouse (Anthropology) and is directed by Jeffrey Himpele (Anthropology). According to its website, the lab equips anthropologists to incorporate the latest research method standards and make their work more accessible. It offers advising and brainstorming resources to scholars, to help them simplify complex ethnographic data into meaningful visualizations.
The Remote Ethnography Workshop lists a threefold mission on its homepage. First, it introduces scholars to the field of visual ethnography—the use of visual approaches like film and photography to study and communicate about the world—as a tool for online research. Second, it trains researchers to edit and produce documentary films sourced from Zoom recordings. Lastly, it shows users how to create live, interactive data visualizations and maps of the information they have collected.
Dey produced the Workshop this summer alongside Ariadni Kertsikof ’22, Grace Logan ’21, and Skyler Liu ’21, with additional collaboration from Carrie Hillebrand ’20, Donovan Cassidy-Nolan ’21, and Ben Johnston of the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning. Beyond the Humanities Council, funding for the Workshop came from the University Committee on Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences (Anonymous Undergraduate Research Fund).
Dey, a third-year doctoral student in anthropology, contributed much to the Workshop as its graduate research assistant. In the spring, she took Himpele’s course ANT 455: “Visible Evidence: Documentary Film and Data Visualization.” Before the switch to remote learning impeded its plans, the course would have centered on a spring break trip to Kenya. There, students would have shot documentary footage at Princeton’s Mpala Research Centre, studying the people at the Centre and in the region, as well as their relationship with the surrounding wildlife. Instead, the course’s remote setting trained Dey in remote work skills, which she is imparting to others through the Workshop.
Speaking of filming and editing documentaries as well as taking photos for academic purposes, Dey said, “We wanted to teach them how to do all of this over Zoom, and why it was still relevant during quarantine and lockdown.” The Workshop covers topics such as proper lighting and active listening during a remote interview, editing these interviews to produce a cohesive narrative, and adding “b-roll” film and sound from other sources to put a story in context. These tutorials express a humanistic approach, highlighting remote fieldwork as a strong platform for sharing people’s narratives.
Dey hopes to use the lab’s techniques in her dissertation, which focuses on Fijian Indian sugarcane farmers and their spiritual relationships with the Fijian landscape. Often in anthropology, visual techniques are perceived as an afterthought, an addendum to the main written research, Dey explained. Yet, visual mediums like film allow researchers to center directly on the people within them, capturing their lives and words in real time.
Initially, the course and Workshop attracted Dey because of her longstanding interests in storytelling, especially about people. However, Dey insisted that instead of trying to tell a people’s story for them, anthropologists should tell a story of how their contact with a people creates a junction between two worlds.
“Visual anthropology is about a new kind of encounter that you’re only able to experience through the visual medium,” Dey said. She described the process as not taking a photograph to append to a written piece, but rather experiencing anew through the act of taking a photograph. “What does the photograph reveal about the field that even your eyes in real time wouldn’t be able to see? What does that process of creating a filmic reality help you observe about the people and the place?”
Within the Workshop, Dey taught a tutorial on turning Zoom footage into a documentary. Her lesson included guidelines to help scholars maintain the integrity of their research. One suggestion makes space for building a relationship between the interviewer and interviewee. According to Dey, a scholar must maintain a strong bond with peoples to conduct successful research concerning them, even when barred from in-person fieldwork.
“That process of vulnerability and intimacy cannot be lost in remote ethnography,” reflected Dey. “We must remain open to the process of the intimate encounter.”