April 9, 2015 —Ethnographers are both researchers and storytellers.
Performance installation by Shakeil Greely, entitled Trail of Silence
They explore communities and fill their notebooks with rich observations of human life. But when it comes time to report their findings, ethnographers traditionally obscure details to protect the privacy of their sources. Names get changed and pseudonyms are invented.
Blurring personal identity on the page is easy. It’s much harder on film, a medium filled with unexplored possibilities for presenting scholarly work. By embracing the challenge of working with film and other visual media, researchers at Penn GSE are on the forefront of a new movement in ethnography.
“If all ethnography is fiction, can we tell a better fiction with film?” asked Veena Vasudevan, a doctoral student in Penn GSE’s Teaching, Learning, and Leadership program.
On the last weekend in March, Vasudevan co-directed Performing the Digital, the third-annual Screening Scholarship Media Festival, which showcased ethnographic multimedia from Penn GSE and around the world. Corrina Laughlin from the Annenberg School for Communication co-directed with Vasudevan. Nora Gross, a second year doctoral student in Penn GSE's Education, Culture and Society division was the associate director for the festival.
This year’s media festival opened with a screening of 2012 Sundance Film Festival winner The Law in These Parts, followed by a Q & A with director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz. The second-day convening, which attracted 181 attendees from thirteen states and four countries, featured a variety of programming, from films and discussions to installation work. The keynote panel featured expert voices in scholarship, art, and activism from Anna Grimshaw, Jenny Perlin, and Betty Yu.
Panelists Anna Grimshaw, Betty Yu and Jenny Perlin
Vasudevan has evolved as an ethnographic researcher, in part, by learning to become a filmmaker. Vasudevan is part of camra, a collaborative project bridging the Annenberg School for Communication, the Department of Anthropology, the School of Social Policy and Practice, Penn GSE, and undergraduate fellows from the College. This cross-University initiative encourages thinking across disciplines, as well as finding intersections between communications and social justice.
The Screening Scholarship Media Festival—and camra itself—emerged as a result of a yearlong course. The seminar in documentary, ethnography and filmmaking, co-taught by John Jackson, Dean of the School of Social Policy and Practice, Stanton Wortham, Professor of Education, and Amitanshu Das, Director of GSE Films, asked students to consider film and multimedia as a means to present academic research to audiences inside and outside of the academy.
At the end of that first course, Vasudevan said, students realized that there was no real venue for them to screen films in an academic context. “We wanted a space to screen and talk about our work, and that’s how SSMF was born.”
Now in its third year, the Seminar in Visual Ethnography, for which Vasudevan and fellow graduate students Matthew Tarditi and Sofia Chaparro are teaching assistants, asks students to discuss theoretical and ethical dilemmas in visual ethnography. “We are learning how to theorize through and with film,” said Vasudevan. “Film is a means to capture stories, but how can it also be scholarly?”