Failure is an unavoidable aspect of the ethnographic enterprise. And yet, failure should not be seen as a dead end. In the context of the FR&T program, we piloted a multimodal research collaboration that required embracing failure as a reoccurring theme.
Failure is full of unanticipated potential. Being able to recognize and adapt to these failures depends on many factors, not least a combination of fortune and experience. The Leiden University FR&T program to train master students in the field offers the perfect opportunity to address failures and their hidden potentials. To help students work through their own failures in the field, it’s best if we can model this skill in our own research practices.
As introduced in previous blog posts, multimodality provides a new conceptual framework for designing research in ways that recognise the methodological, epistemological, and aesthetic affordances of visual and sonic ethnography. As part of an initiative by the Center for Innovation, we aimed to use the context of exploratory multimodal research to create a learning module where students could virtually follow our ethnographic process.
Our research objective was to approach different “landscapes of extraction,” including mining, farming, and herding. Our new methodologies do go hand in hand with an approach to landscape that tries to move away from a purely economic view of land and land use. A tunnel vision on economic value does not do sufficient justice to ideas and stories that local ‘extractors’ attach to the places and practices of extraction. The extraction of gold, where money definitely matters, can serve as an example.
In the eyes of miners, as earlier research by Luning demonstrated, access to and appropriation of gold matter depend on good connections to spirits (called ‘djinns’ in West Africa) and the earth. In Ghana, and in West Africa more broadly, landscapes are seen as assemblages of sites infused with cosmological powers and potentials. Practices of extraction are dependent upon spiritual and ancestral presence and tracking their traces and landmarks requires new research methods. Collaboration between artists, academics and people inhabiting the landscapes allow us to both prick up our ears and open up or eyes. Various forms of artistic visualisations improve our sensitivities to listen to what landscapes have to tell.
Our approach was participatory and aimed to work closely with people in these communities in order to generate opportunities for new conversations. One of the key ingredients of multimodal anthropology is collaboration for mutual benefit. This happens on many levels. Whereas anthropologists tend to work alone, we intentionally joined efforts with some of Ghana’s finest photographers based at Nuku Studio, Nii Obodai and Dennis Akuoku-Frimpong, not to mention the various liaisons that facilitated our conversations.
Our approach hinged on testing two experimental visual methods - DIY aerial photography and 360° spherical video - for their ability to generate two totally different ways of looking at landscapes. This opened terrain for listening to their unrecognized stories.
On the one hand, we adopted DIY aerial photography methods from citizen science and participatory advocacy initiatives. Helium balloons and kites are used in a simple way for communities to take greater ownership over the monitoring and claims-making of their land resources. When explaining our unconventional visual methods to various counterparts, the first question was usually, why don’t you use drones? Although drones do provide incredible capabilities for aerial visualizations, we felt they did not capture the spirit of participatory accessibility. As it turned out, neither does helium ballooning. Whereas this resource is easily accessible in Europe and North America, Ghana has a very limited supply imported from France with high cost and strict regulations. While this meant that we would not have means to elevate a camera in windless conditions, this failure did teach us a great deal about the unequal global distribution of this "noble gas.”
Fortunately, we also came prepared to elevate a camera in windier conditions with our paraglider kite. Unlike flying a drone, kite flying relies on learning environmental conditions that made us intimately aware of wind, precipitation, and temperature conditions. Furthermore, being tethered to the kite meant carefully navigating trees, rivers, power lines, irrigation ditches, and other irregularities on the landscape. This interplay with these features emphasized the camera as an extension of the body and the practice of flying required intense awareness of place.
Learning when and how to get the kite to fly often resulted in failed attempts, but once airborne required another set of skills to control the pull on the line. Mismanagement of the line once resulted in the kite breaking free with the camera in tow. Fortunately, a tree prevented it from being swept down the White Volta River, but we relied on local tree climbing knowledge to retrieve it. Among our team and people on site, these initiatives became rich participatory moments that we could immediately integrate into feedback sessions. The thousands of images produced in burst mode during these flights may signal the abundance of digital excess, but even one clear image captured at low altitude enables generative conversations about details in the landscape.
On the other hand, we used 360° video as a means to record the underworld of “galamsey” (small-scale mining). As we could (would) not descend into the caves ourselves, it was very difficult to imagine what working underground looks, sounds, and feels like. We asked one miner, Zakari, to wear a 360° video camera on his shoulder. Recorded on the new GoPro Fusion that uses two independent lenses to record 5.2K video onto two separate SD cards, which amasses 1GB of audiovisual data for every minute recorded. In order to play these heavy data files in the field, we had to screen each spherical video on adjacent laptops. This unintentionally created the effect of a two-channel installation, which did not go unnoticed by the artists in our group. Reviewing the footage later, Zakari's descent into the pit becomes mesmerizing from a spectator’s perspective as the surface light bounces around the screen growing ever smaller. Once underground we are engulfed in darkness aside from Zakari’s narrow beam of light moving erratically across the cave’s surface. And yet, Zakari rendered these sights more comprehensible with a running narration:
“ … I’m moving straight down. I hope you can see. … Can you see? This a rock, not a stone. It’s a waste. I’ll get to the stone and let you see. I hope you can see. … Let me show you something. … This is where we dump the waste. I hope you can see. … Still down. I’m still moving down. … I’m now there… to the face, where the stones are. … I hope you can see this. This is the main face. Here’s the stone. … "
After later reviewing the footage together with the miners, Zakari took the 360° camera down again. Using a video light and tripod this time, Zakari positioned the camera to record a “gang” of ten “soldiers” working underground to haul up a week’s worth of stone (approximately 2500kg). Filled with light, the space suddenly becomes legible in a new and different way to us as well as sonically filled with hammering, grunting, laughter, and joking. These recordings reveal these mining pits as ethnographically cosmopolitan spaces with different languages and histories intermingling.
As a methodological experiment, our entire team made significant effort to document our actions through a variety of visual modalities. Other than the ubiquitous smartphone, the team carried one DSLR, one micro4/3rd camera, one action camera, two 360° cameras, at least three point-and-shoot digital cameras, and a custom made large format camera with black and white negatives. The range of optics meant we collected a diverse intersubjective record of multiple events, possibly to the point of excess. As we gathered participants and curious people around these multimodal experiments, often everyone present was filming and being filmed. Although we dominated the mediatization of the moment, this small spectacle of researchers often generated other visual trails. In particular, the selfie often enacted image-making as a shared experience with the variety of people we befriended.
And yet, as stated in previous posts, employing a critical and reflexive multimodal methodology meant questioning the assumptions of these technologies. For instance, as we begin to organize this abundance of audiovisual materials and assemble them in new ways, these technologies reveal certain proclivities. Like the unintended camera angles affected by the turbulence of DIY aerial photograph, the digital abundance of the continuous burst mode activated with an elastic stretched tautly over the shutter-release button or the algorithmic distortions of two spherical lenses trying to find each other in the dark.
But it is by embracing these small “failures” that we have come to recognize them as the unrealized affordances of these technologies – affordances that help us and our collaborators see landscapes anew and provoke different kinds of conversations.