Blog Post #3: Through the lens…

This week, I was back at SpitDatDC. And this time, per my advisor’s advice, I decided to put the camera down. Now, I kept the camera and recorder rollin’ – I’m not an idiot! The researcher in me didn’t want to miss any important moments. But, something happens when I pick up that camera and view my participants through the lens of that device. I immediately step into the frame as a filmmaker and/or researcher. I see everything through the scope of wanting to capture and relay the essence of what I see for other audiences to come; in that way, I become a vessel — and I can feel and appreciate the beauty of doing such work when I am behind the camera. Or, I analyze every moment as data, mentally calculating how certain elements will fit as part of my developing thesis. And again, I enjoy the challenge that comes with utilizing a heightened sense of awareness when doing ethnographic observation.

But, doing the work of a film crew and researcher all on my own also feels very chaotic at times. There is the job of the camera woman / videographer: of knowing the camera,  if things are actually in focus or not, if the color is accurate (aka white balanced), how the backgrounds / setting may impact a viewer’s eye, etc. And then, there is audio, which is a WHOLE other ordeal — that I’m learning on the job. But also, I bring the knowledge of editing with me: the relationship between what I’m filming with the end product. This includes paying attention to what shots are interesting and artistic, how can I zoom and pan for funky transitions, what aspects of the space, a performer’s body language, or audience reactions can I use as background fodder to help narrate the story (aka B-Roll).

And all of this is happening in my head WHILE I’m also attuned to the narrative content, which the discourse analyst in me is most sensitive to, especially now that I have enough insights of the art form, the participants, the spaces around me to know what is “salient” or significant to my thesis. But also, I must stay in the moment and flexible to absorb those surprising and emergent elements that may shift or shape my research focus in ways that ethnography requires, instead of operating solely on my agenda – the difference between shooting a documentary vs. an ethnographic film. And such flexibility becomes impossible, if one never does the necessary task to REALLY see what’s at play: putting the camera / recorder down!!!!

Lesson #3:

Take a moment to just be in the space. Take time to look through your own eyes and absorb the moment with your own metaphorical lenses. For not only is it about what you see, but putting the camera and recorder far from your grasp helps you forget about the “work” of the dissertation and just feel, respond to, and connect with what’s happening right then, not in post-production or upon hitting the replay button.


Pictured: Dwayne B. / Photo credit:

This lesson was especially important for me, as I’m not just looking to capture oral history; I’m observing poetry. And because of the personal nature of this content, it important that I travel along with these artists when they share. As dopalicious artist, Busboys and Poets host, and co-facilitator of SpitDat Dwayne Lawson Brown (Dwayne B. aka the Crochet Kingpin) explained to me, there is a difference between performing and sharing. And I can honestly say I had observed this finding long before he gave language to this dichotomy. But, I was most sensitive to this difference when I put the tripod away, I propped my camera on a pillow nearby but out of “frame” – or rather out of my eye sight — and let my eyes do the viewing. I let my ears do the audio capture. And, as cheesy as it sounds, I let my body, my memory, and my soul be the core processor of the footage captured.

As researchers, we often forget that our experiences are data! So, it is important to be aware of how we feel, i.e., engage experientially, in the environments we hope to explore academically. Otherwise, you start to look like this guy …

…so intent on catching each wave in action that he’s missing the bigger picture: the actual ocean! You end up missing out on ALL of the sensory information that is just as relevant, such as the peace one feels when listening to the ebb and flow of the water, the taste of salt in the air, and the contrast of gritty sand and foamy tides that caress your feet. You miss the moment.

When I finally did myself a solid and just allowed myself to exist in the space,  I honestly reconnected with the very elements of the art form that drew me in in the first place! Hence, it took me back to a time long before I had a thesis in mind. I was just an aspiring artist being inspired by other artists, or better yet, I was another person connecting with another person, as they spoke of similar feelings of  trauma, loss, victories, braggadocio, anger, etc.

That’s just it … this week, I connected again.

my eye
Photo Credit: Tiffany M. Jones

~T. Marquise

Blog Post #2: The Rule of Reciprocity

This week has been pretty spectacular! Not only was it my birthday week, but I got a chance to have a well-respected poet named Droopy the Broke Baller lead me through his memories of D.C. — pre-gentrification, that is — and D.C. poetry. After walking around the U street corridor — home to the FAMOUS Ben’s Chili Bowl and flagship location for Busboys and Poets — and reminiscing about some of his favorite poetry / open mic spots, we enjoyed an impromptu happy hour to break bread and chat.

poet, droopy, spitdatDC
Pictured: Droopy the Broke Baller aka Drew Anderson.  Photo courtesy of Rhonisha Franklin for RDioneFoto. Flavour courtesy of Gawd.

Not only did I have the pleasure of filming an AMAZING poet, storyteller, and artist, which was more than enough of a present for me. But, I received an even SWEETER gift: I was told something that made not only my day but my whole life! The poet said that he was grateful to have these stories documented for posterity. And knowing they’d go on and become something bigger than him was so appreciated. While all researchers believe that the work work they do is of value — to whom and to what degree, however, is never really known in the process. Honestly, I was just hoping I wouldn’t be a bother to my participants, for an artist’s hustle never ends. But to receive such enthusiastic assistance with this work, to hear that this project is personally meaningful to someone in the community, and to be reminded that the results could ensure that these untold histories live on  — I ==mean, wow! It’s an honor I do not take lightly.

But, in trying to submit my study for ethical review and approval, I was taken aback by the edits that the review board’s representative suggested; I was prompted to remove the signature portion of my consent form, as it was deemed “unnecessary” to obtain this type of consent. I merely only have to invite an artist / participant and consent would be presumed. To be honest, I heard this was “a thing,” but to see it in writing bothered me. Has anyone else come across this? Thoughts? Reactions? Advice???

I made the requested changes and, of course, received approval. But now, I fully realize the onus for ethical treatment and circulation of oral histories is solely up to the researcher. To decide how best to reflect and protect a speaker’s words is also solely up to the researcher. And, to seek actual permission to incorporate a writer or speaker’s actual poetic content or personal stories is — once again — solely up to the researcher. Or rather, it is solely up to me???


Now, I’ve always felt the weight of being granted access into these poets’ lives — because poetic content is not just about words spoken or placed on a page but the experiences lived that inform such content. And, with that comes the responsibility to represent these artists and their work “accurately” (or rather fairly). But given the actual confirmation of an artist’s hopes that these stories will mean MORE than just fodder for research publication or professional accolades motivates me to ensure my chosen community is benefited by letting me into their worlds.

That said, I have seen many a’ folk in academia forget the reciprocity that is part of fieldwork. I have seen people choose projects, especially high profiled researchers, for its “cool factor” or potential to attract grant money — and never produce anything of value to that community. Even as a novice PhD student, that felt “off” to me. And I remember “clutching my pearls” when I heard the answer to my question of what inspired a certain professor’s interest in his field site — mind you I was prepared for a moving tribute or heartfelt reflection. I was thinking: “let’s get ready to CUE THE VIOLINS, release the doves and wipe the tears!” Well…that was until I got his answer: “money!” Simpy put and said without apologies. And even more disheartening, it was not even a breath later and he was moving on to the next “lucrative” project and vulnerable community.

I understand many of us have the best of intentions to make a difference in various chosen communities’ or participants’ lives, and sometimes we just get distracted or bogged down by life. But I caution researchers — and I say this to myself as I’m telling this to whoever out there — do not forget those who opened their homes, hearts, histories to us. Many people don’t need a promissory note of so many dollars or even access to academic fame. They just want their stories and realities to mean something — especially for those whose cultures have survived only orally.

Lesson #2:

Never underestimate nor undervalue the impact of collecting oral histories or documenting folklore. But also, be mindful of the gift of being entrusted with a person’s poems, stories, or songs. And do your absolutely best to treasure, protect, and RESPECT these texts — especially if the ethics of such work is solely up for interpretation. Take a moment’s pause to price your most treasured memories, QUADRUPLE that figure and, just maybe, you’ll get the idea of their worth to your storyteller.reciprocity

I hope the products from my work will show a fourth of the appreciation I feel for what I have been privy to observe during this time. And today, in bringing this productive research week to a close by filming at the Open Mic sanctuary known as SpitDat, and hearing people pour out their soul in song and poetic verse, I just can’t believe how much fun and inspiring this work can be.  Well, under the best of circumstances — because there are moments that are true tests. BELIEVE ME!

But today, I’m basking in the joy. Happy birthday me!!!

~T. Marquise