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!!!!
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.
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.