Here’s the thing with ethnography: they seem to have the feeling they need to prove they are a real science.
I was trying to find out where I’d heard that before, and then it dawned on me: photography. I studied photography, and a surprisingly large part of photographers felt this strange need to prove they were Art (the classes were in the Academy of Arts, together with painters, sculpters and such).
I always tought that was pretty silly, also because “Art” is such an undefined thingie.
The value of ethnography, as I see it, lies in the extended attention you give a certain thing. If you look at and think about something for so long, surely you’re gonna come up with some good ideas about it.
Which reminds me of a story I read about a guy who was manic-depressive. He was talking about one of his manic phases (which last a few months), and how he spent a whole afternoon staring at a glass of water, touched in his deepest soul by the beauty of it, by its connectedness with all things. A Zen master would approve, I thought.
One of documentary photography’s classics is “Let us now praise famous men” (book at Amazon.com), by James Agee (writing) and Walker Evans (pictures). It is a documentary examination of poor families in the US. Is it Art? Is it journalism? Is it ethnography? Nobody can tell. But it stands tall, even after all these years.
One of the most famous documentary filmmakers ever (he shot those really long black and white movies in prisons and schools, but I can’t remember his name for the life of me…, please let me know if you know his name) was in Bogota a few years back, at a conference on documentary film.
A friend of mine was there. She told me he was asked if he considered his films Journalism or Art. (The films are very impressive, and in a dry style, very journalism like. There are no voice overs, nothing added, just roll the camera and edit.) To the shock of many present he said “Art, of course.”
It’s strange how these disciplines have this urge to prove their worth by being “Art” or “Journalism” or “Science” or anything else with a capital. Surely it’s all the same? I’d rather concentrate on making something that stands, regardless of which of the cultural maffias approves it.