De Berlijn Blogs: Fieldwork Documentary

By Mirjam Dorgelo  In my research I examined the practices of place, memory and belonging amongst former political prisoners who now work as tour guides at the very place they used to be imprisoned: the former secret Stasi prison in Berlin Hohenschönhausen. This short fieldwork documentary shows some of the dynamics of spatial characteristics and commemorative practices I observed during fieldwork. It depicts how the visible and invisible, the spoken and unspeakable sometimes become difficult to discern.

In my MA thesis I addressed more extensively these dynamics of commemorative and spatial practices and the various paradoxes I encountered. One of the main conclusions was that former prisoners perform guided tours as a way to consciously unlock and process the past by narrating about their experiences, incorporating the use of spatial features and deliberately positioning themselves in certain spots to confront and regain power over the past. Although several eyewitnesses expressed that the tour repertoires also function as a way to avoid or repress the resurfacing of memories during the tours. Spatial characteristics nevertheless evoke memories that are considered unspeakable.

A second aim of the documentary is to provide insight into the process of conducting anthropological fieldwork using visual methods. The core of the anthropological research method is the way in which the researcher takes part in the research through participant observation. I believe methodology and knowledge are always intertwined. In my own research especially the visual methods were very much part of the spatial practices I observed, participated in, and talked about with my interlocutors.

I recorded ten eyewitness tours with a small video camera to understand where and how people move within a specific place, how they give meaning to those places, and how these places structure their commemorative practices. All video records depicted the same routine – the time span of a guided tour – and as each video record was based on the movements and narrative of the various tour guides, the visual data could be compared to reveal underlying structures. The recordings enabled me to create detailed maps of the tours which depict the particulars of each tour route; thus allowing a comparison of both spatial characteristics, narrative and how these (may) influence each other in the organization, coordination, and content of guided tours. One of these maps forms the visual framework of this documentary.

The zooming in and out of the map also symbolically depicts the two sides of anthropological fieldwork in which the researcher constantly switches between in- and outsider view, between participating in daily practices and reflecting upon them.

Mirjam Dorgelo was an MA student at the Department for Social and Cultural Anthropology at the VU University Amsterdam. She wrote a series on her fieldwork called Berlijn Blogs. This is the latest blog in that series. 

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4 thoughts on “De Berlijn Blogs: Fieldwork Documentary

  1. Duane 30/09/2012 / 16:43

    Great post Mirjam; deeply fascinating material, particularly the cartographic reflexivity. The case is comparable to Maze Prison in Ireland and Robben Island but here with an anthropological twist, which is refreshing.

  2. Mirjam Dorgelo 30/09/2012 / 16:58

    Thank you Duane, I actually referred to Maze Prison and Robben Island in my thesis when discussing the theoretical framework of my own research project. It is so interesting to see how they compare and also how they differ. Am glad to hear it fascinates other people too!

  3. Daan 02/10/2012 / 17:43

    Hi Mirjam, thank you for this very intriguing documentary. It has made me very interested in your thesis (is it accessible online?). Thumbs up also for the entire Berlijn Blogs series, it’s a shame this was the last entry!

  4. Mirjam Dorgelo 08/10/2012 / 21:36

    Hi Daan, the thesis should be online at the VU library, but I can send it to your email if you like (just let me know what your emailadress is).

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