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“Excuse me, what is that camera for?!”

By Telissa Schreuder. A camera is a funny little thing. Nothing but plastic and then some you would think. Just aim and shoot, nowadays times a thousand due to modern day technologies. The perfect accessory for an anthropologist, won’t you agree? You can lay your profound digital material next to your analogue notes, double-check if you have seen things ‘right’. And perhaps even more than that; you can hide behind it in times of insecurity. Whenever you don’t know what to do or want to avoid a dead conversation, just go for the camera, right? I have to admit, I would sometimes resort to my camera this way during my fieldwork in Barcelona. Especially when I discovered that I didn’t know the local language quite as well as I thought. 

‘Excuse me, what is that camera for?’I immediately apologise to Eduard, my gatekeeper in the field, and tell him that I thought I got his permission to take pictures. He answered with a smile: ‘Well yes, but you are here for another three months, no? So you will have plenty of time to take pictures! For now, I just want you to look and feel! You will have no time for a camera today!’He hands me a red waistband, an important element of a castellers’ wardrobe, and helps put it on. The camera is left behind and not touched again that evening. And so, more or less without a choice, there I went.  – Field Diary Notes, MA Thesis Visions of Building, Specters of Collapse, February 1st, Barcelona, 2018.

I have to thank Eduard Paris – thank you, Edu – for making me understand that the camera, as a perfect accessory, is just that; an accessory. Taking on Eduard’s advice and leaving the camera behind, the focus in my field shifted. I learned and dared to be a participant instead of just an observer. And as a result, my continuous visits were noticed by my respondents, just as they noticed my curious questions and the stretchmark on my shoulders that visibly showed the physical work that comes along with the world of castellers. In addition, I noticed that the contact with my respondents became easier every week. They showed their appreciation for my efforts with hugs, pats on the back and small conversations to the point where even the not-so-talkative and serious-looking older men gave me short greeting nods. 

But perhaps even more important, I realized that it would be impossible for me to comprehend what my respondents are describing about their lived and felt experiences if I would not have gotten a sense of it for myself. Not a photo in the world that I would analyse again and again could have made me feel as exited, anxious, scared, tired, relieved, happy or any other physical response that came with actually participating myself. It entails including all your senses to create that complete ‘picture’ of the reality of your respondents, instead of framing it in certain manners and prioritising vision through fancy plastic lenses.

Still, there’s another reason why Eduard’s advice should be taken to heart as you insert yourself in the field while doing research. Have you ever noticed that, while taking a photo, the ‘subject’ immediately stops his activity and tries to find where that ‘snap’ noise came from? As if they hit ‘pause’ and wonder what and why something is being photographed. After this, they will be awkward, avoid the lens or worse… avoid you since you are an annoying photo-taking intrusive outsider. So connect first, engage first, join, dare, speak, play, ask, do first… take photos second. Trust me. 

This is of course not to say that pictures aren’t helpful at all. A camera, in my opinion, remains a cheeky little treasure. I believe that my pictures helped tremendously in translating what I saw and experienced to whoever tried to envision a world through my written notes. I dare say that without these pictures, since I choose such a specific, physical and intriguing subject as the Castellers of Barcelona, my thesis would have materialised very differently. It is just to say that that funny little plastic thing, a camera, is an accessory that should be used with care. For when the thesis is final, it is about the combination of the written and visual world that makes it a strong and complementing entity. 

Telissa Schreuder has recently graduated from her Master’s in Social and Cultural Anthropology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. She previously did her Bachelor’s in both Social Design and Media Psychology and is now focusing on her career as a junior researcher. This blog was written for the series of ‘Student Experiences’ for Standplaats Wereld.

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