Thursday, March 23, 2006

A Creative Way Around the Ethical Dilemma

Another friend of mine gave me what I thought was a fantastic idea. I was talking to her about the problem of filming political refugees' faces, and the obvious answers like "Film bodies, hands, houses - anything but faces" came up. But we discussed two other ideas that have artistic merit, if I pull them off.

One: What about backs of heads? I guess I'm thinking of Marsalis from Pulp Fiction, maybe, or for some reason I'm recollecting an image from a commercial I saw once of a the back of a girl's head, wet and wearing a swim cap, and an indoor pool in the background. Maybe I never actually saw that, actually, but it sounds like the kind of slow-motion image you would see in a credit card commercial or something.

Two: There's the question of filming at the Dalai Lama's birthday celebration in July. Public shooting might create the most risky footage - I won't be able to guarantee that everyone there is willing to be on camera, and I definitely won't be able to get their signatures on release forms. So why not shoot impressions of the celebration? Blur the images as much as I can and allow the viewer's mind to do the work, a little bit (or a lot) like Rodney Smith's experiments with impressionistic images.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

I Didn't Quite Get Canon-ized

Here's the reply I got to my letter asking for a video camera.

From the Canon Corp, printed on a sort of smallish card:

"Thank you for the opportunity to review your organization's request.

"Canon U.S.A. contributes to a wide variety of activities throughout the Americas, including Canon Envirothon, the Canon National Parks Science Scholars Program, the Yellowstone Park Foundation (Eyes on Yellowstone is made possible by Canon) and Canon4Kids, which supports the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

"You can learn more by visiting

"While we cannot support every request, we do wish you every success in your endeavor.

"Corporate Social Responsibility Department
"Canon U.S.A."

And "OUCH" says my bank acocunt. Looks like I'm going to have to buy this camera myself, or just not do the film thing. Still, a buddy at work asked me why I wouldn't write them another letter, just because they said No the first time. So I think I might - you know, be a little more straightforward, describe the film's importance more...

As far as the film's ethics go, the same friend and I thought that it might be a smart option to just eliminate all faces from my footage. That might do a lot for the theory of the thing. Or maybe it'll just be gimmicky. In any case, I'll have to see if it's been done. And even if it has, I might just have to copy it.

Monday, March 20, 2006

How Can I Call This Ethical?

It dawned on me today what exactly I was thinking of doing. I was planning on waltzing on in to a community of political refugees - people who in many cases still have family in the place they fled - and then filming them, putting their face on camera just like it didn't matter, like anonymity weren't an issue here. That's probably because, for me, those faces are anonymous. I wouldn't have any way of placing a name, for example, on the faces from my last post's footage. That seems obvious enough. But that doesn't mean someone else couldn't.

For example, I don't have any idea what the Chinese government might (or might not) do to the families of those I film there in India, Tibetans who have left their homes for cultural and political (and, many say, survival) reasons. To put refugees' faces on video, and then to put that video in the public eye, may put those individuals and their families in very real danger. It might just be the media influencing me, but the possiblities of imprisonment and torture seem too real for me to make a film like this one public.

And granted, it's less than likely that anything like that would happen; I find it pretty far-fetched that somehow the Chinese government, bent on showing those Tibetans who's really boss, track down (or even pay attention to, if they come across it) my footage and start scouring any records they may have to find the families of those they find out have left Tibet. Let's face it, I'm just an undergraduate kid at a private American school who tends to back away from the political Tibet question, who also happens to have a blog about his upcoming academic endeavors in the region. Not exactly spy-movie material here. I'm not even sure the Chinese hold any kind of agenda like that. How could I know?

But here's the thing: I also just can't know what might happen, and I'm going to have to weigh the academic, professional, political, and personal possibilities that surround this whole project. And it hit me today that that's heavy.

Feeling pretty sure that I would need to cut the film part of my project entirely, I turned to the Code of Ethics of the American Anthropological Assoctiation. One of the facilitators of my India program, Jay, had provided me with a copy of the document last week, but I hadn't gotten to it because of time. Today, I made time, and some of the principles there, though not quite resolving the whole issue, started me thinking that maybe this could work. For my current concerns, here are the most important elements:

Certain ethical obligations "can supersede the goal of seeking new knowledge, and can lead to decisions not to undertake or to discontinue a research project when the primary obligation conflicts with other responsibilities, such as those owed to sponsors or clients." One of these is "to avoid harm or wrong" by considering the negative change that might come from my work and from its publication. Another of these obligations is "to consult actively with the affected individuals or group(s), with the goal of establishing a working relationship that can be beneficial to all parties involved."

"Anthropological researchers must do everything in their power to ensure that their research does not harm the safety, dignity, or privacy of the people with whom they work, conduct research, or perform other professional activities." I don't know waht that might entail, but it seems in my case to be in conflict with the following:

"Anthropological researchers should utilize the results of their work in an appropriate fashion, and whenever possible disseminate their findings to the scientific and scholarly community."

I'm not kidding when I say I think my research could really add to the scientific conversation, and while I don't plan on getting rich from this film, I consider it a potentially vital part of the research. Sharing it and making it public may not be categorically wrong here. But if there's a way to make them ethical, what is it? The solution may lie in the following:

"Anthropological researchers must determine in advance whether their hosts/providers of information wish to remain anonymous or receive recognition, and make every effort to comply with those wishes. Researchers must present to their research participants the possible impacts of the choices, and make clear that despite their best efforts, anonymity may be compromised or recognition fail to materialize." That quote, combined with "the goal of establishing a working relationship that can be beneficial to all parties involved" (a repetition from text above), leads me to consider that there may be individuals in Dharamsala who will be willing to be filmed and even to risk being identified.

I plan on being very clear, then, what the risks might be. And that means I'll need to get informed about what the Chinese have reportedly done regarding Tibet - whether it be any kind of punishment, or absolute passivity, or anything in between. To me, that means that I'll need to prepare release forms for these people to sign, but the AAA says that "informed consent, for the purposes of this code, does not necessarily imply or require a particular written or signed form. It is the quality of the consent, not the format, that is relevant." Which doesn't mean I don't need written consent, period. It just means the AAA doesn't require it.

Finally, an excerpt concerning topics I've covered before in this venue: "While anthropologists may gain personally from their work, they must not exploit individuals, groups, animals, or cultural or biological materials. They should recognize their debt to the societies in which they work and their obligation to reciprocate with people studied in appropriate ways."

I'm glad Ben and I thought of this before we realized it was an issue recognized on the part of the AAA. It shows that we're complying with this final principle emphasized by the Association: "Anthropological researchers must expect to encounter ethical dilemmas at every stage of their work". Maybe I'm smart enough to pull something like this off after all.

Interesting Footage from Dharamsala

I found this through Google Video and thought I would post it here, using a little bit of HTML that I've been trying to learn how to use. The footage originally from Englightened Films. Let me know if it doesn't work.

What's perhaps more interesting than the footage itself are the captions included on the bottom and the underlying assumptions revealed there about cultural identity. Dibyesh Anand (2000) asserts that only after China came into Tibet did the Dalai Lama come to represent all of Tibet. Granted, today the effective symbolism is that the Dalai Lama represents the whole country, but I wonder how that came to be so widely accepted among Tibetans and whether there was any resistance as the process of establishing the Dalai Lama's symbolic identity unfolded.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Exploiting Tibet?

My friend Ben and I just spent about an hour discussing our research in India this summer, and a surprisingly serious and frightening concern surfaced. We were talking about the interviews we would be doing in Dharamsala, the kinds of questions we might be asking and of whom we might be asking them. And it dawned on us just how personal these questions might get, and that we would actually be divulging the answers to such questions to our various audiences (which would likely be small and few, but still very real - that was undeniable.)

This work very quickly took on a feeling of severe exploitation. We would actually be trying to pry into people's very senses of identity and home, and to what end? To present? To publish? To make a film? To build a résumé? For fame? For gain? For position?

And I realized that yes, I was still thinking of this field study as my big opportunity to build a future. It was a thought that disturbed me. I had to face the fact that I've been pretty schizophrenic about the whole thing, professing purely disinterested, academic or even holy causes (though - and this is important - not missionary causes), but still talking to everyone I knew about how big an opportunity this is and how much it'll affect my future, that it will let me have the career I want, the life I want for me.

How do you avoid that? Ben asked if all anthropology isn't necessarily that way, by its very nature. I couldn't reply any way but affirmatively. Still, there had to be some way out of it, some saving grace for something that has come to mean so much in my personal and academic life. I told Ben I thought as much, and we tried to find an honest way out of our problem.

It occurred to me that if there was a way out, it must revolve around gospel truths. For example - how convenient! - the one that came to mind was charity. I've long held that charity is a byproduct of understanding and that Jesus can only have charity because he's suffered what we've suffered, therefore being able to understand things as we do and feeling perfect compassion. It strikes me as even necessary that we too, if we're to follow Christ's examples, learn understanding by sharing in experience and thereby grow in charity. If we can rightly justify all this seemingly exploitative behavior and all this spreading of peoples' innermost feelings, there are certain assumptions we'll have to get right.

Number one is that all of it must be done primarily in the name of understanding and not in the name of gain. Gain in this case could be professional or material, or maybe some other kind. And I include 'primarily' because I don't think documentary films that make a profit are categorically evil because of the money they make. They are only wrong if they're made without primary interest in understanding - it's the purpose of the thing that its ethics hinge on. And then gain, I think, must be shared with those who have sacrificed their own identities for the study, the presentation, or the film. If money is involved, then the individual dignity of those studied must be respected in every way possible. Understanding, then - not money or position - becomes paramount, even if some gain is had. The giving of a share of profit from what is made reduces its importance in the researcher or filmmaker's life and frees the research subject from being objectified.

There are, I'm sure, other ways to approach social research that help the researcher in avoiding exploitation. I don't know what they are. Maybe I'll figure some out. If you have an idea, please let me know.

Ben and I also talked a lot about whether this first-time research as undergrads can be good, let alone significant. I'll be commenting on that soon.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Working with Wording

I've been working to pin down my research topic for Dharamsala/McLeod Ganj. This is a quick attempt to summarize my topic, hypotheses, and theoretical approach. I'm taking a sort of materialist look at the concept of home in displaced persons, and how that displacement might affect relationships and interpersonal behaviors in the family. Let me expand on that a little bit.

I'm working with the idea that a displaced population like the Tibetans in Dharamsala/McLeod Ganj (or New Orleans refugees in Chicago, or Northeastern Brazilians in Sao Paulo) would struggle with the newness of the physical world around them - towns, road, trees, houses, foods, etc. In the case of Tibetans in India, that world is, as far as I know, considered temporary to some degree because of their desire to return to Tibet. What then does that mean about how they think about their homes? If their homes are temporary, do they become less important to their residents somehow, and if so, does that spill over to how they think of the other people living within that space, within those walls? Does the temporariness of living in a space cause (or correspond with) a disregard for the futures people will have with the members of their families? Or, given the Tibetans' attempt to maintain cultural permanence by settling outside of Chinese Tibet, do those attempts at permanence override any effects of material temporariness? Those are the core questions I want to answer.

And here's a new note that I'll have to consider: What about the Buddhist attempt to eliminate attachment and thus eliminate suffering? Maybe, just maybe, their philosophical and religious beliefs inform their culture in a way that actually reduces any differences in behavior towards their family. That's a question I'll need to consider.

If anyone has any feedback on any of this, let me know. What am I missing? What should I read? I'm liking what I'm hearing about Lévi-Strauss, so I'll have to take a look at him. I'm new to this anthropology thing, so I need all the help I can get.

Sirensongs Sent Me.

I just saw that
Sirensongs has added a link to my blog from hers. It's actually given me a good amount of traffic the past few days, so if you're coming from Sirensongs' blog, welcome. In the next two months I'll continue to focus on preparation for India, but in May I'll be adding notes from India regularly, so don't give up now if you're not into what I'm posting quite yet.

Saturday, March 04, 2006


All the coolest t-shirts - and apparently a lot of my recent traffic here on Indiana to India - come from!! Take a moment to check them out! I'll probably put up a permanent link on the blog, so if you want to give me $3 or so then just go through my link to Threadless and buy a t-shirt!

An Open Letter to Canon

This is an almost-ready draft of the letter I'll be sending to Canon on Monday. Wish me luck.

Canon U.S.A., Inc.

One Canon Plaza

Lake Success, NY 11042

Dear Sir or Madam:

I'm looking for Canon's help. You see, a week or so ago, I had a conversation with a woman who introduced herself as the chief financial officer of a company working with IMAX film. Her company opens and operates IMAX theaters in a variety of locations and has also participated in film production. It was the production part of her work that most interested me, as I am a student currently working toward acceptance into a visual anthropology graduate program within the next couple of years. I have high hopes for a meaningful career in documentary filmmaking.

The conversation moved to how I had discovered my interest and talent in the field, and how I was getting ready to apply to such competitive schools. I told her that I’d done some independent documentary work on any equipment I could borrow and that that work had helped me find a job filming and interviewing for Brigham Young University, where I’m a senior. I also told her I’m trying to best prepare for graduate work by participating in an anthropology field study in northern India, where the Dalai Lama and the exiled Tibetan government are stationed. Moreover, I told her my real objective went beyond just written research: the project merited a film.

Probably thanks to her CFO position, without missing a beat she asked, “Who’s paying for that?” And I had to admit that, at least in part, I didn’t know. On top of taking a full-time course load, I’d been working three jobs – two on campus and one off – to be able to afford airfare and tuition, and at least those two expenses would be taken care of. Living expenses were still up in the air but wouldn’t present too big of a problem. The film equipment, of course, was another matter. Despite my very best efforts, raising the funds for tape, sound equipment, and above all a camera capable of producing satisfactory footage has simply proven impossible.

Her response was, “You should write to Sony!” And after hearing stories of how she’d sought corporate assistance in her professional life and even before, I had to admit contacting a corporation was an excellent idea. But not Sony! My current off-campus job uses Sony’s HVR-Z1U cameras, and while HD was beautiful and all, and as much as I do want to shoot in 16:9 like HD allows, I just hadn’t gotten the same feel from Sony as I had from your XL1 while working for BYU in the past. I resolved to contact you instead.

So even if this is idealistic, I’m asking for Canon’s help. If there’s a digital video camera that your company can spare to jump-start one student’s career, will you consider sending it for this project? My dream is to shoot on an XL2, but of course I’ll appreciate anything you’re able to donate, new or used. I’m afraid I can’t do much, but I would absolutely love to credit you at Canon for your generosity in the film. Thank you so much for your time and consideration.


Nephi (full name withheld)

A Canon Digital Fan