21 March 2011


One of the girls who is going to India with me next month went to Ghana last summer and studied the authenticity of various media she used to interpret her field experience.  The project was inspired by the conflict she perceived between her major (English) and minor (anthropology).  She decided to reconcile creative writing with thick ethnographic description, two types of writing prized by her disciplines. Since she also has a photography business, she incorporated photography as a medium by which she experienced the field and used a camera lens as a beautiful analogy for her project itself.

Picture an extremely complex camera.

Nikon D700 HDR

I am now relying on Wikipedia, since my knowledge of cameras is woefully limited, but the interior of a complex camera lens has multiple layers that give it the capability to do the amazing things that modern cameras can do.  For example, this is a diffractive optic lens in a 2001 Canon camera:

Evidently, "the 400 DO lens had a multilayer diffractive element containing concentric circular diffraction gratings to take advantage of diffraction's opposite color dispersion (compared to refraction) to correct chromatic and spherical aberrations with less low dispersion glass, fewer aspheric surfaces and less bulk."  In other words, the special multiple layers in the lens made for a better camera and better pictures.

This concept is an analogy for Rachel's fieldwork in Ghana.  Which medium, or what combination of media, provides the most accurate depiction of an American girl living for three months in Ghana?  In reference to the conflict between creative and ethnographic writing, which is a more authentic form of documentation?  

In order to explore the various aspects of her own experience, Rachel created five "avatars" of herself that would take turns leading a day of experiences.  Akua was her "native" self, for times when Rachel tried to be part of the Ghanaian population, Shelley was the "experiencer," the one who did not take notes at all but simply lived, Myra was the photographer, Ava was the romantic anthropologist, and Gipsy was the postmodern traveler and writer.  Thus, Rachel explored her experience in terms of different aspects of her personality.  

However, she didn't stop there!  Rachel also kept record of all the other media she used to describe and understand her experience--her jotting notebook, her "good things that happened today" journal, her diary, her coursework and cultural proofs, her blog, her photography, her field notes (both typed and handwritten), her books, her emails home, her physical body, and her group.  I think of all these media as the multiple layers within the camera with which Rachel interprets her life in Ghana.  

Rachel presented her research at the inquiry conference last week.  She mentioned many interesting things in her presentation besides the analogy to a camera lens that I love.  First is that solely descriptive notes miss the aesthetic element present in other written records of the experience.  Do we as humans need art in order to have a full experience?  Think for a moment about life without music and I think you'll know the answer.  If you want further proof, try watching a movie with the soundtrack removed.  

Another element of her project she discussed was the difference between typed and handwritten notes.  The most obvious difference to her was the length--because of the speed of typing, she had many more descriptive, thorough notes when she typed them.  Her computer breaking midway through her field experience forced her to explore the authenticity of the shorter, less descriptive handwritten notes and to ponder the function of each.  I, for one, prefer to write important things by hand.  I subscribe to the notion that a thank-you note to my mother or a letter to my best friend on a mission means more when my hand wrote it than when my fingers typed it.  There is something more personal and indeed authentic about a person seeing the script that is unique to me, with all the flaws and idiosyncrasies contained therein.

Rachel also shared her experience with authentic versus "essence" pictures. 

This is an "essence" picture:
And these are authentic pictures:

 Notice that the essence picture is beautiful and dramatic--it's something you would see in National Geographic, it's something you would want to have on your wall.  It bears Rachel's watermark for these reasons.  However, she considers the three other pictures to be authentic because they actually represent her lived experience in Ghana.  The girl in the essence photograph was someone she never got to know, she was just somebody who posed for a picture.  The three authentic pictures came from a time when Rachel decided to take a photograph every hour on the hour for an entire day.  The black picture was taken at 6:00, right when the power went out as she was watching the world cup with her host family.  Though not an artistic achievement, the photograph is a triumph of authentic field experience in a way that the essence picture is not.

In the end, Rachel concluded that experiences are fragile, subjective truths, from which came her title "Based on a 'True' Story." 

Photo credit Rachel, marcp_dmoz

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