Experimental Ethnography

Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video By Catherine Russell
Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video By Catherine Russell

As I was reading Catherine Russell’s book, Experimental Ethnography, one of the things that first struck me were the origins of the autoethnography. They talked about how it originated from queer culture. It makes total sense to me why it would. I could imagine that doing a typical autobiography as an LQBT person would really be difficult, especially explaining your struggles without mentioning and discussing predominate attitudes towards the LGBT community at the time. By focusing only on their story without cultural context a lot would be missed. So, in order to more clearly tell their story in way that a wide audience could understand they had to discuss/show cultural attitudes at the time and how they affected them. Once they do that, it transcends a mere autobiography into a micro slice of history that has far reaching impact.

The autoethnography holds culture and self together by interweaving them into one another. Culture greatly influences people and people greatly influence culture. Autoethnographies weave them together by allowing the individual to tell their own story while highlighting the culture and trends and events at the time of their story. They become inseparable, we don’t know the individual without knowing their cultural context and the cultural context becomes richer and alive by the telling of an individual story. Autoethnographies are important because they provide true insight to how different movements, attitudes, and trends in culture affect individuals. Historically we can also look back and get glimpses of how life really was from a macro to a micro scale. The viewers become more enlightened not just about a historical time or an individual, but about personal experiences at a specific time and place that was true for many people.

In the age of social media autoethnographies will take many different forms and shapes. The most common is video. But it can also be something as simple as a Facebook feed, depending on the person. Some people enjoy having discussions about current events on their Facebook feed while simultaneously posting photos of themselves at events and places. Simply scrolling through such a person’s feed one could get strong sense of the time’s events, attitudes and styles that were happening at the time of that person’s social media sharing while also getting sense of who they are. Their feed would become a source of storytelling about the individual’s life while highlighting the wider cultural events of their time. This would not work for anyone as some people post things only about them selves while others only post articles they find interesting.

One of the things that Catherine Russell discussed was Shonagon’s diary lack of aesthetics in his films. She said that, “few of the images are formalized, aestheticized, or contemplative.” I think this aspect of autoethnographies really lend to a sense of authenticity and realism. Because they are so “pretty” they don’t feel commercialized and highly produced. When watching raw moments in films like “Esther, Baby & Me” by Louis Taylor, like the scene when you see his girlfriend pregnant and naked in the kitchen, the graininess and poor quality of the shot actually express a more authentic feel. We feel that we are actually seeing a slice of their lives, which we are, instead of highly produced Hollywood movie clip that we know is all fake.

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