Humanities Blog

Fieldwork in a place that could be anywhere: filmmaking in a city park

Anthropology MA student Anna Keller took her camera to a park in Basel to learn more about diverse encounters and movement in urban spaces. The park where people were selling drugs, exercising, strolling, the anthropologist was co-creating the film with other park visitors while facing difficult questions about the ‘illegality’ and ‘foreignness’ of some of her research participants versus the ‘legality’ and power position of herself.

Anna Keller

Ethnographic fieldwork is the heart of anthropologists’ work – or rather its lungs, as I would say. No anthropologist can get away without themselves diving into the social and cultural environment that they are researching on, to learn from the people who are actually part of it. While ‘being there’ when lives happen, anthropologists combine their interlocutors’ perspectives with their own experiences that they make ‘in the field’. As a participant of the audiovisual ethnography program of the Social and Cultural Anthropology department at Tallinn University, I was encouraged to do my fieldwork for my MA thesis with a camera, exploring the social field of my interest while and by making a film.

I could have done my fieldwork anywhere. Anywhere, because my interest lies in a virtually omnipresent condition: people moving alongside each other in urban spaces, (without) encountering: spatial condensation of most diverse, seemingly non-related realities. The bodily proximity in which we come to reaffirm and reconsider categories such as the ‘local’ or the ‘foreign’, the ’familiar’ or the ‘strange’ that we may ascribe to each other. Yet, I went ‘home’, to Switzerland, to spend the summer in a lively city park in Basel that I had been passing daily in the past few years before coming to study in Tallinn. It is a place that I ‘knew’ as a site between images of multicultural joviality and one-sided medial representations, reporting about violence as well as drug selling and consummation by societal outsiders.

Moreover, I’m tempted to say, I could have done no fieldwork at all. As much as the ‘field site’ of my research and my everyday environment conflated, I was doing hardly anything other than I had, although less intensely, always been doing: observing people, enjoying their movements and challenging my relation to them by approaching someone, walking by, or choosing to sit somewhere, sometimes entering a conversation. Yet, I soon came to understand this playful habit of mine from an anthropological perspective: by moving through the park, I was building my own ‘spatiality’ – my subjective way of understanding and experiencing the environment of the park through my body the perspective out of which I came to meet other park visitors. How I moved in the park and how I approached people did however not only spring from my own personality and spontaneous decisions. Rather, I had also been “taught” how to move in the public spaces of my ‘home’: who to be suspicious of or admire in their Otherness (mostly (male) ‘foreigners’ and other ‘strangers’). Which paths to follow safely and what people to sit down next to when I am alone. Traces of such socialization, that I as a white person of middle-class background had experienced, made it easier for me to meet some people than coming across others, and to keep ‘knowing’ the Other (the seemingly unfamiliar ‘foreigner’) from distance – even now when doing fieldwork. And yet, I had my own feet which allowed me to try out moving into different directions and thereby challenge these very societal dynamics and limits.

The question ‘What exactly are you doing?’ that my park acquaintances frequently put irritated me, especially in my first weeks of lingering around. ‘I am making a film about this place’ was, due to the camera I was carrying with me, the easiest way out. About this place. About. Saying this felt like missing the essential. By no means did I want to describe (talk about) a place, so rich in facets, that I could only experience from my own limited perspective (body). In fact, I was above all observing myself, my own observing: how I was moving through the park and making a film. This research then was not about, but from a place, out of a self-reflexive sensibility. By this endeavor, not easy to explain yet exciting to discuss with the people in the park, I wanted to explore how I, especially my body, and the history of my ‘home’ (for example Switzerland’s participation in colonialism and the persecution of ‘people on the move’) are entangled in what I am looking at as an anthropologist and filmmaker. I wanted to explore the complexity of how ‘foreignness’ in Switzerland is being produced over and over again – here in the most mundane encounters between people (and me) in a leisure park.

In the co-creative process of filmmaking with other park visitors – some of which were deprived of their citizenship and right to work, some involved in drug business, others doing sports as leisure-activity, strolling, or hanging out – ‘what I was doing’ constantly changed. Moving from one conversation or filming to another, I found myself in a rally of remembering and forgetting, being reminded of, and burning for the questions I and my interlocutors held. How do people experience ‘seeing’ the ‘foreign’, or ‘being made’ the ‘foreigner’? Can we suspend the ‘foreign’ or ‘strange’ as a category (that is in fact experienced)? What, for example, if we change the ways we move – concretely: if we take another path in the park than we usually would and, consequently, bump into other people? If we stay at a spot for longer than usual, observing? What potentials lie in such most close spatial encounters that would start emerging in the park, that sometimes already come about? While discussing with the people what a film being made here could be about and affect, I encountered ideas that were catalyzing, conflicting and fusing with my own.

In this intensity of encounters of the ‘field’, the ‘film scenery’ of the park came to merge with other places significant in the everyday lives of my interlocutors, such as the nearby asylum center and prison. The park, to many, was in some sense an extension of these institutions of control and surveillance, labelling their bodies the ‘foreign’ or ‘illegal’ (while making mine the ‘legal’ and ‘justified’). A ‘big prison’ next to the ‘small prisons’, constructed and invented further by the movements of park visitors and passers-by, watching and categorizing, and of police officers, observing and frisking those ‘under suspicion’. As I was part of this place, I was part of this prison for some: a shifting wall, a closing door. A guard’s wandering eye, a guard who quit. The film being made: a place in construction itself.

Later in the day, we would drop out – or in, into the park’s countless after-work gatherings contoured by warm evening light, where we had nothing more to say and lots after a small joke, recounting the stories we had lived and incidents we had heard happening. Swans heading somewhere above our bound bodies, catching our attention. „Flap-flap-flap – they fly”, one suddenly exclaims, “without passport, see, they just fly! They are passing the border to France now and don’t give a shit.“ The camera now: a witness and toy.

This place, the field site of my research and filmmaking, by now could not be anywhere anymore. In the course of doing fieldwork, it had taken a particular, unique yet indefinite shape – full of individual stories. Doing fieldwork allowed me to gather some of them, become aware of their nodal points. “Why are you interested in the place, but not in the people?”, one guy who I frequently spent time with once asked me with an impatient, almost annoyed expression on his face. “Isn’t the park some sort of “cut-out” of the society we are?”, I wondered. “A sample, yeah”, he concluded after short consideration.

Now, some months later, I am editing the film. Putting the footage into an order is yet another way to ask: to what extent can I (and other individuals) (re)shape a place with its unequal power dynamics through the way I look at and move through it – by juxtaposing images and sounds recorded at the park? How to provoke encounters other than those that one experiences when following the paths already familiar to oneself – for a film audience? What are ethical, fruitful encounters anyway – not only for people in the park, but for me as a filmmaker trying to create such? It feels as if the field site, for now, has shifted from the park to the editing room.

I am making a film – and, by that, constructing another ‘place’ (an audiovisual space) – in which some of what I have learned and wondered during my fieldwork may become sensible for the one who watches it. I am crafting a film/place in which viewers may have their own encounters with the protagonists, images and sounds of the place, and with my observing eye. A place where, in some sense, they may have their own ‘field experience’.