Stories from the margins

Provocation by Siobhán McHugh

 To ignore and exorcise subjectivity as if it were only a noxious interference in the pure data is ultimately to distort and falsify the nature of the data themselves.
(Portelli 1997:80)

An award-winning 1974 analysis of African-American slavery, Time on the Cross, written by Nobel prizewinner Robert Fogel and his colleague Stanley D. Engerman, focuses on the economics of slavery: the conditions under which slaves worked and the efficiency and organisation of Southern American slave plantations. Among their painstaking data, they note that  slaves tended to be whipped an average of 0.7 times a year. That’s a fact. But it bears little relation to reality. Because NO slave could ever have been whipped 0.7 times. You were either whipped or not whipped.

Former slave Frederick Douglass was less in thrall to facts. When he set out to write his autobiography, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1892), he was advised by well-meaning abolitionists to stick to the facts, so as to gain credibility. Instead, he included observations and opinion, discussing for instance, not just how often he was beaten but the degree of sadism with which the beatings were executed. Far from being irrelevant, his judgements are both liberating and illuminating, contends the Italian oral history theorist, Alessandro Portelli. ‘The discovery of difference, especially inner difference, is the first step toward recognising the humanity of one’s oppressors and thus affirming their own, which their oppressors deny: ‘I therefore began to think that they [white people] were not all of the same disposition…’ (Portelli 1997:80)

So is difference a positive or a negative force when it comes to one person documenting another’s lived experience? And how do different differences play out in the recorded exchange: gender, class, age, culture, power?

Studs Terkel, the Pulitzer prize-winning American broadcaster and author, recorded some 9,000 interviews with people from all demographics. He did not see the everyday lives he revealed – clerks, hookers, conveyor belt workers – as ‘ordinary’, but as ‘uncelebrated’. He did not see the exchanges as interviews, but as opening ‘the sluice gates of dammed hurts and dreams’. (Terkel 1972: xx)  A white, leftist, secular Jew, his work documents quintessential themes of American society, from race and class to war and capitalism, from a multiplicity of perspectives.

One of his biggest discoveries was that listening matters. Not so much WHO listens, but the act of being heard. He often talked about a poor black American woman he impulsively recorded one day. Seeing her, with two or three children, staring into an empty shop window, Terkel politely asked what she was looking at.

‘Oh, dreams, I’m just looking at dreams.’ So I’ve got my tape recorder and I switch it on and I say ‘Good dreams, bad dreams?” And she starts to talk… and when she stops talking after eight, maybe ten minutes or so, one of them [her children] says, ‘Hey mom, can we listen to what you said?’…  so I play it back and she listens to it too. And when it’s over, she gives a little shake of her head and she looks at me and she says, ‘Well until I heard that, I never knew I felt that way.’
(Terkel in Perks & Thomson 2006:126-7)

So, a sense of validation can be a positive outcome for a subject of the documentarian impulse. But what if her story had been found in the archives and used as proof of, say, the fecklessness of an unemployed welfare recipient? Does the documenter elevate, mediate or misrepresent the raw data he/she gathers? And how do we know, if we only see the end product?

What of the documentarian’s duty to interpret? As Italian scholar Luisa Passerini observes: ‘All autobiographical memory is true; it is up to the interpreter to discover in which sense, where, [and] for which purpose’ (Passerini 1989:197). Does this dictum bridge the gaps across power, class, race, culture?

Portelli recently published a forty-year study of Kentucky coal miners (They Say in Harlan County, 2011). He is white, Italian, middle-class, male. His interviews with poor American miners,both black and white, male and female, in his second language, are an exercise in Otherness. Even his transcriptionist was so far removed from the territory she misheard the drawled word ‘serpent’ as ‘servant’. Yet perhaps because of this striking difference, rather than in spite of it, the book is an exemplary portrayal of an isolated community.

Fieldwork is by necessity an experiment in equality based on difference. There must always be a line of difference across which the exchange becomes meaningful, but there must also be at least a line along which we can communicate the desire for a common ground and language that makes the exchange possible – our deep-rooted common human nature.
(Portelli 1997: 60)

So how does this axis of Otherness apply when telling Indigenous stories in Australia? In 2000, Aboriginal filmmaker Darlene Johnson advised SBS that   ‘issues of appropriation, of respectful cultural representation, of equity and creative control are particularly pertinent to collaborative processes in relation to Aboriginal stories.’ (Peters Little 2002). But not all Aboriginal filmmakers believe that only Indigenous people should tell Indigenous stories. Frances Peters Little, Indigenous filmmaker (The Tent Embassy) and historian, argues thus:

The notion that Aboriginal filmmakers possess a certain connection to truth and instant rapport with any Aboriginal community or individual is naive. To think that Aboriginal filmmakers can shoot any Aboriginal community and capture the core of their history, politics, culture, personal relationships and social interactions without offending or misrepresenting anyone is presumptuous to say the least. Conversely there are many examples of white filmmakers (who) have made strong connections with Aboriginal individuals asking them to expose the internal disputations within Aboriginal communities. Aboriginal filmmakers while they share in something that is essentially Aboriginal by necessity or nature does not guarantee that they make stronger, more accurate or beneficial films for the Aboriginal community or individual than non-Aboriginal filmmakers. Questions of filmmaking ability (are) involved.

Some argue that ‘prosumer’ film-making will redress power imbalance: anyone with a smartphone can theoretically make a film these days, distribute it online and even have it financed by crowdfunding. SBS is actively developing democratising initiatives in the user-generated field of documentary, as online producer John MacFarlane can testify. Other practitioners, such as Hegelian Marxist and radio documentary-maker Colm McNaughton, eschew film in favour of sound, in order to mitigate issues of trauma and power. Liz Jessen, a Danish radio feature maker, also believes radio to be a far subtler form of storytelling:

In the close-up of a talking woman we see her big mouth, strong nose, narrow eyes, strange hair-do, unfashionable clothing, or whatever else we might decide to comment on as viewers, either to ourselves or to the other people watching. Every tiny impurity in her face is magnified and may distract us. Television can turn into (social) pornography when it moves in on the favourite genre of the radio feature: close-up recordings in which people speak from the heart or body. The beauty can disappear when projected from the screen.
(Jessen 2004: 5)

But how do art and aesthetics marry with politics and ideologies? These are key questions this session will raise. A final thought from filmmaker Ken Burns:

You know it’s often said that the digital revolution that puts a TV camera in everyone’s hands makes everyone a filmmaker. It’s bullshit… What makes someone a filmmaker is somebody who knows how to tell a story … I’ve been doing this for a long time, almost 40 years that I’ve been trying to tell stories with film and I still feel like a student…. and that means that it requires a kind of lifetime of devotion. It isn’t enough just to be there when something happens. It isn’t enough just to record whatever happens. We have to be storytellers and it’s just logical that only a few of us are going to be able to do that … I’m learning. I’m learning. I’m learning.
(Ken Burns 2010)


Burns, K. (2010). “Why Everyone Is Not a Filmmaker “. Retrieved 3 September 2010 from Big Think website at

Jessen, L. (2004). “All you need is Love, God, Power or Money — an essay on radio narrative”. Retrieved 3 December 2009 from International Features Conference website on

Passerini, L. (1979). “Work ideology and consensus under Italian fascism”. History Workshop. No. 8: 82-108.

Peters Little, F. (2002), “The Impossibility Of Pleasing Everybody: A Legitimate Role For White Filmmakers Making Black Films”, Art Monthly

Portelli, A. (1997). The battle of Valle Giulia: oral history and the art of dialogue. Madison, Wis., University of Wisconsin Press,

Terkel, S. (1972). Working: people talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do. London, Wildwood House.

Terkel, S. (2006). “Interviewing an Interviewer”, in R. Perks and A. Thomson (eds.), The Oral History Reader, 2nd edn, London, New York, Routledge, pp123-128.


A section of ‘Radio documentary production as critical ethnography: the making of La Frontera’ (forthcoming)

Provocation by Colm McNaughton

The second and perhaps the most fecund yet confronting dynamic to address was my own ability to recognize, understand and creatively respond to ‘the epistemological violence’ (Kincheloe and McLaren 2005, 307) that invariably frames and informs my relationship as a journalist/researcher to the people of the Mexico/United States borderlands. When I invoke the notion of epistemological violence, what I am suggesting is that the key to entering and engaging in this world in order to produce knowledge about it, is a recognition that the relationship of the self and other (or that of the journalist and her sources or the researcher and the researched) is framed and informed by the layering and intersecting of various forms of imperial, capitalist and gendered power relations and the structural and inter-personal forms of violence these systems entail. In other words, how was I to engage with the complex and shifting power dynamics implicit within the relationship of self and other engaging in a journalistic enterprise on the edge of the hegemonic U.S. empire?

This line of inquiry and self-reflection invariably goes to the very heart, not only of journalistic/ethnographic practices, but also the very production of knowledge itself. I knew to be able to produce anything of substance and bearing I needed to engage in a reflexive and critical form of knowledge production. I was also aware that journalism as a field is grossly underdeveloped in its ability to comprehend let alone reflect on its practices, and for this reason I turned to an already cognisant ethnographic tradition. Anthropology, for all of its contradictions and crises, remains a powerful tradition for explaining the movement between worlds, and at its best, is able to reflect on the processes and pitfalls this sort of transition involves.

To be able to engage and develop a nuanced comprehension of the region and communicate these observations to an audience, I knew that I needed to engage in a reflexive form of knowledge production. The notion of reflexivity is a complex, subtle and slippery term with a broad range of associated meanings and practices (Foley 2002). I take reflexivity to mean that language and thought has the capacity to bend back on itself, in order to reflect on the socially constructed nature of the self and the other. Having been radicalised while studying at university in the late 1980s, I invariably came into contact and have been heavily influenced by the feminist critique of universalistic and objective forms of knowledge, which reveals how these perspectives are based on a fundamental and erroneous split between epistemology and politics. This observation is most powerfully articulated by African-American and Latina feminists such as bell hooks (1984), Gloria Anzaldúa (with Moraga 1984) and Angela Y. Davis (1981), who adroitly articulate the complex inter-relationship between dynamics of class, race and gender and how it impacts and distorts all aspects of social production and reproduction. They reminds us that the power relations of the observer as much as the observed needs to be scrutinized.

Ethnography that is reflexive by necessity also needs to be critical. In the vast ethnographic literature the researcher is usually referred to as a participant observer. Within this conjunction there is an inherent tension, wherein the participant implies an emotional involvement, while the observer suggests a level of detachment in order to be objective (Paul cited in Tedlock 1991, 69). Since the mid-1970s where it was recognized that up until that point anthropology had largely been ‘the handmaiden of colonialism’ (Asad, 1973), and that it needed to be read against itself, in order to reveal the often overlooked power dynamics that inform and frame the researcher/researched relationship. Now ethnography is much more about the observation of the participation, wherein ethnographers both experience and observe their own and others participation in the ethnographic encounter (Tedlock, 1991). This reflexive shift contributed to the emergence of a critical ethnography, which is not so much a distinct methodology but rather an emergent field within anthropology with a shared set of values in regards to social change and transformation and a deep suspicion of notions of objectivity and neutrality. Critical ethnography is concerned with interrogating how power relations frame, inform and distort knowledge and social re/production. Jim Thomas explains the link between critical dimension of ethnography thus:

The roots of critical thought spread from a long tradition of intellectual rebellion in which rigorous examination of ideas and discourse constituted political challenge. Social critique, by definition, is radical. It implies an evaluative judgment of meaning and method in research, policy and human activity. Critical theory implies freedom by recognizing that social existence, including our knowledge of it, is not simply composed of givens imposed on us by powerful and mysterious forces. The act of critique implies that by thinking about and acting upon the world, we are able to change both our subjective interpretations and our objective conditions (Thomas, 1993, 18).

One of the primary discussions that has emerged from the tradition of critical ethnography is that around how the body is a powerful epistemological site. To be an observer in the traditional anthropological sense necessarily privileges sight and the visual over the other senses. This perspective draws on the Newtonian / Comtean sense of objectivity as framed by the hard sciences, which separates the subject from the object, and in the process usually ignores the implicit power dynamics and history associated with this assumption. In a systematic attempt to philosophically ground and outline a critical ethnography, Phil Carspecken (1996) addresses the visual bias as articulated through the work of Edmund Husserl and Jacques Derrida, whose work informs many forms of ethnography. Through interrogating the relationship between power and truth claims and between power and thought as articulated by Husserl and Derrida, Carspecken argues that: ‘the certainty commonly associated with visual perception should not be the taken for granted assumption for epistemology’ (Carspecken, 1996, 15). He goes on to argue that rather than rely on perceptual metaphors as found in mainstream ethnographies, we need to emphasise more communicative experiences and structures and focus on the intersubjective, that is, to pay much more attention to listening and speaking and body language (Carspecken, 1996).

Reimaging ethnography as primarily about listening and speaking rather than observing, has numerous potent epistemological and political implications, as Jeffrey Juris suggests:

The tendency to position oneself at a distance and treat social life as an object to decode rather than entering the flow and rhythm of ongoing social interaction hinders our ability to understand social practice’ (Juris, 2008, 20).

Dwight Conquergood also champions the shift from the visual to the aural and makes the point:

Listening is an interiorizing experience, a gathering together, a drawing in, whereas observation sizes up exteriors. The communicative praxis of speaking and listening, conversation, demands co-presence even as it de-centers the categories of knower and known (Conquergood, 1991, 183).

Renato Resaldo goes one step further to propose that privileging sight in the enthnographic methodology not only entails separation and surveillance, but is the cornerstone of an imperialist anthropology wherein: ‘the eye of ethnography is connected to the I of imperialism’ (Rosaldo, 1989, 41).