Children of the Dew: A Creative Visual Ethnography

Since I have resigned from the most boring job on earth: cooking the same thing everyday, my desire to go home and pursue a PhD in economics/anthropology/sociology is now firm.  I can save a lot if I follow that route.  To prime or, actually, reorient myself with Philippine Anthropology, I have been checking how anthropology has been publicly practiced nowadays in my country.

Sadly, it is only in the media where anthropology seems relevant, and another sad thing is that it is the journalists, not anthropologists, who practice it.  I find it actually interesting.  The general and interdisciplinary education at my old university is, indeed, working.  I remember how those journalism and broadcasting majors took anthropology courses as electives and mingled with us in classrooms and in the field as if they were one of us-- anthropology majors.  They were interested in the holistic approach of the discipline and its adventurous and creative nature.  With anthropology, they didn't aimlessly shoot.  Their cameras spoke their minds.

I found this video, Hamog (Dew), on Youtube.  It is ethnographic, visually creative, theoretically rich, and very anthropological.  Socio-cultural theories come out from conversations and from the characters we call informants in anthropology.  They don't sound forced and contrived.  Stories are told not retold.  There is no voyeurism.  The characters in the documentary open up and share.  There is first-hand authenticity.  Their language sounds poetic and philosophical, but their thoughts are clear and to the point.  I can sense multiple theories even though the journalist does not mention one.  The documentary does not insult my intelligence, or ignorance. 

I wonder if such visual documentation can be replicated in texts.  I am sure its creative style--such as the webbing of multiple stories to come up with a cohesive whole--is replicable.  I am a firm believer now that creative writing can do wonders to our boring anthropological texts like what a creative videography does to a convoluted social documentary.          

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Comment by John McCreery on July 17, 2012 at 11:46am

M. Just found the following in a piece by Alison Lurie on the death of Maurice Sendak. Thought you might be interested.


As well as interpreting classic tales, Sendak could make something wonderful out of almost nothing. In We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (1993), for instance, he transforms two old British nonsense rhymes into a tale about homelessness, crime, and charity. His pictures make it clear that the story takes place in New York, and that the first lines can be understood in different ways:

We are all in the dumps
For diamonds are trumps

Sendak’s characters are both depressed and living in a kind of abandoned dump. Evil-looking rats are cheating at cards, and the Trump Tower and a huge, worried-looking moon rise above a city where money triumphs over everything. Lost children shelter in cardboard boxes or huddle under pages of The New York Times full of ads for cheap mortgages and news of lost jobs.

Presently a lot of kittens and a little African-American boy are kidnapped by the rats. But up in the sky three angels are reading all about it in the newspaper, and help is on the way. The moon turns into a huge white cat who rescues the kittens. The kidnapped boy escapes and is discovered by two young toughs:

Jack and Guy went out in the rye
And they found a little boy with one black eye
Come says Jack let’s knock him on the head
No says Guy let’s buy him some bread
You buy one loaf, and I’ll buy two
And we’ll bring him up as other folk do

The last picture in the book shows all three of them and other homeless children asleep in their urban jungle, surrounded by smiling kittens. Life in the city is scary, mean, and precarious, Sendak’s pictures tell us, but impulsive goodness also exists. There are other possibilities here too: one critic has interpreted We Are All in the Dumps as, among other things, a kind of Christian allegory./p>

Comment by John McCreery on July 17, 2012 at 7:01am

It was a good ending dramatically. But what does it point to? Pedro is still out there on his own, doing what he can as an individual. There is no existing institution that will lend him a hand, and he isn't creating one. As the example of what happened to the girls while he was in jail demonstrates, he needs a back-up, a second in command and a contingency plan for what will happen if he (or both he and his back-up) disappear. Personal heroism is great, but not a solution to a huge social problem.

Comment by M Izabel on July 17, 2012 at 4:15am

That was a good ending--hopeful and still tight.  Knowing the Philippine Government's poor child rights record, I could only hope Pedro's "children" were not taken away from him to languish in jails among adult prisoners.

Comment by John McCreery on July 17, 2012 at 2:46am
Just one minor correction. I didn't say that this particular video is poverty porn. I wondered how long it would be until similar videos came to elicit a response similar to that elicited by poverty porn. This particular video reminded me of something I heard an Indian woman say to a group of trainees preparing for work on a telephone counseling line. She told us that we should not assume that immigrant, often illegal, workers from South Asia or Africa, are victims incapable of taking care of themselves. After all, being able to secure the funds required to travel to Japan from friends and family is a pretty clear indication that people who know them see them as capable individuals who deserve their trust. The point was to shift our focus from "poor little them" to "what can we do to help them get through this bad patch and keep moving forward?" Often there was little we could do except listen and give them a safe place to vent. But for those with certain kinds of visa, landlord or labor issues, we had lawyers, etc., on call to provide pro bono help. For those needing medical attention, we could provide necessary information on how to navigate through the Japanese medical system.

If I were to critique this video, I might point to the fact that, while countering the assumption that poor people are helpless, it ends with a lone hero image (like the cowboy riding off into the sunset), which suggests that systemic change is impossible. I would have liked to see a cut in which he is joined as he walks into the future by some of the kids he has helped, suggesting at least the possibility of collective action.
Comment by M Izabel on July 16, 2012 at 7:32pm

Thanks for reading, John.  I don't consider this documentary a poverty porn.  Poverty porn exists because there are intended consumers-- NGO's, charities, religious groups, international institutions, etc.  This documentary does not solicit pity or bombard institutions and spectators with images that ask for compassion and donation.  Poverty in this documentary is creatively presented and intended to be intellectualized.

I found out that this documentary was an Online media project.  So right there, there is an intentional target audience-- the educated who have jobs and can afford computers.  The fact that it is short, it is safe to assume that it is for the busy people's intelligent, human interest-related entertainment.  

At least to me, the effect of this documentary is not to donate funds but to explore the idea that the solution to poverty must come from the poor and that it is the poor who can easily solve poverty because they are its immediate victims.  It has made me think of Pedro as the best leader who can initiate poverty alleviation programs.  When he said he wanted to be a cop and that he could easily curb crimes because he was a criminal,  I thought he could also be a community leader who could curb poverty in his community for he knew how it was being poor.   

Comment by John McCreery on July 16, 2012 at 5:00am

M, thanks for sharing this. It's powerful. I especially like the way in which Pedro is described, "Not afraid....maybe a saint...maybe a thug." Yet, at the same time, I wonder what making more similar films would achieve. Would it lead to the kind of compassion fatigue that overwhelms me whenever I see another portrayal of starving or exploited children, inevitably accompanied by a plea to donate to yet another good cause? What would it take to move me, not just to make a conscience-appeasing donation, but to make a serious sacrifice in an effort to achieve real change? Compassion, frustration, anger, fatigue—turning away to get on with other things is so very easy. How do we keep this kind of work to sinking into poverty porn, a chance to indulge in repressed emotions, to vent then turn away?


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