Dialogue with a Young Musician
April 17, 1997


This morning I sat down at the breakfast table and looked at Roll 001 with Jocelyn, a pianist and a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota. I have never seen a non-photographer scrutinize a contact sheet with such care. Having finished, she asked several questions and then proceeded to share her perception of the 37 photographs. Perhaps it is her training as a musician which has prepared her to see them as a whole and to characterize this whole in terms of rhythm and climax:

"Initially there is the excitement of arrival (001:01-001:06) and the first encounter with the people. This moves into a larger gathering (001:07 - 001:20) which has the feeling of a school assembly - a certain intensity and attention. Thereafter, the people seem to scatter to their normal daily activities (001:21 - 001:26) and begin to involve us in their life. Finally, with shock, we are back in the European world as the plane appears in the photos (001:31-001:37). This feels like an anti-climax. It seems as if we had gotten off to a good start, and then, before we really got involved, we pulled back into our own world. This may be a 'premonition' about the whole experience. At first it feels disappointing, but this kind of alternation between going out into the new, and then retreating back to the familiar, is probably a necessary rhythm for most undertakings. The climax, in any case, is the gathering."

She has taken a contact sheet and worked with it as a unit. John Collier, Jr. would have been thrilled with such a student! She has no trouble at all constructing narrative and articulating it. I am amazed at her ability to look with concentration and interest at a contact sheet. She responded to the good lighting in some of the images (001:11) and to the smiles visible. She asked about the wooden poles in 001:15. I'd never paid any attention to them before, but, given the necessity of answering, I identified them as most likely the poles for carrying cargo which the men from Tsembaga had brought with them. There is also a little pile of firewood in front of the house.

Her perception that people were scattering for their daily round was, of course, mistaken. In fact all the interactions in this roll are highly unusual for the participants. Much of what was going on was 'for the first time'. Certainly, Marek had never before in his life unloaded a Cessna with the help of a Papuan policeman. Whether Tultul Pinj had ever dug up sweet potatoes before is also a open question: Maring men harvest sugarcane and bananas; women harvest sweet potatoes. There are no women in these photos at all. The meeting is one of men - the encounter between the men of two different societies.

Jocelyn was puzzled by the bodily position of the man on the left in 001:32: is he dancing? I pointed out in 001:06 how the boy who is holding Marek's hand is using his legs - in clear contrast to the way Marek strides out with his whole leg. I believe both these pictures attest to a particular way of walking which we never paid any attention to at the time. It never even entered our conscious awareness.

Jocelyn and I went on talking about creating narrative. It is clear to both of us now that depending on which audience one is presenting images or a verbal subject to, one will choose a different narrative. There are many alternate possible narratives in any body of material. Jocelyn wonders how one can choose. She is ahead of me when I was her age: I was still wondering how to find even one narrative.

I was hampered by a background which had led me to accept the idea that there is "one correct narrative". Such a position lets the individual off the hook of having to take responsibility for creating a narrative: if the "narrative" comes from outside oneself, then all one has to do is be a good "window", a good reporter.

In the past ten years I have thoroughly come to understand that this is NOT the situation in which human beings find themselves. If it were, the only challenge would be to identify and discard "false" narratives. But it turns out that, unless one is in a den of liars, that is not the main problem. Once problems of faking and lying are put aside, however, one is still faced with the issue of multiple possible representations. And this can only be solved with the personal courage to author a narrative, taking responsibility as an ethnographer that the narrative is a particular representation of a perceived reality and not a tale stemming largely from imagination.




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