In the Field



Although "visual anthropology" was not a named discipline in 1962, Allison's interest in using film and photographs was encouraged by Dr. Margaret Mead at Columbia University. Dr. Mead taught a one semester course in field methods, which included the systematic use of photographs and audio tapes in observation, note-taking and subsequent analysis of the collected data. Mead, who together with Bateson, had made numerous short research films in the 1930's in New Guinea and Bali, and had published two extensive photographic studies of Bali, was eager to see visual media used more frequently in ethnography.

ince there were, as yet, no organized field schools to prepare students for field work, with or without visual means, Mead put Allison in touch with other researchers who were using visual approaches. In June, 1962, Dr. Ray Birdwhistell, an anthropologist studying the then new field of communication at the Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute, gave a two-week seminar on kinesics, the method he was developing in his study of the non-verbal components of human communication. It was then that Allison was introduced to micro-analysis -- frame-by-frame analysis of 16 mm. research footage of naturally occurring behavior -- and to the study of non-verbal communication -- the theoretical perspective which, at that time, used film records more than any other in anthropology. This perspective contrasted sharply and, in her eyes, favorably, with the commercial film approach which she had been exposed to during the only course in film production she had been able to take at Columbia before departure. Mead also put Allison in touch with Paul Byers, who gave her a brief, though practical introduction to developing 35 mm. still film in the field.

he only other preparations were learning a basic vocabulary of Pidgin English which Mead handed out to the members of the expedition, and walking back and forth energetically between each other's apartments in order "to get in shape."



The Jablonkos brought into the field two Hitachi Pentax cameras (which were not automatic in those days), two lightmeters, and their 16mm. 3-lens turret, spring-wound Reflex Bolex cine camera with a motor and battery pack. They also brought a stainless steel developing cannister and a changing bag, which could be used to load the cannister or to unjam any film which might get stuck in a camera. For the maintenance of our film and equipment under tropical conditions a good supply of silica gel was included.

e brought both color and black and white film. Color film cost a great deal more than black and white film and we reserved it for use during ceremonial occasions, where decorations were emphasized, and for garden work, where the many shades of green would not be distinguishable in black and white images. Black and white film was used for our extensive records of everyday interaction. Black and white film was also useful in low light conditions, as the color emulsions in those days were not very sensitive.


Logistics in the Field

Our equipment and film were well packed for the trip into the field and new film cans were sealed. It was once the films were opened that utmost care had to be taken as a result of the humidity and heat. From August to December there was an average of 18.38 inches of rain per month, while from January to July the average was 8.85 inches. The nightly temperature in the high fifties or low sixties rose to the upper seventies during the day. Rain fell almost every night and every afternoon. It was for this that we had been advised to bring plenty of silica gel. We had followed the Vaydas' and Rappaports' advice and brought the best kind, the sort which turned pink when it was full of moisture, and turned blue again once it was dried. But how to dry it? The usual technique was to spread it in a frying pan and heat it just enough to dry it out. We discovered an easier way, which also utilized one source of fuel for two purposes: we put the pink silica gel into a sock and hung it up over the Tilley lamp every evening.

illey lamps were a crucial part of our equipment. They ran on kerosene and operated by means of a pressure tank and a delicate silk mantle which had to be changed periodically. The lamp made a cozy hissing sound and the heat it produced was very welcome to us on the cold damp evenings in our unheated house. The Tilley lamp produced a brilliant white light which enabled us to label and pack exposed films and index the contact sheets during the evenings. The films had to be securely wrapped as the packages were subject to soaking by rain, if not an accidental dousing in a river, on the way to Simbai. We soon learned that Sisalkraft, a triple-layered paper with a thin layer of tar and strong fibers in the middle, was excellent for this purpose.

ach week one or two men, the "mail boys" of the expedition, carried the mail, including all the recently exposed film, to the Patrol Post at Simbai, where it was put on the weekly government flight to Madang. We did not see any of the 16mm. film while we were in the field, as it was posted on from Madang for processing in the USA. The "mail boys" would return to Gunts once a week with incoming mail, color slides, and the contact sheets and still prints which had been processed in Madang. We were fortunate that Diczbalis, an expatriate Czech, was running an excellent photographic studio in Madang at that time. We were greatly relieved that we did not have to develop our still films ourselves on location, because the amount of time needed for all the other necessities of shooting, labelling, packing, and indexing the films was already enormous.


Interaction with the Cameras

Just as the Maring people had no inhibitions about watching us, they had no reservations about us watching, filming, or photographing them. They freely interacted with us, whether or not we were photographing or filming, if they considered it appropriate to the situation. For example, they offered us food whenever they ate, whether or not our hands were full of photographic equipment, and, if a rainstorm blew in, they often asked to borrow the umbrellas we were filming under. They were not aware that to stop a 16mm. movie camera was not as simple as putting down an axe or a bushknife, which could be picked up after a brief interlude to continue one's work.

t the beginning, almost everyone was curious to look through the lenses, but this curiousity was soon satisfied. We showed them that a person standing directly between a camera and an activity we were looking at would block the view. Thereafter, local people occasionally reminded each other, especially children, to move out of the direct line between the camera and whatever we were focussing on. The only people who simply stared into the camera were visitors from other groups.

one of the local people had ever seen photographs or films before we showed them some of our contact sheets and prints. After seeing them, they simply accepted that filming and photography were, along with writing, our work. They allowed us to do our work and, in turn, went on with their activities without performing for the benefit of the camera. At that time in history neither the camera nor the resulting images had any cultural significance for them. (206:35) We rarely asked anyone to repeat an action if we had missed recording it, as our interest was more in documenting the flow of events than in collecting images to fill some predetermined list.

ontrary to our hopes, the Fungais showed little sustained interest in the photographs, even though they had no trouble identifying people and plants, whether on prints or contact sheets, and regardless of whether they were looking at them "right-side-up," "up-side-down" or "side-ways."


Field Approach
Shortly after we arrived in the field, we contacted Dr. D. Carleton Gajdusek, who was at that time doing medical research throughout Micronesia and Melanesia, and was particularly interested in establishing a film archive for The Study of Child Growth and Development in Primitive Culture (Gajdusek 1963). Mead and Gajdusek shared and encouraged Allison's enthusiasm for making researchable visual documents as a historic record of a society about to undergo rapid change.

he other members of the Columbia University team were investigating well defined themes, and therefore directed their field approach in quite specific ways. Anne Rappaport did a linguistic study, preparing a basic grammar and vocabulary of the Maring language. Skip Rappaport mapped gardens, observed ceremonial and gardening activities, and carried out in-depth interviews from which emerged the intricate connection between Maring ritual practices and the environment. Peter Vayda carried out an extensive survey of inter-clan marriage patterns. Cherry Lowman Vayda shared Allison's interest in non-verbal communication and took photographs as well as working with informants for explanations of the events we were experiencing. Marek used the cine camera at occasions where movement was central - garden activities, ritual events, and the everyday life of families. We approached the collection of visual records in an exploratory, open-ended way, expecting these records to be a useful historical archive, as well as providing material for a Ph.D. dissertation for Allison.

t was Gajdusek's focus on child development which prompted us to spend most of our time filming and photographing the variety of everyday life in Gunts and other hamlet yards, where children were always present. In addition, we were able to film the culmination of the Tsembaga ritual cycle in collaboration with the Rappaports. Gajdusek gave financial support for filming and for the deposit of the resulting circa 62,000 feet of research footage in his archive, which, at the time, was located in Bethesda, Maryland. Along with the film, we took circa 8,700 35 mm. black and white photographs and 1600 color slides. These still photographs are in our private collection.


Upon our return from the field, a portion of the 16mm. footage was edited into a film entitled "Kerepe's House: A Housebuilding in New Guinea." Many sequences in the footage were utilized by Allison to analyze the way the Maring use their bodies, space and time during their daily activities and in ritual events. This analysis, coupled with the ethnographic data reported by the Rappaports (Rappaport 1968), became the basis of her Ph.D. dissertation (Jablonko 1968) and the film which accompanied it (Maring in Motion). Some of the photographs have been published in articles (Jablonko 1992a, 1993b), however it was only in 1996 that we began to work with the photographic collection as a whole.

Last modified on March 18, 1999


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