On observation and capture

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It’s becoming a familiar question: “so why use drawing, when you could just take the pictures with a camera?”. For those accustomed to thinking in terms of reproducible data, it’s not immediately apparent what drawing in particular has to offer. It’s a reasonable query, and a helpful one to address[i]. There are a number of ways to try and answer it, and I will begin with a brief theoretical analysis of the question itself, before I go on to a more practice-based exploration of how drawing is working for me as a method in the field.

As I understand it, the above question holds at its base the following assumption: that an image is the reproduction of a set of optical data that represent the observed world (and that the image does this with a variable – but theoretically determinable – degree of accuracy). The digital camera is a remarkably precise tool for carrying out just such a process, and so has obvious utility as a visual support to research of various kinds – including my own. For my purposes, however, drawing offers a different set of possibilities from camera work. I will try to clarify why this is by  first setting out in more detail – and in reverse order – the components of the implicit assumption I have outlined above.

First – the idea of an observed world here denotes a pre-given and self-evident reality, separate from both the observer and the act of observation. As a theoretical convention, this idea makes possible a great deal of useful empirical scientific research. It is, however, a construct; one that detracts attention from the ways in which the world is ultimately relational. Since my research is concerned explicitly with a relational ontology, this particular construct is unhelpful. In drawing and/or photographing, I am immediately in and of the world I am observing, not set apart from it.

Second – the idea of representation suggests an intention to transpose that pre-given ‘world out there’ onto the page (or screen). If the world does not have a pre-given existence but is instead perpetually remade through relational encounters, then the making of an image is not an act of representation at all, but rather a part of that  very process of perpetual remaking. In drawing and/or photographing, I am implicated – in how ever minor a capacity – in the world’s processes of becoming.

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Third – optical data, despite the clear visual elements in my research, is not my primary focus. I am interested in encounters, and in how they play out at multiple scales and registers. Encounter encompasses not just sight but all the senses; it includes material, emotional and cognitive dimensions; and it includes how these become storied – personally, culturally and politically. Drawing, for me, is one way of paying attention to those processes, and to how those processes are layered and entangled within each other, or work alongside each other. Because drawing is durational; because of the ways it engages body, mind, matter, and space; there is more room within the drawing process for these dimensions of encounter – and the two listed above – to become available to me.

Finally – the idea of reproduction presupposes a finite subject with a fixed position in time and space. It also implies the possibility of equivalence; a hierarchy of ultimately interchangeable parts. If the subject, again, is not pre-given but emerges as the provisional product of multiple relational encounters, this kind of substitution is not possible, since the subject does not have an independent existence which can be replicated under other conditions. When I draw, rather than carrying out an act of transposition I am initiating an encounter that unfolds in time and space. The process of making an image, then, becomes not so much a question of the faithful transmission of data, as a question of what kinds of space it opens up, for encounter with the world. Thus while the camera is arguably the most accurate means of recording optical data, the kinds of space it opens up – the modes of attention it elicits in me and the kinds of relational encounter it provokes – are different from drawing, and as such offer different possibilities. The point here is not to pronounce on the inherent characteristics of photography, but rather to shake the specific underlying assumptions in this question, which I believe make photography appear the logical choice.

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In my field work here in the Huleh valley, I do use both still photography and video alongside my observational drawing practice. Although drawing is my primary method, photography enables me to collect visual material for future reference and to record aspects of my working process. It also makes it possible to create images of things I lack the capacity to draw – things too brief, too complex, too distant – or things that just happen to come along at the wrong moment. However, It is not only methodological considerations that inspire me to take out the camera. Sometimes the quality of the light on a particular day, the liveliness of the landscape at work around me are just exciting – I can imagine how well the camera will respond and I am compelled by the idea of the images it could produce. Photography is thus also a way of working in relation, and one which carries its own impulses and charge. Working with the camera alongside drawing gives me the chance to observe the differences – how each method affects what and how I see and do, and thus what kinds of relation it elicits. These are practice-based observations; reflections on my particular experience rather than necessarily generalisable statements.

When I’m working with the camera – especially when photographing ‘wildlife’; wary and lively nonhuman animals – the emphasis is on capture. Successful image-making (beyond the significant element of chance) is a matter of being at the ready; cocked; primed. The emphasis here is on framing the moment. In fact, to be more precise, it’s about anticipating the moment – about being one step ahead of what takes place around me, and about being ready to fix what is happening; to freeze it in time.

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What is more, this process often takes place in relation to nonhuman animals whose image I hope to capture. By learning to anticipate the rhythm and timing of a bird’s fright and flight – by becoming familiar with the comfort zones of different species and individuals – I learn how to disturb them with my own presence at just the right moment, camera at the ready. It’s like a dance; caught in the tensions between distance and proximity, admiration and intrusion. Photography, then, is still a relational encounter. The photographer is not truly ‘outside’ the world observed. Nevertheless, this mode of relation for me amplifies discontinuity and disconnection between subject and object, rather than commonality. Although it does involve entering a state of heightened attention and alertness, the process  as a whole revolves around an instant of consummation. Its purpose is to gain a kind of mastery over, rather than resonance with, the world.

In the practice of natural history, photography arrived as an alternative to hunting – a way of ‘shooting’ and ‘collecting’ specimens that leaves the wildlife unharmed. From a conservation perspective, this was clearly a welcome development, but as a mode of knowledge-making practice photography preserves something of the same stratified approach to human-nature relations that characterised the hunt.  And indeed, I’ve noticed it is the predators who most often trigger in me that impulse towards the camera[ii]. This a potentially contentious assertion – hunters frequently claim a sense of rapport and connection with their animal quarry, and with the wider ecology they enter or inhabit. Given the immediate asymmetry of relations between hunter and hunted, however, such a rapport seems oriented to a very particular framing of nature, and foregrounds a particular set of agential relations. Nature here remains atomised – a matter of competition between individual players – and immersion is aligned ultimately with mastery: an entirely different proposition from the becoming lost or vulnerable that I wrote about in my previous post.

It bears repeating that I do not suggest that working with camera is necessarily, or inherently, constrictive[iii]. These observations are based on my experiences as a decidedly novice photographer. Wildlife photography is unfamiliar territory for me, and though I do frequently use the camera in my work as an artist, I don’t have the sort of developed photographic practice that might readily push the parameters of what the medium allows. It is likely that in more capable hands, the camera affords possibilities similar to those of drawing. However, I am not particularly concerned here with making a generalised argument about the relative qualities of particular media; such comparisons have limited applicability, and I believe energies are better directed towards a thorough and open-minded investigation of the affordances and possibilities of each, or either, medium. What I am reflecting on here is the contrast in my own practice between those times when I am at work with the camera and those times when I am at work with a pencil or other form of mark-making material. What kinds of space does the medium open up within me, and between me and my immediate surroundings? Where does the medium situate me within those relationships?

To begin to answer this question, I want to look back at a recent day of field work and review some of the different ways drawing factored in my working process. The emphasis here will be not only on the moment of individual observational drawing sessions, but also on the ways drawing as a practice helped me to negotiate particular kinds of encounter – or to put it in other words, on how observational drawing as a mode of ethnographic practice extends beyond individual instances of data collection to questions of orientation and access within the wider social space of enquiry.

Most of my field work that particular day came about by accident. I had arranged to accompany a group of avian ecology students from the university of Jerusalem, who were visiting the Agamon site for a short residential workshop on field research. Some of the students were doing experimental observations of crane behaviour, and I wanted to observe them at work. I wasn’t feeling particularly confident that day, and the lecturer, preoccupied with other things, came across as less than enthusiastic; somewhere in the process our communication went amiss and I ended up searching for the students in the wrong part of the valley. Seeing a car parked close to a flock of cranes, on one of the dirt farm tracks that criss-cross the valley, I cycled down to see if the students were there. Nobody was, but I stopped for a moment to photograph the birds picking over the furrows of a new-ploughed field. As I stood there I noticed a person with a dog walking back towards me across the field, and realised the car was his, so I asked if he worked chasing the cranes from the crops. Crane-scaring is an important part of the system here, which combines feeding within the grounds of the Agamon Park and deterrence elsewhere, to minimise the damage cranes can cause to winter crops.

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It turned out my guess was correct, so I spoke a little about my research, mentioning that I was keen to accompany somebody and see for myself how they keep the birds from the crops. Ehab (I later learned his name) was friendly enough and suggested that I seek out another, more senior, colleague who could explain to me the work they do. Hearing him speak to his dog I asked where he was from, and we exchanged a few sentences in Arabic. Reluctant to let the opportunity slip, I got out my sketchbook to show what I was doing, and he offered to demonstrate for me how he raises the cranes by angling a mirror to flash light in their eyes. As he worked, I made a quick sketch, and having seen the drawing, he then offered to take me on a round in his jeep. I climbed in and sat there sketching away in the front seat as we drove, noting down his comments as he pointed out to me the different interactions between the cranes’ behaviour and the agricultural regime.

Drawing opened up the opportunity for conversation, but it was more than simply a means of gaining access, or making a positive impression. Drawing became a way of sharing something of myself, my interests, and my working process with another person, and so inviting a particular kind of connection. Perhaps in the first instance this helped me gain trust, or provoke curiosity – as we went on, however, drawing continued to shape our encounter in other ways. As I drew, Ehab watched and commented; he was able to form an idea of what interested me. For example, he noted that I was drawing the rosary, mirror and dashboard of his car as well as the flock of cranes beyond the windscreen – foregrounding his working practice and relationship with the birds, rather than focusing on just the birds in isolation.

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The drawing process – as well as my questions, his work routines, and the things we encountered in the field – brought up particular thoughts and themes. In addition to pointing out specifics of crane behaviour and crane-chasing strategy, the conversation ranged across his motivations for doing the work; what he’d learned over the past two years about the cranes and the broader ecology of the valley; his encounters with photographers and other researchers; memories from childhood; and the practicalities of casual employment. Ehab takes an obvious pleasure in the cranes themselves – describing them as intelligent and strong, and detailing the idiosyncrasies of different birds’ behaviour. The work was interesting, he told me, but it would hardly pay off for someone who didn’t also genuinely appreciate the time spent ‘in nature’. He showed me the library of photos downloaded to his phone, which he uses to identify the different species, sharing his obvious pleasure in the process of becoming familiar with their variety.

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Photographs also featured in our interactions – when he showed me images on his phone, for example, and when we stopped to photograph a terrapin on the bank of a drainage channel. Even being able to speak a little Arabic together may have helped to set the tone of the encounter, and avoid defaulting to existing hierarchies and assumptions. In this kind of mixed-method ethnographical process it is difficult to isolate one cause from another, but my strong impression is that the drawing helped to open up a different space between us – and also between ourselves, the cranes, and the wider landscape. Specifically, the unfolding nature of the drawing process, and the immediacy with which it reflected the movements of my attention, offered Ehab a way in to understanding my particular trajectories of thought and observation, and allowed us to meet on more reciprocal terms than in, for instance, a formal structured interview.

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After taking my leave from Ehab, I found my way to the group from Jerusalem, who had gathered to present their work back to the group at a view point beside the lake. It was interesting to hear and observe the student’s experiences, putting their models for behavioural studies into practice in the field. The object for students was to become familiar with the differences between experiment design and practice, and the practicalities of fieldwork. For me, it was an opportunity to observe how students set about incorporating and adjusting to this encounter with a world more lively and entangled than they had anticipated.

Here again drawing helped me find a way in to the encounter. To begin with, it was simply a reason to be there; a way to attend to the energy and dynamics of the group. As a form of notation, it was helpful because it allowed me to mark aspects such as body language, texture of movement, atmosphere, and the distribution of individual bodies in relation to each other and the space, alongside snippets of what they said. As a prompt to conversation it was also an evocative way for me to share with the students my own experiments of the day – sharing something both of what I had learned from Ehab and of my approach to research and how I saw it relating to theirs.

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In short, drawing has been more than just a way of recording data about the world – instead it is a way of generating and observing encounters within that world. The process enables me to keep my research process fundamentally relational and embedded, and the resulting collections of images offer a different way of rendering or telling that process – one that doesn’t separate out information into discrete units of data but instead makes present the specific modes of attention and registers of experience that observational drawing, as a method, made available in the field.

[minor edits and conclusion added: 16 Feb 2017]

[i] There is an extensive literature theorising the hand drawn and photography – for some key reference points see Roland Barthes, John Berger, and more recently Tim Ingold.

[ii] Brice, Sage (2017) Somehow oddly fitting that it’s the predators who most often trigger that impulse towards camera [Twitter status] 18 Jan. Available at: https://twitter.com/sage_brice/status/821790393591365633

[iii] For an interesting treatment of this argument see Grimshaw, A. and Ravetz, A. (2015) ‘Drawing with a camera? Ethnographic film and transformative anthropology’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol. 21, no. 2, pp. 255–275 [Online]. DOI: 10.1111/1467-9655.12161.

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