• 17th August 2015
  • Blog


Any project on digital anything will obviously benefit from the development of digital technology and gadgets – not least that they are now smaller and cheaper than ever before. While Simon and I have extensive experience in conducting field research, technology has lurched forward at an astounding speed since we started out and the Digital Folk project had more options for affordable, digital tech than ever before. As such the project contained a budget to purchase video and audio recording equipment as well as cameras to generate digital stills. Once we realised had top notch, high-capacity recording equipment and cameras for ad hoc documenting in our pockets already (I am never without my iPhone!) we decided to focus on high quality images and video. After much discussion we settled on a DSLR with HD video capabilities, external stereo mic and all the paraphernalia that goes with it.

Once all the tech arrived we excitedly unwrapped it, pressed all the buttons, took photos of a door and found the not-insubstantial manual and it finally dawned on us… Neither of us knew how to work a video camera! Certainly not an HD camera that could be used to put together vlogs and interviews and shoot documentaries about Digital Folk.

As luck would have it Simon’s attention was drawn to a course on Digital Video Production for Anthropologists and Social Researchers, being run by Spectacle in London. The dates matched up with a field trip to London to interview the movers and shakers in English folk, so with a little help from the department research committee I was booked on the course for mid-June.

The course was excellent. Held over two days in the production company’s studio by the studio’s founding filmmaker, we were taken through every aspect of film making in such a way that we should be able to use any type of camera based on these principles. It was a whirl of ISO setting, f-stops, focusing and exposure (all very useful for stills as much as for video!) We were also taught about framing (headroom is important), lighting (got to play with one of those silver reflector umbrellas) and white balance (variously sticking bits of paper on things and pressing buttons). As if that weren’t enough for two days, we also looked at the various ways of constructing footage for editing into a documentary. This included everything from interview technique, cut away shots, shooting on location, winding on to allow edits and background sound.

The hot issue of the weekend, however, was not only the ethics of documentary film making, but also how they do and don’t fit with university ethics procedures. On the course with me were two MA students and two university researchers/lecturers and pushing the right buttons, twiddling the right wheel and setting up a shot seemed simple compared to the expectations of ethics committees and good fieldwork practice, on researchers represented on the course.

Most problematic was the need for written permission for every participant. This can be tricky to achieve when filming large crowds or public events, or even for ad hoc vox pop interviews. When we asked a professional documentary filmmaker he pointed out that people have a choice as to whether they go in front of the camera. As long you are obvious enough and not filming ‘covertly’ the general public with either detour around the back of the cameraman or come and ask for any footage to be removed. The very act of willingly walking in front of an obvious film camera, or being interviewed in front of a lens is tacit approval. It is also good documentary practice to ask any interviewee their name and contact details before interview. This not only evidences permission, but is also handy so you don’t forget who you interviewed. Without this approach to permissions it would be almost impossible for investigatory and documentary filmmakers to produce anything of worth.

We also discussed some of the legalities associated with filming. If you are filming on private property the owner or proprietor has every right to ask you to leave. If you are filming a person and they say no filming, you should turn the lens away from them. But it is vary difficult for anyone to argue that you must stop filming entirely. As investigative filmmakers, Spectacle have been asked to leave premises, but can legally continue to film from public property. We also discussed the ways in which depth of field and focus can be used to anonymise participants (we’ve all seen fuzzy footage of children or shoppers on the news). Ethics become much easier if the subject(s) are not identifiable – filmed from behind, head out of shot, blurred or over exposed.

What was concluded by the participants on the course, then, was that perhaps ethics are not a one-size-fits-all idea. The ethics procedures in universities appear to favour STEM subjects and are particularly structured around the need for permission to gather sensitive information or administer test drugs. And this is all right and proper. But these structures become prohibitive when it comes to less sensitive data. If a folk dancer is performing in the street in front of a large crowd of bystanders, many of which are filming and photographing using their smart phones, is it really necessary to gain written permission? The consequences of this film are not the same as not gaining permission before giving a test subject a new drug. And yet the dreaded ‘ethics committee’ kept cropping up as the fieldwork bogeyman. A sort of spectre restricting otherwise fruitful forms of social and arts research. Rather than trying to fit anthropological and social research into a STEM based framework for ethics, perhaps we should, as researchers and academics, be feeding back to ethics committees that a more bespoke, less restrictive framework needs to be developed for the kinds of research carried out in Arts & Humanities departments.

Cinzia Yates

See Also: Simon Keegan-Phipps. Research Ethics in the Arts & Humanities: Challenging the Hegemony of Scientific Models