Home > Uncategorized > What Margaret Mead thought about tripods and why it matters for ethnographic filmmakers

What Margaret Mead thought about tripods and why it matters for ethnographic filmmakers

Should ethnographers use tripods or not? The question may seem trivial, but thanks to Margaret Mead, tripods signify two very distinct approaches to ethnographic filmmaking.

In terms of practicality, tripods can be cumbersome in the field. There’s plenty of sit-down interview time where a tripod is nice to have, but as the self-proclaimed “world’s clumsiest ethnographer,” I know that tripping over tripod legs while you’re following participants around isn’t a good look. In terms of the resultant video, using a tripod has its pros and cons. Using a tripod results in cleaner footage, and, of course, a more stable shot, while handheld footage can be livelier and more vibrant.

They each have their merits, but how does Margaret Mead, one of our very first ethnographic filmmakers, factor into the discussion? What did she think about this pressing issue of tripods? We get some insight from an article from 1976, “For God’s Sake, Margaret,” a transcript of the banter between her, at 75 years old, and her ex-husband, Gregory Bateson, with whom she filmed “Trance and Dance in Bali” almost forty years earlier. In the article, Bateson expressed his own position, arguing, “If you put the damn thing on a tripod, you don’t get any relevance.” To which Mead said, “No, you get what happened.”

Essentially, Mead argues that filming handheld gives the ethnographer too much power to choose what and what not to film, whereas with a tripod, you can leave the camera be and simply record whatever goes on for later analysis. This argument echoes the early “salvage ethnography” days where a primary motive of ethnographic filmmaking, and ethnography itself, was to document and preserve cultures that were in danger of disappearing. It also speaks to the inductive approach of ethnography where everything is data and the goal of filming is to capture as much of that data as possible, a position held by other anthropologists like Karl Heider. Filming, for Mead, was more about capturing evidence than creating art. She asks, “Why the hell should it be art?” She continues:

I mean an artistic film maker can make a beautiful notion of what he thinks is there, and you can’t do any subsequent analysis with it of any kind. That’s been the trouble with anthropology, because they had to trust us… [Before film] there was no way of probing further [into] material. So, we gradually developed the idea of film and tapes.

Her ex-husband, Bateson, in contrast, contends that you can only record one percent of what goes on anyway, whether you’re using a tripod or not, so you might as well get the best one percent. He values film more as a means of storytelling or conveyance and complains that without the ethnographer playing an active role in what to film, the end result will be dull and lifeless. He says, that, with a tripod, “You’re stuck. The [camera] grinds for twelve hundred feet. It’s a bore.” To which Mead retorts that he gets bored too easily.

Bateson is not alone in his preference for handheld. Jean Rouch, anthropologist and documentarian, found his filmmaking groove after losing his tripod in the rapids of the Niger River, forcing him to adopt the handheld, Cinema Verité style he pioneered:

For me, then, the only way to film is to walk about with the camera, taking it to wherever it is the most effective, and improvising a ballet in which the camera itself becomes just as much alive as the people it is filming.

By losing the tripod, Rouch is gaining himself, embracing reflexivity and the role of the researcher in the process. Through this embrace, he was able to create powerful, very human films. Rather than a tool for documenting culture, like in the Mead model, for Rouch, the camera is a medium for interpreting and expressing culture, ideally in creative, entertaining ways.

In the end, the choice to use a tripod or not is a personal preference that comes down to how practical it is in the field and the look you want from your footage. The real lesson from Mead is that we not go so “handheld” that we miss all the great data that surrounds us. The beauty of the camera is that it can collect data that we might not think to collect were we just armed with pen and paper. We also don’t want to be so devoted to the “tripod” approach that we’re collecting lifeless video—for most of us, we still use our videos for storytelling. A balanced approach may be best. The ideal may be to collect all the data we can with our cameras while acknowledging that all the while, we’re making choices and are influencing the world and our recording of it, tripod or not.

So they’re talking about much more than just tripods. With a tripod you still pick and choose what to film, and likewise with a handheld camera, you can still capture as much data as possible. Even if you compare a Mead film like “Trance and Dance” with a similar Rouch film, like “Horendi,” the differences are there, but they are not monumental. Still, the different approaches to ethnographic filmmaking have practical applications. You can take the “tripod” approach, where you’re focused on data collection, and it can impact how you film a context. Whether or not you actually have a tripod, you might tend towards long shots with the goal of capturing all of the actors and their actions with your camera. Taking a “handheld” approach, whether or not you are actually filming handheld, might mean focusing more on capturing what you find insightful in the moment, like the expression on someone’s face or the hands of someone using a tool. Most ethnographers have likely had times where they see something they find incredibly interesting and fight the urge (or succumb to the urge) to zoom in like a lunatic.

If you’re interested, you can find the whole conversation between Mead and Bateson at: http://www.oikos.org/forgod.htm

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