Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Taking (bad) pictures of rituals and holy places. Anthropologist vs. tourist

Friday 30th of June we went to Holy Mount of Grabarka (only in Polish, in English here) and the Orthodox Church of the Transfiguration. The place is the most important orthodox sanctuary in Poland. It is situated in the eastern part of country, close to Siemiatycze, near border with Belarus. Celebrity of the feast of the Transfiguration is one of the 12 important holidays in orthodox ecclesiastical calendar. The date of our arrival is important to mention because it was the 10th Friday from Easter. It means it was the day of exceptional Holy Liturgy to which Orthodox people from Poland and Belarus come. We didn't actually know about the celebration and didn't suppose we were going to participate (?!) in an important religious event. Especially that on our way to sanctuary we didn't meet too much pilgrims:)

At the Holy Spring there wasn't anybody either...

So it was to our great surprise that when went up the hill to visit the church and the mount of crosses we met the congregation devoted to listening to the sermon and songs. And here THE BAD PHOTOGRAPHY began...

As you can see I didn't use too much time and energy to adjust my camera, to bring the image into focus, to wait for the right light, composition and so on (I am not any artistic or technical talent at all but I allways try a little bit more:). Suddenly I became conscious of being at a holy place. A place that is important to the assembled in a way that needs respect, understanding and distance. I felt ill at ease taking pictures highlighting my "strangeness" there. From somebody who wanted to see and experience the holy place, I transformed to a nosy tourist that poked her head in there. I felt like a spion in a place that deserves some special treatment. I didn't feel well. That is why I took some shots that are so crummy. Pictures that express my discomfort and my position there. The photos above show how I've tried to document what I saw but I didn't have enough courage and knowledge to make THE GOOD (aesthetic) DOCUMENT...

When I saw the pictures after I came home I was amazed over what the pictures actually showed! They are bad as documents of the celebration and don't have any aesthetic qualities but they are perfect as an evidence for my presence there and what my position was there and then - an observer, somebody hidden, who didn't want to be nailed. The camera was matter out of place as well as I was. In my perspective. As a newcomer, as a stranger, as an outsider, I wasn't sure how far I can go not to hurt anybody. Not to destroy the holisness of the moment. That is why I am not sure if I can work with "holy" things, places, rituals and others. I just couldn't wipe off the feeling of intrudeness out of my head. I think that my sense of empathy dominates over my voice of reason. I hope it is true what every experienced fielworker says that it's just a metter of training and practice to find the balance between those two. I know also that the fact that I was so focused on myself made me feel so uncomfortable. Now I am quite sure that those people probably didn't bother about my presence and what I was trying to do. But there and then I had a feeling that everybody looked at me and didn't say nothing but thought that I was a really rude tourist!

The other fact is that I didn't know anything about "taking pictures rules" there and I didn't ask anyone about that. I felt awfully weird. As a lot of fieldworkers ask themselves: Do I have the right? (see for example Belomonte or Scheper-Hughes) I asked myself also. I don't know the answer, I don't know exactly what I was doing there and why, but I've discovered next truth of being a moral scientist:


In his article Jay Ruby writes "If "taking pictures" is an anthropological activity, It would seem quite reasonable to expect to find a body of literature which demonstrates that anthropological picture-taking is scientifically justifiable." As I was just a "tourist" there, it is hard to find any justification for taking pictures there.

Another thing is where the boundary between being a tourist and being an anthropologist lays???? There are tourists who are interested in the culture and social situations one experiences and there are anthropologists that are not doing any FORMAL research or fieldwork at the place at which they are. Any place I visit for the first time provoke some thoughts that could be labeled as "anthropological" - that means that I try to find patterns, structures, functions, reasons, contexts in what I am witnessing. I adore anything new and I easily fall in love with the new situations and social beings. It gives me the power to explore new subjects and wake my interest in new themes. That feeling makes me interested in people's life and makes me want to understand them. Am I a tourist then or an anthropologist? I think that the difference is in what we do with those feelings later, when we are back from those places...... (I need to go deeper into this subject).

Anyway, I think that being an anthropologist requires a good dose of self-esteem and humility at the same time.

As a conlusion I want to quote Ruby and put pictures that, I think, illustrate almost literally what he calls "photographic presentation of self":

"When an anthropologist, or anyone else for that matter, takes a picture he follows a set of culturally specific conventions which determine the selection of subject matter and the treatment of that subject. In addition, the subject, if he is a member of a culture where pictures are normally taken, follows another set of "on camera" behaviors which shape his photographic presentation of self (my emphasis)."

"If asked, most anthropologists would separate themselves from the tourist photographer by saying that they have a scientific obligation to pictorially record any culture under study because that culture will undoubtedly undergo rapid change and they need to preserve this record for the future. This assumed responsibility and justification do cause us to take some pictures that the average tourist would not."

See also - Taking pictures movie.

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Monday, July 24, 2006

Multicultural Poland? Did you know that?

Here comes some pics from our holidays. Just some of them today ("the cemetery ones"), they comes from our travel to East Poland while we were looking for the cultural and social diversity we are not told about enough at schools (what we are going to be teached in there according to the newest ideas of the new government is another story and actually I don't want to write about this here. Now I understand what one proffesor meant when he said that "I think it's good you've changed your mind and will not do fieldwork in Poland. It's challenge to do one's first research in homeplace, especially you guys from East Poland who are so pissed off..." :) Yes, he was definitely right. I am too angry and too emotional about what is going on there to keep the necessary distance.

Anyway, we were on Podlasie on the East and visited those cultural and religious places that we thought are dying.

This is a Tatar mosque in Kruszyniany. There are living only 7 Tatar descendants there and the mosque is open only for religious holidays when the Muslims from the five Polish Muslim communities are gathering there. We were lucky to meet one of those who live in the village and we could see the mosque inside. We've also been told that the leader of Polish Muslim community is a woman! Wow, it was really surprising, especially that, as he said, they've adopted most of the Polish cultural and behavioural patterns so women as a leader for Polish and Muslim society was a big deal for us.

The Tatar cemetery mizar was place we were also surprised with. We were ashamed that we know SO little about our country. Shame on all of us who ignore the beauty right next to our fence!

Two kilometres from there we visited a Jewish cemetery in Krynki (in Polish, about Jews in Krynki in English here.

On the other side of the fence (now, literally) the Orthodox Church cemetery.

There was also a Catholic cemetery there but as I've visited those ones from the day I could walk I just didn't do any photos there. Actually, I should do this because Polish cemeteries looks quite different then those in West Europe.

10 kilometres from there, in Bialowieza, we visited Miejsce Mocy (The Place of Power), the Old Slavic ritual place. says: "Amid oaks and pines, sometimes with multiple trunks growing out of the same roots, there is a mysterious stone ring. Diviners claim that it generates an exceptionally strong magnetic field beneficial for humans. This strange energy removes fatigue and relieves pain. Bialowieza is said to be situated on a transcontinental radiation line which connects places like Gniezno, a legendary cult place in the Hartz Mountains, and a Catharist chapel in Druggelte, Westphalia." It's not a Stonehenge but it is worth seeing, especially that the place is situadted in the middle of Bialowieza Primeval Forest. It made me think about the difference between Polish and Norwegian treasuring the old history. While in Norway the medieval history for instance is one of the most important tourist target and one of the reasons to Norwegian pride, in Poland people seem to forget about our ancestors.

"If you came here for visdom and knowledge, ask and they will answer"

"If you brought here with you your "self" and want to organize the world forgetting God, leave this place alone, turn back on your own ways. They will lead you to the destination anyway"

Having experienced the cemetery diversity on so little space, the is one thing I wish to my country and to the whole world is that the living ones live beside each other as well so the dead ones (with all respect). "But they all are separated! Jews, Muslims, the Orthodox and Catholics, what a difference?! Couldn't they just be buried at the same place? It is enough we are separated when alive!" said a friend of mine. Maybe could, maybe not - we all know it is not so easy as it could seem. But the fence (= boundary) didn't make on me impression of an artificial division. Personally, I didn't find it problematic that all the three cemeteries are clearly limited. I think rather that those spaces are needed and as they outline some other ones for those who are still mourning after their loved ones they also keep some order in the religious universe. Anyway,

I am not religious. But visiting all saint places made me behave like a typical neophyte. I do not want to break any rules, not to offend anybody, not to make others feel uncomfortable and not to make anybody put curse on me:) So the funny picture at the end of this post. We were just going to enter St. Nicolas Orthodox Church in Bialowieza... (no no, I am not pretending being Orthodox - especially that at the place we were - Bialowieza, Suprasl, Krynki, Hajnowka, Grabarka - they are not too rigorous about covering the head! It is just a funny shot, I think)

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Sunday, July 23, 2006

Back in Norway. Still in Norway

My my, I've been admitted to MA! I couldn't believe this when I came home Friday night and opened an envelope. Doomsday-like feelings. Funny when I came to Norway as an au-pair to practice my Norwegian before I went back to Gdansk in Poland and thought "It would be nice to be able to take at least one class at the uni to see how it is to study in Norway and to test myself". I was lucky to be guest student for one semester. I took Regional Ethnography and Introduction to Social Anthropology and was on cloud nine doing this. So I've applied to BA and decided to stay in Oslo and do what I REALLY desire. I got in and was totally ecstatic. You can imagine what I feel now!

So, show must go on and my time has come! I am inexpressibly happy and paralysed at the same time. But I think that this kind of paralysis is what I can cope with and what I am actually looking forward to in my life.

For those who want to read and speak Norwegian - two articels of mine have been published in ANTROPRESS. One is a little "manifesto" to Norwegian anthropology students and about their participation (or rather - non-participation) at conferences and meetings they have opportunity to. I am also comparing relations in Polish and Norwegian academia. The other one is dealing with morality and ethics problematic among medical staff in Poland and is about the well-known division on the private and public "self" and social roles and expectation. As mentioned before - nothing huge, but first time in Norway so I am quite proud. I just have to avoid thoughts like: "Oh God, I wrote this X months ago! Now I would write it totally different!" Agrhhrhrr... As far as I know this is the worse curse for all who publish something.