This chapter considers the work of the Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL),
established at Harvard University in 2006 and which has had a dramatic
impact both inside and beyond the academy. Initially, the institutional
context and the ideas informing the work of the SEL are described. This work
is very diverse and constantly innovative, making generalisation perilous.
But allowing for numerous possible exceptions, it is suggested that there
are various continuities between their praxis and that of their
institutional predecessor, Robert Gardner. These are particularly evident in
the attention given to visual aesthetics and to sound editing, and in the
generally high technical quality of their films. Also as in Gardner’s work,
both language and concern for communicating what the subjects think or feel
about the world are of secondary importance. There is typically even less
interest in relating those beliefs or sentiments to social relations,
politics or culture. It is argued that in these regards their work,
collectively, is set upon a trajectory carrying them progressively away from
the conception of ethnography on which this book is based. These
propositions are then explored in relation to some of the best-known works
produced by the SEL prior to 2015.
credits, which always feature a long list of names related to soundediting. This took place, along with the picture editing, not at the NFB but in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the EDC was based.
In an aesthetic sense, the films are very low-key: the general style is one of muted observational realism. But this effect has been brought about by very skilful authoring. The framing and exposure is generally immaculate and there are no self-conscious manifestations of
Blunden Harbour (1951) , Gardner used asynchronous drumming and shamanic chanting to suggest transcendent significance. In his later ethnographic films, the soundediting becomes progressively more sophisticated. In
, the soundtrack is greatly enriched but largely in a straightforward realist manner. In Rivers of Sand ( 1974 ), however, it begins to take on a more metaphorical function. Early in the film, the sound from a shot of a donkey braying in synch is carried
and the first-hand acting out of key aspects of that life that the film-maker achieves ethnographic understanding. Also important, however, is the principle that this immersion should always involve active collaborative relationships with the subjects.
The making of
was collaborative in a number of different regards. In a precise technical sense, inspired by the example of Steven Feld's ground-breaking work among the Kaluli of Papua New Guinea, Ferrarini used soundediting software in