Typically, when I tell people I'm doing research, they don't really have a sense of what it is I'm actually doing. For the most part, my work does not involve quantitative data collection or heavy stats analysis, and I suppose observation sounds fuzzy, and doing or making or even being with people sounds even fuzzier.
Yesterday, doing research meant gathering iPads and cameras and loading them into a brown paper box. It meant downloading images I searched for on Pinterest under the title documentary photography onto the devices. It meant thinking about how participants could look at images of everyday life- documentary images- that showed something new or interesting about the most common of everyday moments, and spin a story from that image. It meant then imagining how participants could take the cameras packed in the box, and venture out into their world and photograph something- anything, really- from their daily lives. It meant devising a writing prompt that could follow the capturing of images, hoping that they'd continue to engage enough to write something meaningful about the image they had taken.
And so we arrived, my postdoctoral supervisor and myself, to addiction and rehab support center yesterday, and we were greeted by folks at the steps of the building, lingering on the streets and having a smoke. Someone held the door for us- for our hands were full of digital devices and doughnuts and coffee, and we entered a big room with fluorescent lighting and lots of round tables that smelled faintly of elementary school cafeteria food and warm bodies. Men and women of all ages gathered at the tables, clutching paper cups of coffee and chatting. An art table in the corner was littered with plastic boxes of broken crayons and felt markers that I desperately wanted to organized into their proper bins. An older woman with a pair of glasses strung around her neck introduced herself, the director of the center.
I felt out of place, the way I often do in a new space. The difference between me and my pixie haircut and these people was wide. I desperately wished to make the difference disappear so that I could sit down with these folks and have a cup of what I was certain was bad, watery coffee, and talk about life. But of course the way I want to be easily accepted, the way I imagine the chumminess, the camaraderie- it's always all in my head.
This isn't exactly like most of my research, for I am stepping into my post-doc supervisor's project. She's been here, many times. People know her. Young adults greet her. They ask about previous projects. I am new here, and this is the only time I will visit. Typically, I spend lots of time with people I do research with, and time erodes the difference between me and my pixie haircut and the people with whom I work. But not this time. This time, I rely on the relationships built by other researchers to carry me through, to facilitate our research.
I meet some folks. We move downstairs, into a yellowed classroom-cubicle. We gather around a table, men and women of all ages joining us. I try not to stare at a man with a multi-pointed star tattoo adorning the skin around his eye, which, I imagine, was insanely painful to have done. A young woman who must be close to me in age slips into the chair next to him, her straight blond hair falling down her back. She folds her body up in the chair, nervously- incessantly- tapping her fingers on the table. She must be going through withdrawal.
The room fills and we begin. The iPads. The people sharing their opinions of the images. Scrolling through pictures and describing what they like as I silently wish I'd chosen images that more represented this group. My pinterest images- the ones that spoke to me, they are hopelessly tied to my middle class life, my new mom-ness, my academic nerdiness, my documentary photography obsession.
But there's no room to wonder what could have been, and soon everyone has shared and we talk about what makes a good photo and we traipse outside with cameras and iPads and phones and cell phones pulled from participant pockets and backpacks.
A man who was going to photograph characters at the centre as though they were Sesame Street characters takes pictures of leaves as well. Another man isn't sure what he's supposed to do. I explain again, trying to remove the metaphor from my language. The blonde woman has someone else hold her camera while she poses with a cigarette in her hand, and I'm drawn both to the flickering red light and the curve of smoke billowing into the wind. The guy with the eye tattoo searches for a spider. We find one, but it's shaking to much in the wind. We search for another, finding one in the rafters of an octagonal structure that seems out of place.
I wonder if this is going to work. If there will be something to write about. If this is good enough.
And then we head inside, and each participant writes about their image, and one woman narrates a story to me about where she used to play as a little girl around a totem pole that she photographed. She cannot read or write, and she seems embarrassed. She emphasizes the incredible blue sky of the images she took, proud of her pictures. She took them with her camera, and her camera takes amazing pictures, she explains.
People share. The blonde talks about routines and addiction and her smoking photo. The woman who shot the totem pole asks me to read the statement I wrote as she spoke. I do. The man with the eye tattoo uses an app to write something about not getting caught in the spiderweb of life directly onto his image, but then he emails me only the plain image. I want the other one, the one with the writing. A former Pakistani architect shares an angular photo, showing us patterns and how how the image radiates.
And then we are done. The people begin to drift away. We remind them to take the food. We gather the tech. We turn off the recordings. We say thank you. We go to a cafe, and over hot drinks in trendy cups we try to imagine what we will write about multimodality, how we will think about this time, which photographs embody theory. We do not yet know. We will write there, and then we will re-write, and maybe we will know some more, then, after we've had time to think with these images, to let them blur together with ideas.
That's research. That's what I mean, when I say, I'm doing research today.
In the 1940s, Anne Frank wrote a diary that would become famous posthumously, about her experience as a Jewish girl living under Nazi rule. You probably read it in school at some point, if you grew up in North America.
In September of 2016, Bana Alabed opened a Twitter account from Aleppo, Syria about the war from her perspective as a seven-year old girl. In one month, she amassed over 71k followers with tweets like “Good afternoon from #Aleppo, I’m reading to forget the war,” and "My brother really scared of being killed by one of the shells -Bana #Aleppo." In case you haven't caught onto Bana's posts yet (she shares the account with her mom, who sometimes posts as well), you can check it out here: https://twitter.com/alabedbana
Both of these girls belong to a group of young women who, in formats appropriate to their times, leverage their stories of atrocity to effect social change. Anne Frank wrote in a diary that only became public after her death, but which has come to be emblematic of the Holocaust and which is used in classrooms to inspire students to consider major atrocity and the role of an adolescent girl living at that time. Contemporary girls follow in Anne Frank’s footsteps, relying on participatory media platforms to allow them to intervene in global conversations about gender and persistent inequity in real time.
I'm really struck by the way these narratives about life in really drastic, really dire situations are being taken up by those of us in North America. How do we interact with these stories? Who are those seventy thousand people following Bana? I'm willing to bet- though I've yet to look at the analytics- that most of them are not in Syria. Most of them, I think, are consuming her 70-character messages about life as a little girl in a war from vantage points like mine. It's as though she provides an unfiltered view of the war, one unmetered by popular media. But then again, she's seven. I have a seven year old niece. She's concerned with what flavor ice cream is in the freezer and which rides she is going to pick to go on at the county fair. I cannot even fathom her tweeting about war. And yet- I consume little Bana's brief messages, interludes from her world, on the daily, and my heart grips. Reading to forget the war. Her brother is afraid. Boom, Boom, Boom.
And what of these narratives? What can be done with them? If I download all of Bana's tweets, and analyze where her supporters are located geographically, and watch all the videos, and think with her mother's perspective, what then?
Will Bana's words be used like Anne Frank's, an entre into a world so foreign, a story that helps us make sense of atrocity? Some people worry that Anne Frank's diary is merely a balm for normalizing the Holocaust, that it takes the edge off the sheer violence when it celebrates Anne's indomitable spirit, her hopeful words, her little-girl outlook.
How can we take up Bana's words in ways that move us to action, that connect young people globally, that inspire the urgent, urgent need that for peace that is communicated every time she connects and reminds us that somewhere, very far away, many little girls are trying to avoid dying from bombs?
I'm a bit worried. Today wasn't a school day, but tomorrow my seventeen year old niece, who lives with me, will go back to high school after a brutal few days of election campaigning. She is taking both US History and Econ. As of yet, there has not been any conversation about the presidential campaign, which is shocking to me, but she tells me no one likes Trump in the whole school anyway.
But now, now it seems like they must. They must discuss this in classrooms. In every classroom. With all the kids. They have to talk about the way Donald Trump normalized his "locker room talk," they have to help young people understand why it's not ok to "grab [women] by the pussy."
I'm not the first to write on this topic. As news of Trump's "locker room" conversation travels, and we read again and again any blogs have popped up over the last couple of days, reminding us of the urgency surrounding dealing with misogyny in a timely, clear, feminist way.
What really worries me, though, is that most of my women-friends are writing, posting, texting, and remembering the many, many times they've been assaulted- when she was grabbed by the pussy on the train, when she hid in bushes from cat-calling dudes in vans, when that man exposed himself to the little girl at the lake, when the boy next door forced her to be a wife and kissed her even when she didn't want to. Some of the stories are from last week, but so many of the stories are from childhood. And the girls and young women in middle school and high school, watching these debates, scrolling through the most tweeted election scandal, seeing the phrase "grab them by the pussy" in headline after headline?
They're on the front lines. They live in the world my women-friends are remembering. Their little sisters play with the boy next door. They go on runs and hide their faces from cat-calling men. They hear their teachers' snide remarks.
And right now, as this trauma that we know all too well will likely become life-long, we are splashing it across social media feeds, shining the brightest, most public light on their newly ripped wounds, watching as they take in this life lesson that patriarchy offers. You know what? It's our job to help them make sense of this misogyny. It's our job to teach them the word misogyny. It's our job to make sure they know we can talk about what happened- that we want to talk about what happened.
My niece said to me this evening, "So wait, what exactly did he say again?" We talked. I told her. She's a second language learner, so I broke down each comment. I told her I was angry. Our conversation ended abruptly when a baby started crying. And then dinner, and then bedtime, and then homework. We have more to talk about.
But I hope to all the goddesses I'm not the only one talking to her about this. I hope her teachers give her a frame for thinking about this public assault on women's bodies, I hope her peers are horrified in the hallway, I hope her after-school club leaders allow some time and space for this topic.
And then I hope we come together, and we shut down the locker room talk, and it's not allowed, and we are not remembering, collectively, the ongoing nature of violence towards women's bodies, towards our bodies- violence enacted even by one of the men vying for the presidency.
Chelsey is a digital storyteller, geek, mama, researcher and yogi. She loves to make things and her favorite food is artichokes.