Camera as Mirror?
Reflections on Virtual Solipsism and Ethnographic Practice
Introduction: Virtual Solipsism as Experiment
The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a heightened embeddedness of digital technologies in ethnographic fieldwork, as many ethnographers have relied on remote and digital methodologies to protect their own health and the health of their interlocutors. The practices of sitting in front of webcams, gazing at figures on computer screens, and recording conversations hosted on video conferencing platforms have become integrated into our daily rhythms. Our relationship with the camera and images on the screen — both our own image and that of our interlocutors — merits an examination that goes beyond discourse of methodology to delve into themes such as presence and the self. Feeling Digital’s Experiment II, “Virtual Solipsism vs. Presence”, illuminates such themes. As part of Experiment II, group members were instructed to conduct and record an interview with themselves. Experiment II yields deep reflections on the positionality of the ethnographer, the generative potential of presence as a site of ethnographic inquiry, the intersubjective nature of the ethnographic encounter, and the pedagogical potential of virtual solipsism. These reflections form the crux of this essay.
Conducting the Experiment: Reflections on Presence and The Ethnographer’s Self
Experiment II was a fascinating reckoning with my own ontology. Within my research, I focus on the potential of the digital and its pitfalls. Such a focus is typically in relation to how my interlocutors feel, or how anthropologists can and should utilize digital methodologies. When recording myself and looking at my image, I became keenly aware of and reflexive of my own presence in the ethnographic encounter. The camera became a mirror. The encounter with my own face sparked affective responses and sensations of longing, curiosity, and awe. Furthermore, my conversation with myself bore the air of a “returning home”. I experienced the sensation of the presence of “another”, a presence similar to that of a long-lost friend. I characterize this sensation as intimate (un)familiarity. Here, what was “unfamiliar” was the act of having a conversation with myself, an act that I typically would not visibly perform. What was “familiar” was the act of being with myself, an act that I perform on a daily basis regardless of documentation.
As participants in Experiment II were advised to refrain from reading the interview questions beforehand, recorded responses were in “real-time”. The recording of the camera provided a sort of accountability, or even pressure, in which the participant must answer in a specific timeframe. Furthermore, the real-time response motivated an authentic vulnerability that deepened the sense of familiarity and/or unfamiliarity. The participant may have felt surprised by their own responses; alternatively, their responses may have confirmed what they already knew about their own self. The process of acknowledging one’s own self is an intimate and revelatory one. This intimacy is embodied by one of my own interview responses: “It does feel like a conversation with a friend who[m] I’ve been waiting to catch up with for so long.”
Viewing the Experiment: Seeing, Feeling, Acknowledging
I approached the viewing of Experiment II with the same sense of excitement that I experience when listening to interlocutors’ recorded interviews. I was viewing myself as an interlocutor — a flip of positionality! Ethnographer became interlocutor, interviewer became interviewee. I took note of my body language and mannerisms when responding. As soon as the camera records, I tend to sit on the edge of my seat in an alert, anticipated manner. I kept my hands on my desk, but began to use them to gesticulate in response to the fourth interview question: “Please describe in great detail everything you see on the camera screen. Take your time to do it.” When I am thinking, I avert my eye contact upwards towards the ceiling. When prompted in the third interview question to look into my eyes while answering, a nervous and curious smile crept upon my lips.
Viewing the experiments of my fellow group members was an enriching experience. I felt a sense of solidarity with group members, in that there were common threads with regards to vulnerable, meditative, and affective responses to the process of conducting an interview with ourselves. I found it intriguing that group members mentioned that while they do not feel uncomfortable with the process of conducting an interview with their own selves, they do feel a sense of anxiety about their videos being watched by an audience. This raises interesting questions regarding visibility and performativity. Group members also commented on gaze, addressing topics such as the (im)possibility of simultaneously looking into one’s own eyes and one’s image on the screen. Group members discussed their visual fixation on their own bodily features and acknowledged that they felt more “relaxed” by the fourth or fifth question in the interview. This acknowledgement grants some insight into how our interlocutors may feel during interviews.
Eye contact with myself...
Acknowledging my own body…
Conclusion: Camera as Mirror?
During the Feeling Digital Workshop, participants suggested that Experiment II and the notion of the camera as mirror motivate a return to themes in visual anthropology and ethnographic filmmaking. We can also think of Experiment II as a documentation and archiving of the self/selves. Although Zoom, smartphone cameras, and webcams are perceived to be “new” technologies, the dynamics that accompany the use of these technologies echo past and ongoing conversations centering on visuality, sociality, affect, and the self. Experiment II and similar bodily theatres thus bear much potential as pedagogical tools in anthropology and ethnographic methods. Potential points of inquiry include: How should ethnographers deal with the question of multiple selves with regards to temporality and performance? How do lag and the inversion of the image impact veracity/authenticity? How should ethnographers consider and reflect upon their virtual entry into the very private space of interlocutors’ rooms and vice versa? The experiments within the Feeling Digital project demonstrate that reflexive, bodily, and digital ethnographic practice can be a deeply enriching means of exploring the intersubjective nature of ethnographic encounters.