Two Arts of Serendipity
Street photography, notes Magnum photographer Alex Webb, is a practice of harnessing serendipity. Photographers never know what they are going to find when they go out on the streets. They have to stay open to what comes their way and be ready for it when it does. They have to let go of expectations, plan to have no plan. They are, writes Webb, “at the mercy of the world and the world only gives them so much” (Webb and Webb 2014).
Ethnography is like that too. Anthropologists, once out in the field, have to let go of our pre-conceived notions of what our projects will look like or how they will unfold. We have to adapt to the circumstances as they present themselves, go with the flow. Sometimes, we have to disregard our research plans entirely. Designed in front of a computer with the input of advisors and colleagues, the best laid ethnographic plans often fail to conform to the realities of ethnographic research.
For anthropologists, of course, this is not news. Ethnography, we have long known, is adaptive, omnivorous, and opportunistic (Geertz 2000), pursuing winding, crisscrossing paths we were unable to see from a distance (Ingold 2015). Ethnography operates on a schedule and according to a plan that is often not of our own choosing. Committed ethnographers let our interlocutors lead the way, determining what’s important and what isn’t, taking us off in unintended directions. We know this, and we adapt accordingly.
However, granting agencies, IRB requirements, and the desire not to appear idle to our colleagues often lead us to pretend otherwise. We develop rigorous research protocols that we know we will deviate from. We form faux hypotheses and endless strings of research questions we abandon once out in the field. We act as if ethnographic fieldwork were just like any other kind of scientific investigation, and then, once our non-anthropologist colleagues’ backs are turned, we do what we were going to do anyway: improvise. For me, taking up street photography as an explicit part of my anthropological practice was an opportunity to let go of that pretense.
Street photography has only the most minimal plan of action: grab your camera, or better yet, always have it with you, then go out there into the world and see what happens. Pick a place and go. Walk around that corner and see what’s there. Face it directly. Document it in a way that connects you and it, that’s laden with affect. Then wander off somewhere else. Find what else you find. See what else you see. Give in to the urge to explore. Street photography is a process of subjecting oneself continually to chance.
It doesn’t always go well. In fact, most of the time it doesn’t. “Street photography,” writes Webb, “is 99.9 percent about failure” (Webb and Webb 2014). Photographers fail to shoot the stuff that presents itself to them. They fail to set their exposures correctly. They fail to get their subjects in focus, their frames clean and straight. Most of the time, they fail to even see a shot worth taking, spending the entire day wandering with virtually nothing to show for it.
Ethnographers know that feeling. Huddled in our hotel rooms, or whatever other personal refuge we’ve carved out for ourselves in the field, looking over our notes at night, most of the time we feel like we have gotten precisely nowhere. That’s why we try to spend lots of time in the field. If we’re there long enough, we figure, some kind of clarity will emerge from the formless ether of everyday life.
And it is precisely that process of sitting through frustration, of letting it play out, of letting it spin incessantly in the backgrounds of our minds, that eventually produces some kind of ethnographic revelation. For street photographers, it’s like that too. If they endure the slow periods, the long stretches without inspiration, if they keep their eyes open when there appears to be nothing there to see, if they finally let go and give themselves over to what’s there rather than what they want to be there, they will, at least some of the time, have cultivated in themselves a state of critical receptivity necessary for identifying and taking the shot when it presents itself. “It’s almost as if I had to go through all those hours of frustration and failure in order to get to the place where I could finally see that singular moment at day’s end” (Webb and Webb 2014), writes Webb.
Case in point: this past October, I shot Jakarta Fashion Week, the Indonesian capital city’s premier fashion industry event, at the Senayan City shopping center in South Jakarta. The days were both grueling and dull, Jakarta’s perpetual haze and near-constant drizzle the only things keeping me from melting into the sidewalk. For nearly a week, from around 1 p.m. until 5 p.m., in the midst of attending shows and talks, I sat on the curb by a crosswalk connecting the shopping center and the giant white tent of fashion week, alongside a few lackluster local street style photographers doing the same thing. After shooting at New York Fashion Week eight seasons in a row as part of a related project on street style bloggers, I was interested in how fashion weeks become embroiled in larger projects of city and nation-building, erecting imaginary cosmopolitan landscapes that have real world consequences for urban planning. I was determined to milk Jakarta Fashion Week for all it was worth, taking pictures of bloggers and other local fashion influencers, while interviewing them about Jakarta’s place in the fashion world. This was not entirely unproductive. I met, in person, a number of the social media stars I had been following on Instagram for years, and had interesting conversations with them. I took a few hundred portraits of them, along with candid shots of editors, models, and other fashion notables exiting the tent. I photographed influencers photographing each other, smart phone selfies in progress, the gleeful self-documentation of self-appointed arbiters of style.
But it felt like I was trying to draw blood from a stone, forcing my field site to take on meanings and values it just wasn’t quite prepared to claim as its own. Fashion Week was about Fashion Week. It had its own agenda—of presenting the latest collections, selling clothes to buyers, inventing excuses to party—that had nothing to do with mine. Most of the data I collected was useless towards proving, or disproving, my Fashion Week hypothesis.
I would leave at dusk, tired and dejected, right as the city was being swallowed up by the dark, and I too would get swallowed up. As I walked through the dense, humid night air, motorbikes swarming like motorized bees around me, along streets with open trenches and no sidewalks, towards my hotel several miles away, the city, slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, would take on a new resonance, as if it were finally coming to life after a day of stubbornly sleeping no matter how many times I poked at it. My camera still in hand after hours of thwarted, but near constant, visual attention, I finally reached that state of mind Alex Webb was talking about. I snapped images of motorbikes blurring into intersections, billboards illuminated with tiny incandescent bulbs, lone diners eating noodles at roadside stalls.
I know better than to confuse this—all too short-lived—state of street photography satori with some higher order “truth.” I’ve read Writing Culture (Clifford and Marcus 1986). I know all knowledge is subjective and partial. Yet I still welcome the feeling of breakthrough when it comes. It’s what makes street photography worth it. It’s what makes ethnography worth it. We endure long stretches of the tedious, the lonely, the socially awkward, and the painfully ordinary, in the hopes of catching some small glimpse of something else—something more, something that feels true. This is, no doubt, a poetic truth (Webb and Webb 2014), one you can’t write National Science Foundation grants in order to research, but it’s also the one I’m most interested in, and it’s the one that ethnography—grounded as it is the “experience-near,” the lived and the embodied—is best equipped to pursue.
Street photography has given me permission to make that pursuit central to my work without the affectation of positivism or replicability. It has given me permission to pursue my work without the pretense of a preconceived plan. Street photographers don’t set out to answer “research questions.” They just set out. And that’s how I want to do my ethnography going forward.
Brent Luvaas, Drexel University.
E. Gabriel Dattatreyan is the contributing editor for the Society of Visual Anthropology.