The Spring semester starts today here in Taiwan, and this semester I will once again be teaching a course on production methods in visual ethnography. One of my requirements each semester, the one which most bothers my students, is that their final work be posted to the internet. This is a problem for them because it is much harder to get consent from your subjects for a student project used for class than it is for a project which will be posted to the internet for anyone to see. But for me, that is the first, and perhaps most important lesson my students will learn from the class.
We spend a lot of time talking about ethnography as a product, and even about the ethical issues involved in “shared anthropology,” but it is almost impossible to teach someone how to gain the trust of their research subjects. There is no one-size-fits-all approach because the obstacles to gaining such consent will vary from project to project. While I can’t offer pre-packaged solutions, I can advise students how to handle such obstacles without giving up. Patience and persistence are skills which many students have yet to learn. There are also techniques they can use in the filmmaking process to work around limitations placed on them by their subjects. There is a tremendous wealth of ethnographic knowledge to be gained from working through these obstacles.
One of my students this semester wants to work with a local hearing impaired community. We were both surprised to learn that the members of this community lack the necessary Chinese literacy to be able to read and understand a consent form. It turns out that this is not too uncommon. A 1997 study of 17-18 year old deaf students in the United States found that median reading comprehension was at a fourth grade level. For someone who communicates in Sign Language, learning to read English involves the added burden of learning English, so it comes as no surprise that gaining English literacy poses serious obstacles. What is surprising, at least to me, is that the education system so miserably fails these students by not providing the tools they need to overcome these obstacles. It is too early for me to say anything definitive, but it sounds like similar problems face the hearing impaired in Taiwan. (Here are links to two recent studies about the subject [both are PDFs]: “A Survey of Sign Language in Taiwan” and “Taiwan Sign Language Research: An Historical Overview“)
In this case, the solution is fairly simple: I will have my student record someone signing the consent form, and he will play it for his subjects. He will then video-tape their consent. In some cases, however, things have gotten much more complicated. One semester a student filmed a class of special-needs students and only had consent to show the backs of their heads. Since the young students moved around quite a bit, it made for some very interesting editing!
It is also something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit, having just submitted a paper for review which discusses how we dealt with consent issues in our film, Please Don’t Beat Me, Sir! I will save a fuller discussion of the issues we faced for later, but the way we solved the problem was to take a page out of Jean Rouch and to film the discussions about consent and include them as an element in the film. It turned out to be a very revealing and powerful scene!