Snapshots from the field
I am grinning at the camera but my body is awkward in my big winter coat. I look out of place and foreign. I am much taller than Luigi and Rosella. There is something generally uncomfortable about the photo. Despite its forced nature, I cherish this image. It is one of the few photos I have of myself in the field.
The photographer is a prominent Czech anthropologist who came to speak at my department at the UniversitÃ degli Studi di Torino. Paolo, my dissertation advisor, suggested that I take Peter to Porta Palazzo, my field. This honor fell to me because I was one of the few doctoral students doing research in the city.
Taking an outsider into the field is always a bit of a sticky situation for an anthropologist. I had spent months building my rapport with the various vendors, clients, barmen, and illegal immigrants with whom I was working. I was trying to gain an insiderâ€™s view of the market. What would they think of me bringing a foreigner into our world? Would it break the trust I had worked so hard to develop?
Bundled up in winter coats and scarves, Peter and I walked down via Milano toward the Porta Palazzo market. We chatted about anthropology and the challenges of doing fieldwork. I was trying hard to relax but I felt nervous talking to such an important scholar. What would he think of my ideas, my research? I felt even tenser when I pondered what people at the market would think of my new role as tour guide.
When we reached the market square, Peter raised his camera (like a good anthropologist) and snapped a shot of the market. He continued to take photos all throughout our visit. I tried not to pay this photographic shooting spree any attention. I say this because I have always been very sensitive about taking photos of people I did not know well. Not all anthropologists feel this way: to them documentation is more important than anything else.
One of our first stops was at a candy stand where I had been working for several months. We stopped and I said hello to Luigi and Rosella, a son and mother team, and I introduced them to Peter. I explained that he was visiting from Germany, where he was a professor of anthropology. It had been hard to get to know Luigi and Rosella very well. They were very Piedmontese about their relationships. Some people say that the Piedmontese â€œSono falsi e cortesiâ€ (Are false and courteous). I saw this guarded attitude more as a cautious distance to newcomersâ€”it just took time to get to know people. It had taken me hours of sweat and hard work at this stand to get to know these two people. I really hoped I was not undoing it all at this very moment.
Peter asked me if he could take a photo of me with Luigi and Rosella. They ushered me behind the stand, and we crowded together in the space between the table and their car. In this photo we are grinning like tourists for the camera.
4 thoughts on “Snapshots from the field”
Hi, I read your book of Porta Palazzo and i have to write here that is amazing, I found it inspiring since I found it on perfect time when i was doing an ethnography about a market in MÃ©xico. I only want to ask you if this post is about the work field that you did in there or if you are preparing more material to another book?. I’m from MÃ©xico and I will look for a scholarship to study at Boston. Have a great day and thank you for your knowledge and the joy of share it to the world.
Hi Luis. Yes, this post was from my time at Porta Palazzo. Let me know if you are in Boston. We can meet to talk about markets. I would like to hear more about your research.
I am another cultural anthropologist who feels similarly about taking photographs in the field, and have very few of myself “doing fieldwork.” I envy those who can unselfconsciously take beautiful photographs of people. I’ve recently discovered your book and using it for my Intro to Cultural Anthropology classes, and it’s also inspiring me to do “fieldwork” in markets in the future! Thanks for posting this fieldwork photo on your blog.
Thanks, mbb. Please let me know how my book works in your class. I love getting feedback.