Finding Answers in the (Field) Attempt

By Michaela Dwyer

I have struggled to start this post because it feels impossible to write a photograph.

Somewhere, sometime, it was once said—or at least written down—that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” When I worked on Recess as an undergrad, my fellow writers and editors volleyed this unsourced quotation back and forth repeatedly—or at least when we were feeling contemplative about our endeavors, our responsibilities as budding cultural critics. How do you write about music if, when you boil it down, it’s just two mediums rubbing against each other? How do you explain dance without moving your body? How can you know what it means to be another person without, by some magic empathy potion, transmogrifying into said other human being?

A few days ago I sat with the DukeImmerse: Uprooted/Rerouted students as they discussed a photography and writing assignment they’d done over the weekend. Since winter break they’ve been training themselves in the type of fieldwork around which their curriculum and experience this semester is built. In little over a week, the twelve students will split up and travel through mid-March to Nepal and Jordan, respectively, to conduct life-story interviews with refugees. These interviews are, of course, with people the students have never met before; they can take place for anywhere between two and eight hours; they aim to collect data about the qualitative experience of displacement. None of the students have previously visited either country. And, for many, this semester marks their entry-point into the political, cultural, medical and ethical issues experienced by refugees and displaced peoples worldwide. On day one of Field Ethics class, program director Suzanne Shanahan told the students they were, at Duke and in Durham, “already in the field.” This proclamation was met with serious faces and ambivalent giggles. I wrote in my notes, next to a sloppy Venn Diagram (“engagement” in one circle, “field research” in the other, and “ethics” in the overlapping space between): “WE ARE IN THE FIELD ALREADY.”

How to be in a field we already know so well? How to dance about architecture? How to talk about anything at all? Sometimes I experience an anxiety so debilitating that I can’t “start” in the first place. It’s the fear embedded in the prospect of doing things wrong, of not properly conveying the nuance and complexity that propel us to talk, document, relate in the first place. When setting off to do interviews with refugees, the ethical stakes amplify intensely. These are people whose livelihoods have been placed at the whim of political decisions beyond their control, who have been shuffled en masse and categorized and quantitatively researched but perhaps infrequently asked how they feel—physically, emotionally, spiritually, mentally—when any of that happens.

I take a quick inventory of the number of people I can rely on to ask me how I feel on a regular basis, who can translate a facial expression to ameliorating conversation, or a movie suggestion, or an internet link to a painting that person thinks I’d like. I think about how my structures of comfort are quite complex and deep, and about how my memories of the spaces I’ve inhabited for the 22.5 years of my life thus far are accessible and re-inhabitable by a short car ride. I think about my basic freedom to advocate and assemble, in this country, for things I feel are right and wrong, and the possibility—which I must believe will always be a possibility— to push these feelings toward policy. I say all this not to render a contrived comparison of my life to that of a refugee, nor to superficially enumerate my privilege; the latter, especially, feels to me a project far too continuous and nuanced to try to put down in a pithy sentence on paper (or, the web). The former overwhelms me in its crudeness. I envision a Venn Diagram: me on one side, a Bhutanese refugee woman my age on the other. In the middle are our similarities, bullet-pointed and double-spaced. I shudder at the idea that this exercise could bear a hint of our essences or idiosyncrasies, a slice of something akin to the “truth” of each of us as human beings living in the world in 2014. And, of course, for whom do we bear this information? Data-collecting agencies? Governments demarcating cartographies that further restrict the movement of populations, communities, individuals?

But then, in class, we look at one photograph taken by one student in fulfillment of a field photography exercise investigating instances of “joy.” The photo is framed by a closed car window, and in the center of the image, a multi-colored moth perches on the side of a palm. A ray of sun hits it right on the wing and for a second everything is illuminated—the way the photographer sees emotions, the connection between animate and inanimate things. The class discusses. It seems important, they note, that this particular photographer and subject may not necessarily attach “joy” to a smiling human face. It seems plausible, they note, that this mini-exercise could resemble a way to attune to cultural differences “in the field.” We move to the next photo to compare (and contrast).

We are in the field always because we need to know where we come from in order to grow an analytic imagination. This is the imagination that allows us to understand that there are people besides ourselves in the world who are doing exactly the same—feeling things, remembering events and emotions, and documenting them according to their own metrics. How overwhelming to embark on this complexity, and how seemingly difficult to find the answers. But, if anything, the answer must be in the [field] attempt.