Autoethnography as shared profession?

Exploring boundaries between researcher and researched in collaborations with British Tamil Artists


Workshop with Hari, Aruntha, Reginald, and Rajah. Anushiya and Sabes were also present. Photo.


The participatory art project Making Kolams in London. Photo and 2 min video clip.


Collaborative Video Making. Photo and 1 min sound from the video Making Home.

Visit to Jaffna, Hari’s mother. 1 min clip from Making Home.

This essay investigates relationships between researcher and research subjects. It discusses a project in which the two positions came close to merging due to similarities in social engagements and practices of knowledge production. The research subjects are artists based in the UK with a background in the Tamil communities of Sri Lanka, who explore their multiple belongings and sense of in-betweenness through their art practice. I am the researcher; my focus has been on investigating how the artists perform their explorations and how these affect their position as members of the Tamil diaspora and as migrants and refugees in the wider British environment. This focus is based on my education and practical experiences in both art and anthropology; subsequently, the investigation is positioned in an interdisciplinary space.


The overlaps between the artists and me, which partly dissolved the boundary between us, consisted of common interests in improved understandings of life in exile and diasporic existence, as well as a conviction that visual art forms could be useful in this process. We developed a collaboration where art making became part of the method, and, as is shown in this exposition, also part of the research presentation. If this seems too much of an immersion into the artists’ ways of life, which could engender a lack of analytical clarity on behalf of the researcher, the choice was motivated by my own experiences of art making as a method of learning. It was challenging to connect subject matter and method in this way, and it proved to be productive for investigating art as a process. The artists and I shared knowledge of how to use art practice as a way of exploring ourselves and the world around us – as a way of establishing relationships with people, places, and memories. We also shared knowledge of how making can generate thoughts and bring forth conclusions, a practice subject to the definition of art as both a making and a thinking process developed within conceptual art in the 1960s and emphasised by contemporary researching artists (Ambrožič and Vettese 2013; Wesseling 2011).


Relationships between researcher and research subjects have been scrutinised within anthropology, reaching a peak during the ‘writing culture debate’ that developed around the publication of James Clifford and George Marcus’s Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (1986). The book was written within the framework of postcolonial critique, where the authority claimed by Western scholars in their meta-narrative of the world and its ‘others’ was deconstructed (see Said 1978). The anthropological denouncement of this power imbalance and the misconception of an objective researcher soon established the method of self-reflexivity – an extended form of self-criticism that analyses the researcher’s inevitable effect on the research situation and the kind of knowledge it produces (Davies 1999).


The employment of autoethnography increased within anthropology in relation to the same debates. The idea of doing ethnography from the position of the self slowly began to impose itself on my aim to decipher how my own interests and practices overlapped with those of the British Tamil artists and how this influenced the production of knowledge during our interactions. In this essay, I will discuss definitions of autoethnography in relation to how I collaborated with the artists, what I learned about my own practices during the process, and how that in turn affected my analysis. I will suggest an extended definition of autoethnography that goes beyond established notions of a shared cultural or ethnic background to include belonging in a collective of professionals. In this, I rely on Marilyn Strathern’s (1987) emphasis on shared techniques of knowledge production between investigator and investigated to make the term ‘auto’ relevant.



Definitions of Autoethnography

Autoethnography, as a form of research and writing ethnography from the position of the self, has a long history in anthropology. It expanded because people who belonged to cultural or ethnic groups that had previously been studied by anthropologists from outside those groups now studied themselves, and also as anthropologists increasingly studied at home, focusing on Western societies previously excluded from anthropological investigations. Autoethnography was open towards aims of developing a more personal form of writing and incorporating experiential knowledge.


David Hayano (1979) defines the autoethnographer as an insider studying one’s own people. He thus declares a sharp boundary between the insider and the outsider. For Mary Louise Pratt (1994), autoethnography largely concerns relationships between the coloniser and the colonised, as a writing form through which the colonised can resist dominant discourses produced by the coloniser. In Deborah Reed-Danahay’s definition (1997), the autoethnographer is a boundary-crosser, positioned between insider and outsider, a person with shifting identities. This changed position is related to the postmodern notion of the self as containing multiple identities – being able to belong to more than one society. Reed-Danahay (ibid.: 3–4) argues that the most convincing autoethnographic texts are those concerned with cultural displacement and situations of exile that are able to break down the notions of a dual identity of insider and outsider. The main references to what the autoethnographer is inside or outside are cultural, ethnic, or national belonging.


My initial understanding of autoethnography was informed by these definitions, and it did not occur to me as a Swedish person to think about myself as an autoethnographer in relation to the Tamil diaspora. But as our interactions intensified, I began to realise that we had much in common through our investments in art practice, and that this affected how I approached and understood the artists. It became vital to find a framework through which I could convey how our collaborations had played out.


Thus, it is our shared involvement in art practice that provides the ‘auto’ in this investigation of the term. But as art practice also concerns research, it might be more relevant to consider a double sharing. I would add that Tamil culture is relatively familiar to me since my doctoral research among Tamils in South India, and that I have a migrant background on my father’s side, through forced exile from Finland during the Second World War. As such, it was unclear who was actually what and where during the interactions with the artists in the UK; except for one participant, none of us currently lived in the nation where we were born, neither did we speak to one another in our first languages. Like the artists, I had also faced resistance from people in my close environment due to my earlier choice of a career within art practice, although much less than had the Tamil artists. These overlaps further influenced our collaboration, but less so than did our shared involvement in art practice, I would suggest.


While it was not my intention to do autoethnography, the employment of artistic methods was an early decision. Such practice-based methods have formed part of my fieldwork with people who do not identify as artists, both in a previous project in South India and as part of the current one at a Tamil refugee centre in London. In the latter, I remained more of a leading organiser, which reduced the level of collaboration and joint sharing of ideas compared with in the interactions with the artists. My choice of methods is related to my background as an image maker, but also to recent developments in anthropology.

Interactions between Anthropology and Art Practice

Within the framework of anthropologies, Arnd Schneider and Chris Wright encourage increased collaborations between certain forms of anthropology and art practice. They suggest a possible shared practice where the anthropologist intends to go beyond the textual linearity and rigidity of the monograph and attempts to explore the potential of visual material that exceeds realist documentary, and where the artist engages productively in anthropological arguments and methodologies (Schneider and Wright 2006: 26). Artists involved in site-specific work, politics of representation, ethnographic fieldwork, and participatory art are held to have interests that overlap with those of anthropologists as both investigate people’s relationships to space, materiality, and memory. But there are also concerns about possible misunderstandings, which I have encountered myself in collaborations that lacked mutual interest in extending knowledge of social environments.


My own identification with both anthropology and art practices, and my increasing interaction with artists who partly share this plurality, forms the direction of my research. At the same time as I experience overlapping interests between the two fields, I am confronted by outside expectations to provide key issues of difference that can account for the clear separation of the fields. Supporters of collaborations between anthropology and art practice have certain commonalities with those that encourage the employment of autoethnography as a form of writing. Just as Amanda Ravetz (2007) questions the dominance of documentary ideology in visual anthropology, Reed-Danahay (1997) argues that autoethnographers call into question the realist conventions and objective observer position of traditional anthropological writing. According to Heewon Chang (2008: 53), autoethnography concerns the acknowledgement of a close link between the personal and the cultural and aims to make room for unconventional forms of inquiry and expression; furthermore, this writing style allows for a personal voice that evokes intimacy between research subjects, author, and reader, which in turn can bring forth cross-cultural understanding and a notion of a shared humanity.


The reference to evocation and intimacy resonates with phenomenologically informed aims to convey experiential knowledge, synaesthetics, and imagination through open-ended audiovisual forms less focused on representation and direct statements than the realist documentaries (Ravetz 2005; Schneider and Wright 2006; Östör 2007). This approach is further linked to dissatisfaction with the literary strategies of earlier scientific anthropology, criticised in the writing culture debate mentioned above, but it is also linked to prior innovations within visual anthropology through filmmakers such as David MacDougall and Robert Gardner, who argue that we should dare to experiment with aesthetics in order to sharpen the attention of the viewer and thereby engender critical thinking (Grimshaw, Owen, and Ravetz 2010; Wright 1998).


Video and film are often embraced in anthropology as useful media to evoke rather than to denote, to create an understanding through direct experience rather than representation. In particular, the subfield of visual anthropology acknowledges non-discursive knowledge forms, along with unconventional methods and presentations, and thereby shares aims with the field of artistic research (Schwab and Borgdorff 2014). But there are also more or less conventional voices within visual anthropology. The practice-based methods employed in the current project are acceptable, while a research presentation in the form of the video shown in this exposition is not. Within the dominating documentary style that relies on a linear and often discursive narrative, the video and its open-ended format is out of place; thus far the video has not been chosen for public anthropological screenings.


Participatory Art in Suburban London

One occasion of applying art practice as research method in London was in collaboration with a Tamil refugee centre, and one of the artists, Hari Rajaledchumy. We organised a participatory art event in the suburban shopping area where the centre was located, which involved members of the centre as well as passers-by engaged in shopping. It concerned kolam making, a practice I previously studied in South India, in which women make geometrical images in front of their houses to invite the deities and increase the well-being of the family and the surrounding community. As this practice is almost invisible in the UK, we wanted to explore the possibilities of extending Tamil visual space. The form of the event related to public kolam competitions in South Asia, but the competitive element was downplayed in favour of open sharing between the kolam makers from the centre and passers-by who were invited to participate in the drawing. It provided a space in which people from various groups in the area could do something together.


For me, the event became a means to investigate what this publicly absent practice means for Tamils in exile. But it was also a wider exploration of people’s interest in artistic practices in an ethnic group that denounces art practice as a full time commitment in favour of financially more stable professions, such as medicine, engineering, or law. The investigation also included a workshop on kolam drawing, held at the centre the day before, and the resulting designs were exhibited at the public event. Further, the event gave insights into how the involved artist, Hari, perceived his art practice. For Hari, a key issue was to explore possibilities of challenging Tamil boundaries of what kolam practice is supposed to be, the ideals it is connected to, and how it relates to gender construction. Simultaneously, we explored the response of the surroundings, a British commercial area that lacks public art and where the Tamil inhabitants, at least, rarely interact with other migrant groups. For these reasons, the event was an artwork as well as a research method.


This event shows that anthropology and art practice can share an interest in how social relationships are formed in connection with the environment, and it opens up the question of whether here the ‘auto’ can also refer to a shared role as researcher. There were also differences in our intentions: Hari was more motivated to challenge Tamil boundaries than I was. The interventions he engages in carry strong criticisms of what Tamilness is supposed to be about. He completely denounces his cultural background at the same time as he seeks it, he investigates possibilities to deconstruct and rebuild, and he aims to invigorate other Tamils to do the same. But rather than attributing our differences to a seperation of intent on behalf of the researcher at the expense of the artist, I hold that this had more to do with differences in our approaches to the world, partly related to Hari’s young age but even more to the great disappointments that other people’s faithfulness to Tamil ideals had generated in his life – experiences that I did not share.


Although my interventions evoke change to a certain degree, as an anthropologist firmly grounded in research ethics I held that it could not be my intention to aim for change in the way that Hari did. This became clear to me during the planning of the kolam event. First, the initiative came from the leader at the centre, Rani Nagulendram, and it would have been unethical for me to impose my ideas upon the event from the start. Rani wanted a competition format, where there would be judges and prize giving. I wanted a more playful intervention in public space, but felt I could not decide this. Hari shared my views, but being closer to Rani’s social status and having a more long-term involvement in the centre than I, he had no problems in questioning the terms. However, I did have an interest in challenging the British environment, which, through its shopping areas, drives people toward desires for consumption rather than reflection on their lives, and where some migrants feel that it is more important to blend in than to expand their visual presence, often due to anxieties about encountering racism. I wanted the kolam makers to experience that it was legitimate to claim space. Perhaps this intent brings me towards an activist approach to anthropology. Somehow, both Hari and I were artists and researchers in this situation – and perhaps also activists.


Collaborative Video Making

My intention to use audiovisual media in a collaborative work with all the artists began to take shape after a few months’ fieldwork in London. The artists had agreed with my suggestion not to make this into a straightforward documentary centred around indexical aspects of images and a linear narrative. Rather, the intention was to focus on an ongoing process of art making, particularly its sensuous and experiential aspects, and to convey how the artists employed their practice to establish relationships with their material and social environment, especially concerning memories and parents’ memories of a place physically left behind.


Working with the artists, I was less concerned with the potential negative effects of my interventions, mentioned before in relation to the kolam event. My relationships with the artists were more balanced than they had been with the members of the community centre, and where it concerned art making we were now working on the same level. I had discussions with each of them on how I could film their engagements with art making, and collaborative decisions provided situations that also reflected their differences and my different relationships to each of them. I filmed some of the artists working in their studios and some exploring urban environments that were particularly important for them; sometimes I filmed environments without their presence but through my interpretations of what certain places or movements meant in the artists’ practices. The level of collaboration throughout the filming and, later, in the editing process has varied between the five participants due to time available, level of interest, and how our relationships developed.

The blurring of boundaries between researcher and informant was perhaps greatest when the artist being filmed also worked with a camera – which for some was their only tool, while for others it was a complementary one. We explored a chosen place together with our different cameras, sometimes directing our attention and our cameras toward one another, sometimes toward the environment and individuals within it. In some cases, I was looking for what the artists focused on; at other times I entered into a more personal mode of filming, but still joined with the others' presence and practice.

With another artist, investigations of her memories of Sri Lanka in relation to her current life in exile were more dominant. In this case, the form and content of the filming shifted, for example filming albums that embodied her life as an artist and feminist in Jaffna. At times we decided on a certain choreography for the filming; in other cases, I mainly followed what the artists did. We were in the same ‘thinking through making’ process, trying through visual means to come to terms with our place in the world. The collaborative approach to making the video was partly informed by the filmmaker Jean Rouch’s method of shared anthropology, established in the 1950s. He involved the research subjects in the filming and editing process, and improvisations and spontaneous interaction were strong components in their productions (Henley 2009). The West Africans Rouch worked with partly became co-directors; however, their shared practices developed over time, rather then being there from the start.

As the notion of autoethnography was not a conscious part of the methodology, I never planned to participate visually in the video. During some interactions, however, I did end up in the frame. This has been included in the editing to emphasise a self-reflexive and autoethnographic position. But even if I am visually absent in the main part of the work, it can be argued that I am present through my choice of settings and editing, in a similar way to the artists through their choices, although we do not always see them. Steven Feld ([1982] 1990: 236) has suggested the term co-aesthetics for when the photographer or filmmaker decides jointly with the research subjects which visual form best conveys an idea or event. The fragmented form of the split screen employed in the current video relates to the everyday lives of the artists, where through memories and embodied movements they constantly migrate between their diasporic existence and their dwellings in an earlier homeland. However, the intention is not to present their identities as dual, but to convey a lived in-betweenness through visual and aural interactions between the two parts of the screen.


The title Making Home emerged through our video interactions, our discussion, and the poems written by the artists (as included in the video), which the participants confirmed as suitable when they engaged in the editing. Homemaking is a central part of their art practice. In addition, Tamil informants outside the art field held that this is what their daily life, to a large extent, is about – although there is no clear definition of what home is (a matter I have illuminated in relation to the current project in the exhibition Homing and Migrating at Tegen2, Stockholm, in 2014). To convey that the previous homeland is present in their daily art practice somewhere else, not only as a memory but also as something more tangible, which some artists articulated in the choice of materials, I decided to travel to Jaffna for additional footage. This journey was also concerned with gaining further background knowledge of the art scene that the participants in the study had left behind and that some of them were simultaneously trying to reconnect to.

Limits of Autoethnography

In Jaffna, I became aware of the limits of using autoethnography to conceptualise my relationship to the artists. Experiences we do not share, such as decades of civil war and Sinhalese oppression still present in Sri Lanka, evolved as huge gaps between us. Also, I felt handicapped not being able to speak properly in the vernacular. Despite all this, I tried to remind myself that the artist who was born in London did not speak Tamil either and that a couple of them did not have first-hand experience of the war. Therefore, I perceive autoethnography, if it can be used for certain aspects of a person’s multiple identities, as situational, depending on context. It can be suitable in London for our interactions as artists and perhaps researchers, but not in Sri Lanka where other identifications have more weight. I can share some parts of the artists’ way of being in the world, but not others. In Jaffna, I felt like the ‘other’ and the artists were absent. 

Public interactions in Jaffna are heavily constrained for everybody living there, apart from for representatives of the army. For me personally, this had a large impact on how I could use my cameras, which in turn increased my self-reflection, particularly on what my artistic practices mean and do in my life. I began to study myself more closely in this context, and this moved into self-reflexivity  how my own position affected the research I aimed to carry out. My official status was that of a tourist and I was supposed to make images in the manner of a tourist, not as a researcher or a researching artist. I do not mean that I would normally take photos regardless of people’s responses, but that in this case I was worried about catching the attention of the many soldiers posted in the area who regularly make critical voices disappear.


In addition to filming for the video, I considered the possibilities of making photos that could be used in a new collaborative project with the artists, this time initiated by them. I will come back to this shortly. Despite the government’s surface reconstruction of roads and buildings, many Tamils still live in houses largely destroyed by bombs and shelling. I wanted to photograph these and juxtapose my experiences with the romanticised ruins of nineteenth-century European explorers. But of course it was not in the interests of the government to have this side of their triumph against terrorism shown to the world. It was extremely frustrating to be unable to engage with the environment through my camera. This made me feel alienated and it affected how I interacted with people around me. Even though I was a visitor who could leave at any time, and was not explicitly involved in political issues and therefore under no threat in relation to the Tamils living in the area, I still strongly sensed the oppression of the army and how they confined people’s lives.



My knowledge of photography and art has mainly developed through practice-based learning, where images and vision were valued more highly than words; I am continuously searching for verbal articulations that are suitable to describe what this practice is about. During parts of the fieldwork in London, I unconsciously resituated myself in an exchange of knowledge about art practice through this implicit, unspoken way of interacting. Although I had many conversations with the artists, I sometimes found myself forgetting to ask for verbal clarifications of my tacit understanding of their works. In my search for better ways of wording, I found a text by the researcher artist Lily Markiewicz. She describes art practice as a dialectic process between accommodating and unaccommodating oneself. In the first instance, as a form of dwelling, to make oneself at home in a place, and to feel at home  a notion that art practice implies housing oneself, or that it offers a refuge (Markiewicz 2007: 38). And simultaneously, in interaction with a process of creating disruption, of losing oneself, a kind of unaccommodating in order to accommodate the notion that life is partly experienced in situations of displacement. Markiewicz’s description of making oneself at home through art practice resonated with my previous engagements with the Tamil artists, already articulated in the title of the video Making Home, but she added another level through the notion of creating disruption, to bring on the unfamiliar, the ‘unheimlich’ (ibid.: 41).


I perceive the homemaking aspects as part of the experiential knowledge gained through interactions with an environment; nevertheless, I perceive also that this is not necessarily a simple process of becoming at ease. It is more a back and forth between developing belonging and distancing oneself, or becoming distanced by responses from the environment – processes that all form part of art practice. Disruption and defamiliarisation can be aspects that unfold in the analytical process of art making, which can be traced in some of the Tamil artists’ work. They explored the unfamiliar to make sense of it, to make themselves at home and feel a belonging, but in the making of their artworks some also created tensions between that which had made them feel at home and that which had caused disturbances.


When I was not allowed to accommodate myself in Jaffna through exploring the unfamiliar with my camera, as a first step of making photographs, I became aware of how much this practice forms part of how I make myself feel at home. It connected with how the Tamil artists engaged in their work in London and how we had explored the city and ourselves together through the video making. It was this realisation of the overlaps between my own way of image making and those of the artists, through the articulations of Markiewicz, that made me turn more clearly towards autoethnography. My understanding of the artists’ practices has thus evolved in resonance with an increased understanding of what my own art practice is about. This is of course a precarious claim to make as my own experiences might take over those that I interpret to be the artists’.


The new joint art project, initiated by one of the Tamil artists in London before I left for Sri Lanka, conveys the mutual trust and blurring of boundaries between ethnographer and ‘other’ that developed during fieldwork. I was invited to participate as an artist, to contribute with images rather than studying the images the others made. At times before, I was perceived as an artist as well as a researcher. But in the new project, the artists saw me as an artist rather than a researcher in anthropology. The porosity between us increased as we made and discussed images together, whether our own or at other artists’ exhibitions; sometimes I was a colleague, sometimes a facilitator for the artists’ verbal articulations of their aims. A couple of them had or were going to study anthropology; one had written an essay on young Tamil diaspora artists. The Tamil artists and I ‘got caught up in each other’s way of thinking and doing’, a phrase used by Grimshaw, Owen, and Ravetz (2010: 155) in their description of an explorative workshop organised for anthropologists, artists, and curators.


Perhaps we should not focus on cultural or ethnic identity when we define autoethnography  a focus that has produced the notion of the migrant as its most convincing example. Reed-Danahay suggests that displacement, globalisation, and transculturation are important issues that the autoethnographer can elucidate through personal experience. If we consider the kind of art practice that the current project engages with  rather than where the artists lived or which language they spoke  these issues are partly touched upon. The participants identify with art as it developed in the West, which was then imposed upon and later localised in South Asia, then migrated back to Europe with the Tamils, subsequently to take new forms in relation to the art scene in London and to being in exile. That which we share is in this sense part of a globalised art practice.


Among contemporary artists who make video and film, the video diary has emerged as a form of autoethnography. These works have brought forth a range of identities as wide as the possible definitions of ‘auto’. It includes, for example, sexual orientation, class, and generation, and according to Catherine Russell (1999: 312) this expanded sense of the term ‘ethnic’ broadens the notion of possible pluralist social formations. Autoethnography as a method has also developed among artists engaged in academic research to pose biographical inquiries such as concerning their artistic skills. The postmodern emphasis on multiple shifting subjectivities opens up for an ‘auto’ that refers to various kinds of identities. In a similar way to how we recognise that a migrant can become part of a new environment at the same time as being part of a previous one, and thus oscillate in-between, I suggest that we can recognise a profession as one aspect of many that accounts for the ‘auto’ in autoethnography.


Strathern’s critical examination of autoanthropology and doing anthropology at home has been helpful for my interpretation of fieldwork as an autoethnographic situation of shared practices and knowledge production. She asks ‘how one knows when one is at home’ (author’s emphasis) and stresses that investigator and investigated need to share productive activities and techniques for autoanthropology to take place (Strathern 1987: 16). If the people studied are not using the same theorising techniques as the anthropologist  for example, if the investigator uses culture as a category for organising knowledge among a people who, instead, draw on divination or myth as techniques to know themselves  autoanthropology cannot be applied. Belonging to the same physical place or society is subordinated to the researcher’s capacity to understand, use, and translate the research subjects’ own conceptualisations of the world (it is Strathern’s focus on theory that makes her use autoanthropology rather than autoethnography). Following Strathern, it can be suggested that during fieldwork in London, where I shared methods and theorising techniques with the artists, although not first language or place of birth, we developed a space of shared practices that makes autoanthropology and autoethnography relevant. The Tamil artists are researchers in their own lives and at the same time participants in my research, which concern how they research their lives. I explored their research in collaboration with them, partly through methods that were close to theirs. The boundaries between who was who and who was doing what largely dissolved, and this undermined culture and ethnicity as defining identities. In my understanding, autoethnography is based on lived experience and shared skills rather than cultural rules, and it aims for a balanced distribution of power in the research situation.


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