Me and Ruth – A Personal Note

The author and her father in 1988. Picture: Private Archive Anne Chahine ©

My father has the habit of reading several books at once. Depending on his mood and interest he switches from one book to the other right in the middle of a chapter. So naturally, there were a a lot of books scattered around my childhood home: they were mostly about either scuba diving, war (various), dogs, weapons, geopolitical reflections (of any sort) or people who sail around the world. As a consequence I picked up reading automatically when I was a young child. My aunt being a librarian made sure I would get the newest reads and provided me with a never dwindling source of personal recommendations. The initial pride of my parents witnessing their daughter’s interest in the written word soon gave way to a certain doubt about how healthy it could actually be for a child, to be so immersed into one task alone. Every once in a while, my mother urged me to “please put down the book for once and get some fresh air.” I would then stubbornly grab my book, sit down on top of the stairs of our building block and go on reading – outside.

Over the years my interests shifted and besides enjoying an intensive read I also became intrigued by the storytelling nature of film – sometimes resulting in a similar over-consumption. When I started studying visual anthropology I was thrilled to dive into this complex discipline, especially against the backdrop of looking at the different forms and tools making it actually possible to represent the countless aspects of human society. Paul Stoller (2008) so fittingly characterizes anthropology as ‘perhaps the most personal of the human sciences‘. Nevertheless, when moving forward with my study, I felt at times trapped in an ocean of highly abstract cross-quoting literature and ethnographic filmmaking that could very well be put on a description pad, helping people fall asleep anytime of the day. In contrast to telling ‘a story’, I noticed the authors of these different forms of representation to solely focus on the accurate description of for example a culture, a phenomenon, a custom or a language. My initial rather naïve excitement soon faded and I started asking myself: “Is this the shape that I want my own work to take on as well? Does it make sense to compress the beauty of human encounters into a certain format that does not have the intent to reach outside of the realm of close-knit academia?”

But then, during one of these early days of doubt, something wonderful happened: I met Ruth[1].

And Chantal[2]. And Paul[3]. And David and Judith[4]. And Sarah[5]. And Alma.[6] And Margaret[7]. And Jean[8]. And so many others. Not in person of course but I met their work. And it blew me away. These scholars, filmmakers and artists are not afraid of diving in and out of various disciplines and feel comfortable being somewhere in-between. Their work is accessible and meant to be consumed by an audience that is not limited to the academic circle. Their work (God forbid!) might even catch the interest of the people who are the sole focus of their study. Ruth Behar (2003) so fittingly points out that ‘if ethnography is to realize its emancipatory promise, what we are going to need are strong, personal, heartfelt voices, the voices of love, trust, faith and the gift’.

Dear reader, let’s make one thing clear. These lines are motivated by the child who once sat stubbornly outside her apartment building, lost in a book that was able to carry her into another world, into another state of mind. The adult hosting this child is deeply aware that professional life is not always about having a good read, watching a good movie and eventually writing an entertaining story yourself. Nevertheless, I feel it is our obligation as individuals engaging with this discipline to always keep in mind that the work we produce should provide access. We have to make sure that it gives the audience an in-depth understanding of what we have been looking at and that it provides them with ‘a story’ in a broader sense.


Works Cited

Behar, Ruth. 2003. Ethnography and the book that was lost. In Ethnography. Sage Publications Vol 4(1):15-39

Stoller, Paul. 2008. The Power of the Between: An Anthropological Odyssey. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


[1] Behar, Ruth. 1997. The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart. None. Boston: Beacon Press.

[2] Akerman, Chantal. 1977. News from Home. Institut National de l’Audiovisuel (INA) None. 85min.

[3] Stoller, Paul. 2008. The Power of the Between: An Anthropological Odyssey. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[4] MacDougall, David, und Judith MacDougall. N/A. The Wedding Camels. Documentary. 1980

[5] Pink, Sarah. 2009. Doing Sensory Ethnography. London ; Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications Ltd.

[6] Har’el, Alma. o. J. Bombay Beach. Dogwoof. 78min.

[7] Margaret Mead, “Visual Anthropology in a Discipline of Words” In: Hockings, Paul, ed. 1995. Principles of Visual Anthropology. New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

[8] Jean Rouch. 1961. La Pyramide Humaine. 90min