I created this website as a sensory exploration of my time in Lesvos. I was inspired to do this after conversations about experiential ethnography with Dr Jennie Gubner, and a desire to use multimodal techniques to evoke the experiences I had in Greece for the viewer. As a filmmaker I am used to working with images and sound. With this project, I explored how text and video might be able to inform each other when doing ethnographic storytelling on a digital platform. I challenged myself to move away from the linear structures of filmmaking I am used to, particularly use of language as an organisational principle of editing, and pushed myself into an uncomfortable space to experiment with something new. The resulting work is a sensorial exploration of how connections are made between people, place, objects, and memory; and how these connections shape our pathways of experience. For best results, use headphones.
I How we begin
“As filmmakers, we take away certain images and then, with the particular framing we have given them, return them to the stream of life. The film has created a trace of what we have seen.” David MacDougall, The Looking Machine, 2019, p.128
Even with the glare of the airport lights, the first thing I noticed as I stepped out into the warm Greek air were the stars above me. Despite a full day of travelling, I stopped to tip back my head and drink in the display above as I wandered across the tarmac from plane to a waiting bus. Later, once we eventually climbed into a cab and headed to Kalloni, I wound down the window and peered out at the night. If I craned my neck back, then through the rear window I could see the milky way stretch across the sky, my eyes wide and bright to this celestial treat on something as routine as a cab ride from airport to hotel. Other lights glinted across the water: ‘Is that Turkey?’. ‘Yes’. That first night I sat by a softly lit pool, sipping ice cold beer and discussing audio postcards and music. Cicadas chirped steadily in the background, dogs barked, and the air felt clean and soft, the taste of salty crisps on my tongue.
I had read so much about Lesvos before visiting, that arriving in the dark, the island still retained its sense of mystery, the two weeks ahead stretching out in front with a sense of expectation. Those who would be on the course with me had been slowly appearing from different corners of Europe throughout the day; Hydar in the sharp light of Heathrow airport, Panos appearing in the departure lounge at Athens, Sigbjørn racing into view an hour later, before Israa and Tormod appeared breathless from their dash across the airport, the last people out of that low ceilinged room before taking off for the final hop over the Aegean sea.
“Chapter 1 offered a definition of kinship as “mutuality of being”: kinfolk are members of one another, intrinsic to each other’s identity and existence…. Persons participate in each other’s existence by a variety of meaningful attributes besides the presumed connections of ‘biology’ or even common-substance” Marshall Sahlins, What Kinship Is, And Is Not, 2013, p62
I was already aware of those in the group, the beginnings of a shape of each person being sketched through their words in assignments and comments on the ‘site lesvos’ website. Through text, photos, film and audio, we had begun to communicate, and construct connections across the internet we would then build on in real life on the island. Online, language came into play too; here I was submitting work and interacting in my native language, a balance I knew would change when I reached Greece and my efforts of learning Greek through a language app would be laid bare as inadequate.
In that forum online, begun with a simple email to ‘All’, a community begins to form into ‘something’, as a sense of shared learning and curiosity is slowly cultivated with these silent online interactions. Kinship is not, as Marshall Sahlins argues, biology, and I would say this online site is the birthplace of where the web of relatedness begins to be woven.
I meet with one of the tutors, Hydar, in London, ripping off small chunks of cinnamon swirl in a cafe by Cambridge Circus, discussing what can be expected, what should be packed. ‘Bring a hat’, he says, ‘It will be hot’.
The WhatssApp group set up during our time in Lesvos may no longer ping with the antics of the cluster groups spread out across the island – video, and photos and audio shared so we can also witness each others’ discoveries – but still we are connected. Though in real life we have only been together as a whole group for nine days on the island (some members of the group peeled off early), this ‘mutuality of being’ rings true. My experience of Lesvos and it’s people, cannot be separated from the experience of everyone else there with me; the cadence and tone of those two weeks undeniably shaped by how we related to each other. In traditional anthropological ethnography fieldwork is imagined as a lone ethnographer out in the field, but here in Lesvos, the ‘deep hanging out’, as Geertz would say, also happens between the group; we are sharing, collaborating, travelling and exploring together, whilst learning about each other and encountering ourselves too. There is daily analysis and questions around our work, a search for themes, for the ‘right’ experience, for an ‘ethnographic encounter’.
Here, the geography of the landscape also came into play. The ethnographic relies on meeting locals on the island, but here our base was a beautiful, but isolated monastery. Getting out to meet these people became an activity in itself – I went from an independent mobile filmmaker in London, to someone reliant on lifts and the timetables of others. When and how you left Metochi became dependent on who you spoke to, how many spaces were in a car, who was going where, and if a trip simply sounded interesting enough to hop along. Crammed sweaty leg to sweaty leg in the back seat as the dust from the road out from Metochi drifts in through the window, the assortment of people in the car shaping the excursions experience.
Cycling out from Metochi was also an option, but the heat restricted this choice to early morning. I went with my bike with others, but only made one solo trip with my kit on my back – my own physical limits restricting me on how far I could stretch out from Metochi independently. Our world was also structured around meetings and meal times; would we be back in time for lunch or dinner, or were there presentations or meetings which meant leaving Metochi was not an option?
One of my biggest challenges I found was not speaking the Greek language. I knew I was missing out on a whole wealth of information, but there were other ways to make connections. By not speaking Greek, I was reliant on others for translation, and so this often shaped a lot of my conversations, depending on who I was with. When I was on my own, conversations with the locals still happened, but when I was in a group, or with a Greek person, I would defer to them. One of the members of the group told me that she found my English difficult to understand, out of the students, I was the only native English speaker. When I spoke Greek, I would get the pronunciation wrong, putting the emphasis in the all the wrong places. I was making no sense in either language.
“…you can cut down the preconceptions by exhaustive research on the subject. ..not all research is cerebral; it includes visual research and research by experience. For example, if the subject is an event which is repeated, you should first visit it without a camera or at least plan not to seriously shoot pictures, but make visual impressions of the key elements” David Hurn, p.96, On Being a Photographer, 1997
The heavy filming kit I had bought with me restricted my movements in a way too, often, instead of filming, I simply took a stills camera to capture the places I visited, and even that camera took a few days to appear as I adjusted to the pace of Lesvos, after descending from London. I was keeping in mind the above conversation between Billy Jay and David Hurn. But how can you research a place that assaults you on every sensorial level? How long does your body need to adjust to being somewhere before you can even attempt to understand where you are?
“I don’t know what to do with all this sky”
29.7.19 – Monday – 7.45 – 8-04
The first night has been slept at Metochi. It is quiet, but so loud here, as places in remote nature can often be. It took a long time for me to fall asleep, and then I was awake before 6am, with the cockerels and the goat bells. I took my camera out for a very short excursion, but I should’ve just gone walking. Straight away I did what I’d told myself not to and had gone straight in with a camera.
Yesterday the group arrived throughout the day from all across Europe. They are a varied bunch in age and personality. They all speak at least two languages, and there is a lot of chat about language, which is fascinating, but out of my sphere of knowledge.
I am still working out how to be here. I went for a walk Sunday morning with Hydar and Panos, the Greek professor. We went to the shoreline of the gulf, where families are on holiday, or just out for a Sunday swim in the shallow water. Panos pointed out they were all in a line stretching out from shore, probably because they were avoiding the seaweed. It was funny to see.
We stood on the edge of the shore, and I felt a jarring overload of sky and stillness. It is so very different to London. It feels unfathomable that I am here with these people, on an island in Greece, only a stones throw from Turkey.
Right now I can hear the thrubbing of birds wings as they chirp to each other in a nearby tree. Goat bells are tinkling in the distance, the cockerel still crows, and the sounds of the rest of the group slowly waking up are starting to creep in.
II Ethnography without language
“We see with our bodies, and any images we make carries the imprint of our bodies, that is to say, of our being as well as the meanings we intend to convey. …But when we look purposefully, and when we think, we complicate the process of seeing enormously. We invest it with desires and heightened responses. The images we make become artefacts of this. They are, in a sense, mirrors of our bodies, replicating the whole of the body’s activities with it’s physical movements, it’s shifting attention, and it’s conflicting impulses towards order and disorder. A complex construction such as film or photography has an animal origin. Corporeal images are not just the images of other bodies; they are also images of the body behind the camera and it’s relation to the world.” David MacDougall, 2012:3
When fellow student Israa asked me to film for her project, I immediately slipped into the role of client/business, asking her what she wanted to achieve from the shoot. She emphasised that she hoped that I too would get something from the encounter. Part of this course for me was to explore how to work differently, usually when I film, it is just me and the subject in their space, but here, there was always someone else present when I filmed as part of the conversation. At Olympia’s house, I slipped easily into the role of documenter at first, trying to film what I understood Israa to need, keeping the camera on record for long periods to capture the conversation as Olympia directed us through the history of her family via her embroidery collection, which covered the house, and with some pieces over 100 years old. Justine translated between Israa and Olympia, and slowly, as their relationships relaxed, to the point where they were sharing a task of sewing, and just being, I too began to join in with the conversation. Her collection of embroidery had opened the door into her house, but it was being in each other’s presence that allowed the conversation to develop to a deeper level.
“Such “life-story objects” are those material items that elders keep, display, and arrange that relate to and help communicate one’s personal memories and stories. Souvenirs and private possessions can be used to recall experiences, linking the past with present situations. As noted above, though, a specific subset of life-story objects goes beyond persistent, personal, possessions and are works specifically created to assist in the structuring and telling of life experiences. Some older adults use these works to elicit interest, explicate personal narratives, and share personal beliefs and values.” Jon Kay, ‘Folk Art and Aging; Life-Story Objects and Their Makers’, 2016:24
Israa and I had met Olympia once already, at her family museum, a concept very strange to me, but I’m told is not uncommon in Greece. The ‘museum’ was a two floored house dedicated entirely to the history of her family, and the ‘old way’s’ of doing things. In the kitchen there were the pots and pans used by her family for cooking, the living room held an array of farming equipment used to grow food, there were many examples of embroidery throughout, whilst upstairs the bedroom had linens and clothes worn by her children for baptisms, first days at school and her own wedding dress. There were old records, furniture, jewellery boxes and photo albums. Everything was neatly labelled.
I asked Olympia who came to the house to see her collection, and via translation she replied ‘friends, family, more recently school children, and some tourists who have found it on the internet’.
She clearly relished showing strangers her family history, and was proud of her lineage, describing how her parents came to Lesvos during the Asia Minor crisis – leaving behind their wealth, to start again from scratch, eventually becoming wealthier than the locals through farming.
She professed a love that she would like to go back to the old ways, a simpler time. But with that being impossible, she was intent in sharing her life, and the museum was a way to do that, and then the embroidery collection at her house became another.
Here I had to ‘siga siga’, slow down, rely on others, take a slower pace of life, and wait and see what happens. As Field and Basson write, ‘Place is a fundamental form of embodied experience – the site of a powerful fusion of self, space and time’ (Field and Basson 1996:9, following Casey). By allowing myself to sink into the rhythms of Olympia’s life, I came to a better understanding of how she moved through the world. The synchronicity came whilst Olympia was preparing refreshments in the kitchen, Israa embroidering, and Justine reading a book. Everyone had settled, the people and the camera were not an unusual presence anymore, we had a shared history of being in the world together, even if only brief, but that exchange had happened. We were the witnesses to Olympia’s story in that moment, the recipients to “complete the interchange that is requisite to all cultural transmission” (Myerhoff, 1984:38)
There was also another interchange happening here: my video work for Israa’s project was exchanged with Israa’s skills as an artist. A portrait rendered in charcoal, drawn to the strains of Arabic music in the library of an ancient Greek monastery. What connections have been made here? When I look at this portrait what do I see? I don’t see me, I am looking to the past, to Israa, Metochi, our time with Olympia, the group, the stories we told each other.
There was a lot of looking to the past through present objects or places. A fellow student Damianos took me to an abandoned club just on the outskirts of the small village, Skala Kalloni. In its heyday (2000-2005) thousands would descend on the club from all over the island, sometimes 24/7 parties raged, the music at the outdoor venue a large presence in the quiet fishing village. Everyone we spoke to about Makara had a story of going there, the crowds it brought, the increase in trade for local businesses and the rumours of why it closed. Now it was abandoned, a reclusive security guard and a couple of dogs the only bodies in the space, the incongruous architecture of the club standing silent amongst palm trees and undergrowth. The sounds of thumping music replaced by wind, barking dogs and cicadas.
When I look at footage of Makara club, I see a monument to joy, to excess, to wealth and dance, to a different time in the islands history, when I look I also think of Damianos, of the many conversations we had, our explorations of the site, imagining what it was like, talking to the locals and hearing their memories. It is a derelict space, but it holds all these memories of connection in its place.
Metochi study centre is another potent place of memories; since the 16th century people have been walking the paths of the Metochi monastery, at first monks in the pursuit of holiness, and now people in pursuit of knowledge – but both searching for meaning and revelation. There is still a chapel on site, a place of incense, softly glowing gold and stillness, but I was drawn to a place of worship just outside the main walls of the study centre, after climbing the uneven stone steps you reach a stone circle, where a telescope sits weighed down with heavy bags, the legs wedge firmly into specially drilled holes. Here, retired Norwegian professor Tarald spends his nights chasing constellations and nebulas across the sky – looking into the past through the light that has travelled thousands of light years to reach our eyes.
III Can you see it?
Fieldbook notes: 01.08.19 – Thursday
00:19 – bedroom
Tonight I saw a diamond in a donut, a two coloured double star, blue and white spinning together forever, and the half-human, half-God hunter of Hercules – 400,000 starts clustered outside our galaxy – and the atmosphere of Jupiter in a blurry swirl.
It was magical.
I sat the entire time in the wicker chair with my toothbrush and toothpaste in hand. I had intended an early night, before I thought I’d just check to see if Tarald was at the telescope. Tormod had introduced us earlier at dinner, and he had said we could come and have a look.
The viewing platform seemed dark, but then I spotted his red light moving about, and I began to pick my way slowly up the stone steps to the circle of stone. “Hi, I met you at dinner – is it ok if I join you?”
“Of course, do you want a chair?”
He was looking at Jupiter, the planet a ghostly circle on the screen, caught in the lens of the camera attached to the viewfinder. Three moons were visible surrounding the planet, and as he adjusted the exposure, the moons slowly disappeared, and the atmosphere of faint dark stripes slowly revealed itself. A hanging planet.
Tarald explained things to me in careful English – infra-red camera on his forehead – he spoke of light years, and meridian lines, and M4s that went not to Wales, but 76 million light years away.
“What is your favourite thing you’ve seen through the telescope?”
“Last night when the fourth moon of Jupiter appeared from the backside of the planet. That was good.”
Each time he would reset the camera, kneeling awkwardly to look through the 45-degree periscope, an “oh weh” would escape.
“Now we are going to M57”, and he would type into his handheld machine positioning the telescope –
“Deep sky…. M57”
An American woman’s voice would speak out over the cicadas and gentle tinkling of goat bells.
“M57 is a donut shaped nebula in Ursa Major….”
Before pressing the ‘Go To’ command, and the whole barrel of the telescope whirs into action and points towards the new prize in the sky. Each constellation requiring a different level of body contortion to get in the right position to see through the periscope.
“I have a new 90-degree one on order, it might arrive tomorrow”.
M57 is a nebula with a dead star at its centre. The gravitational pull means that gases are pulled around it, coloured green like the northern lights. The resulting gas field is shaped like a ring, or a donut.
“You know the star is a diamond at the centre – compressed carbon”
“What?! How big?”
Softly chuckling, “I do not know”
We stayed pointing the telescope until gone midnight, my early night long forgotten. His green laser pointing into the sky to show where our giant eye had focussed. Looking through a telescope is not as easy as I imagine, to see properly, you must look at a star on the edge of the vision, before allowing your focus to drift to the middle.
“Oh, you live in London – Greenwich meantime. Here, is meridian. See this star, polaris – north star, this tripod, trepid?”
“Yes tripod – north – the holes in the stone ground hold it steady. The telescope is on the meridian line”
“We are sitting on it now?”
On Lesvos, there has been a salt factory present since ancient times. At the end of the 19th century, part of it ran dry and was given to locals for agriculture. In the 1990’s, the government bought the salt factory and started to modernise to increase production. This meant building more salt plains, in time this large expanse of water acted as wetlands, and birds began to stop off on their migration pathways, including flamingos, helping to bring even more value to the island as it brought interested birdwatching tourists to the island.
The flamingos are an example of what happens if you create a space for something to occur, much like the Metochi study centre. The environment that manager Giorgos has created – one of nature, of being cared for, of contemplation, of beauty and of simpleness – allows for a different pace of life and contemplation.
In Alison McAlpine’s 2018 documentary Cielo, exploring the nights sky over the Atacama desert in Chile, she explores the concept of what it’s like to live in a city where light pollution denies you the depth of stars that are above you. As a city dweller I am familiar with this sense that I am missing something. In Lesvos, each night I sought out the quiet of the stars, where language didn’t matter, and invited my fellow course mates into that space too. What did it mean now we were all communing under the same magic? Without any instruction, the stone circle where the telescope was place invited you to be quiet. This shrine to discovery of the night’s sky a place you travelled to away from the monastery walls, to sit with the gentle breeze, the lights of Kalloni flickering in the distance, the moon dipping behind the mountains, the milky-way stretching gloriously from one end of the horizon to the other. As McAlpine explores in her film, what is the juxtaposition of the intimacy of human moments, vis-á-vis the epic scale of the night sky?
Star gazing was a game of waiting whilst Tarald calibrated the telescope using various constellations as markers, found the coordinates of distant nebulas, and directed his telescope towards them. We could view the nights’ sky as a whole, take in the wonder and awe of it, before placing a section of it in focus, revealing something entirely unseeable by the naked eye alone; elusive clusters and constellations thousands of light years away; one star suddenly split in two under the gaze of the telescope, endlessly spinning together in the nights sky, caught in the gravitational pull of each other.
What else do we miss when we do not look closely? How does our proximity to each other in this space effect how we spin out onto the island? Whose gravitational pull am I circling in? What should I be pointing my lens towards and setting in focus?
For Tarald, the nights sky speaks to advancements in scientific discoveries – he can look at the constellation Cassiopeia and think about how Tycho Brahe discovered a ‘new star’ in 1572 and ushered in a new wave of astronomy. Star gazing offers a living embodiment of history as we can slowly bring into focus these astronomical wonders, and experience the same sense of amazement at seeing them for the first time. That shared emotion of wonder and communing with the universe offers the possibility for a link with every human on the planet contemplating the nights sky, both in the past, present and future.
Each night our conversations were punctuated by exclamations of wonder – ‘did you see that one?’ – as shooting stars streamed across the sky. What did it mean that we started and ended each day steeped in nature? Lesvos was a sensory overload; a constantly stimulated mind, salty olives on the tongue, hot stones under foot, floating in cool waters, a nights sky followed by phosphorescent salt flats, the cockerel heralding another day, cicadas a constant presence, and wood pigeons in the trees; an audio mash of home and away.
How would my time in Lesvos have been different if the hecticness and heat of the day didn’t end with quiet contemplation of the nights sky? How does this connection and realisation to being IN the universe affect me, affect us? What has seeing the rings of Saturn, or the moons of Jupiter with my own eyes changed within me?
When I think of the financial crash of 2007/8 in Greece, I am now back amongst Makara’s dancing plants and the rustle of leaves. When I think of travelling around the island, winding roads into the hills, the sea sparkling in the distance, I also think of the many road-side shrines to lost loved ones – life and death in simultaneous remembrance. In the quiet of a walk one evening with Giorgos, Ero and Tormod, Giorgos stopped to light a candle in one of these shrines – someone unknown to him, but still a recognition that this place held memory, and now this new action had rewoven itself into our journeys, connecting us to this place.
We are looking to the past when seeing the light from the stars, as Olympia does with her embroidery, as Makara club stands for the wealth of days gone by, and the road-side shrines stand for the life of a loved one. But we are also constantly creating new memories and meaning within these places.
These journeys of discovery are affected by who we take with us, companions that are human or animal; or by what the weather was like that day; by the associations we have formed around each place; by who we spoke to that morning; each interaction building a multilayered, multi-sensory map of experience and exchange, of cooperation, of collaboration, of learning and wonder, curiosity and reflection.
With special thanks to Jennie, a very patient guide on this journey.
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