Broken Ground is a collaborative project between Leiden University (The Netherlands) and NUKU Studio (Ghana). This learning platform is the initial output of several intersecting initiatives, which include Leiden University’s Field Research & Training programme in Ghana and LU’s Centre for Innovation 360-video pilot project. Mark Westmoreland and Sabine Luning used these initiatives to envision a ‘virtual field school’. Building on Sabine’s existing network in Ghana allowed us to further compliment this endeavor with contributions from two Ghanaian photographers–Nii Obodai and Dennis Akuoku-Frimpong.
We join efforts in order to combine our respective areas of expertise and explore the benefits (and challenges) of collaborating across disciplinary lines. Westmoreland is a visual anthropologist with an interest in experimental methodologies, particularly at the intersection of art and ethnography. Luning is an anthropologist specializing in West Africa with a long-standing research focus on small-scale gold mining. Obodai is an analogue photographer and the founder of NUKU Studio, which provides professional support to local photographic practitioners. Akuoku-Frimpong is a documentary photographer with a strong interest in the diversity of religious culture within Ghana and across Africa.
Conceptually, we aimed to open new frameworks for rethinking relationships with land resources as a key concern of social and environmental research. Inspired by the idea of “landscapes of extraction,” we called our project Broken Ground to gesture to both the wounded history of these places as well as the aspirations made possible by transforming the material world. While originating from research on mining and the literal process of breaking open the earth to extract resources buried below, we find this notion suggestive of other labor processes like farming, herding, and fishing, but also more troubled forms of resource extraction like slavery, colonialism, and capitalism. We thus aspired to address the Ghanaian terrain in ways that would generate totally different ways of looking at, listening to, and thinking about landscapes. Collaboration between artists, academics, and people inhabiting the landscapes allow us to both open up or eyes and prick up our ears. The images and stories that we collect are not just intended to produce new forms of knowledge, but to generate important and lasting conversations with the people who inhabit these landscapes.
Our epistemological approach to landscape thus tries to move away from a purely economic view of land and land use. A tunnel vision on economic value does not do sufficient justice to ideas and stories that local ‘extractors’ attach to the places and practices of extraction. The extraction of gold, where money definitely matters, can serve as an example. In the eyes of miners, as earlier research by Luning demonstrated, access to and appropriation of gold matter depend on good connections to spirits (called ‘djinns’ in West Africa) and the earth. In Ghana, and in West Africa more broadly, landscapes are seen as assemblages of sites infused with cosmological powers and potentials. In order to track the way these practices of extraction are dependent upon spiritual and ancestral presence we combined our research methods in innovative and unusual ways.
As a methodological experiment, our entire team made significant effort to document our actions through a variety of visual modalities. Other than the ubiquitous smartphone, the team carried one DSLR, one micro-4/3rd camera, one rangefinder, one action camera, two 360° cameras, at least three point-and-shoot digital cameras, and a custom made medium format camera with black-and-white analog negatives. The range of optics meant we collected a diverse intersubjective record of multiple events, possibly to the point of excess. As we gathered participants and curious people around these multimodal experiments, often everyone present was filming and being filmed. Multimodality thus provides a new conceptual framework for designing research in ways that recognize the methodological, epistemological, and aesthetic affordances of visual and sonic ethnography.
To this end, we worked in close collaboration with both our Ghanaian photographers and a variety of local participants. The modules featured on this website feature the work of several people living and working in the mining town of Kejetia, Ghana. In the context of small-scale mining, known locally as galamsey, we used 360° video as a means to record an underworld that we could (and would) not descend into ourselves. For researchers bound to the surface of the earth, it was very difficult to imagine what working underground looks, sounds, and feels like. Thanks to our collaboration with the miners featured in this project, namely Zakari Imorana, the space suddenly becomes visually accessible to us in a new and different way. And when combined with audio these mine-shafts also become sonically filled with hammering, grunting, laughter, and joking, thus revealing these underground worksites as ethnographically cosmopolitan spaces with different languages and histories intermingling.
As such, we use the context of exploratory multimodal research to create a learning platform where students could virtually follow our research process and gain a better sense of how ethnographic research unfolds during the initial phases of accessing a site and forging relations with the people there. Our aim with this platform is to combine the insights and strengths of global ethnography, policy in practice, and visual ethnography, while inspiring students to think more dynamically and critically about their own research projects. In this way students join Westmoreland, Luning, Obodai, and Akuoku-Frimpong as their experience and understanding of this site and the people living there deepens and evolves. The resulting six modules provide students with incremental insights about doing ethnographic fieldwork by virtually introducing them to a small-scale gold mining site in Ghana.
This series of online modules provides multiple modes of engagement, which include readings, videos viewings, photo series, discussion prompts, assignments, etc. These scaffold around two class sessions. For each session, students will (a) prepare by engaging an initial module before class, (b) follow another module in class led by the instructor, and (c) finally complete after class a reflective assignment. Each module has a unique password that will be revealed to students as they progress through the modules. The password for Module 1 is the local name given to small-scale mining (mentioned above).
Session 1: To be completed in conjunction with the first class session (23 September 2019):
- Module 1: Research Preparations & First Impressions– This first module challenges students to make sense of a research site by reflecting on the insights and scholarship of those who preceded them. Then through a rough assemblage of video footage, students are dropped into the site and prompted to make some initial insights based on an observational exercise. To be completed before class.
- Module 2: Conceptualizing the Field– Using video footage from a tour of the site, informants lead the researchers into new social contexts. We will discuss a conceptualization of the “field of study” as a “field of problems” (think of the work of David Mosse) and how this shapes the way we interpret the sociality of the site. We then follow on this with an examination of the representational tension between generalizations and particularities by looking at a particular situation that provokes certain stereotypes about the risks involved in informal mining. Discussions focus on research relationships and the varying agency of both researcher and researched. Presented in class.
- Module 3: Exploring Socialities– Completed after class, this module prompts students to look at the contexts discussed in class from another perspective in order to develop a more nuanced understanding of the sociality of this mining town. To be completed after the class.
Session 2: To be completed in conjunction with the second class session (26 September 2019):
- Module 4: Individuality & Social Imaginaries– This module foregrounds the ambitions and ideas that shape one particular gold miner. Combining an oral history narrative with self-styled profile photos, students generate an understanding of self-representation and the kinds of influences that have shaped this miner’s biography. This is supplemented by a sidebar on the Nollywood film industry and the viewing of one film that inspired our protagonist. To be completed before class.
- Module 5: Performativity & Experimental Ethnography– Building on the preparatory 4thmodule, this module develops a metacommentary on the way the researchers, their interlocutors, and their methodological approaches respond to and are shaped by the research context. We begin by exploring the performativity of the miners on multiple registers in order to better understand how they respond to different social contexts, including the context of participating in ethnographic research. We follow this by examining the use of experimental research modalities in response to the particular challenge of visualizing the underground world. We then critically assess the technologies used and their particular affordances of in/visibility. Discussions focus on issues of reflexivity and ethics when the anthropologist becomes documented in collaborative research processes. Presented in class.
- Module 6: Expanded Research Agendas – Completed after class, this module provides students with a final look at the research site, in which the miners give you a first-person, virtual tour of the Kejetia mining town, but one that may not have been accessible had you been there in reality. What new social realities emerge? What new arenas of activity remain unexplored? What further research trajectories could be developed? To be completed after the class.
- Navigate your phone to the desired module.
- Each video will link to the Vimeo app, where it can play VR videos natively.
- Turn your phone horizontally to get full screen.
- Select the goggle icon in the bottom right corner for the stereoscopic layout.
- Place the phone into the front of the VR goggles and adjust focus.
- With the goggles in front of your eyes, look around in all directions to really get a sense of the surroundings.