Understanding Sensory Ethnography Approach in Audiovisual Production


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On Wednesday (Dec 4th), Festival Film Dokumenter (FFD) 2019 held a DocTalk session on Sensory Ethnography at Kedai Kebun Forum. Through the discussion, the audiences were invited to understand how the sensory ethnography approach is used as a method in producing audiovisual. Moderated by Fiky Daulay (researcher of KUNCI Study Forum & Collective), the discussion featured Aryo Danusiri (filmmaker and researcher), and Muhammad Zamzam Fauzanafi (researcher and lecturer of the Department of Cultural Anthropology UGM).

Zamzam explained that sensory ethnography emerged around 1990s along with the advent of phenomenological approach in anthropology. Zamzam added “If we want to do a study on society, we should not see the society or the culture as a text. In phenomenology, culture is seen as an experience which is not to be transformed into a series of written or verbal words”.

Then, how can we approach culture through the researcher’s experience? We should not always depend on the writing method since it can be approached visually or sonically. Most people believe that creating an ethnographic work through audiovisual approach is worthwhile for sensory experience. However, there is a debate that claims writing method can also be used to describe a phenomenon or signal in a sensorial way. Zamzam cited Clifford Geertz, who explained how the scent of incense or the gathering of people makes the death of a Javanese sensorial. However, the existence of camera and technology generates an opinion that visualization brings a better sensory experience. For instance, a close-up shot which could create a three-dimensional feeling. 

According to Zamzam, sensory ethnography is about how to record or produce audiovisual work by using the filmmaker’s experiences which will take audiences to reminisce about their own similar experiences, such as “How does it feel like to wait for something? Or what are you feeling during bad weather?” said Zamzam.

There is a claim that technology could possibly represent a filmmaker’s experiences. In fact, presumption and technology are different. Eyes provide a binocular vision which is obviously different from the camera system. Therefore, Zamzam said that techniques are necessary during the shoot and editing process. “Camera could not capture the cold of winter, thus, we need to use the aperture to create a light” added Zamzam.

Meanwhile, according to Aryo, sensory ethnography is part of an understanding that experience is not solely an intermediary of systematic meaning. However, sensory ethnography is actually a moment that redefines an experience. It explains individuality and the way actors change a systematic culture. “If we want to know how it feels like drinking tea at Kedai Kebun, we should involve in the activity rather than only understanding its systematic meaning,” said Aryo.

Furthermore, Aryo explained that sensory ethnography approach is used to capture the unexpected ideas rather than the imaginable ideas. It is also applicable to record things that cannot be captured in a textual way. “Producing a work through sensory ethnography approach means interacting with body and public. We try to explain to the public that there is an invisible truth behind every issue, thus, our work is to define it” said Aryo.

Written by Nizmi Nasution

Translated by Fidel Demara