Research Summary and major projects

My past, present, and future research projects are united by a focus on the implications of Aboriginal Australian representations for the future of their communities, with a commitment to a sustained and deeply collaborative research process. These projects are explicitly interdisciplinary. My current research tracing the social life of film projects with Aboriginal media organizations integrates visual anthropology, Native studies, and media studies, while my emerging and future projects on Aboriginal sign language and hearing loss in remote communities engage linguistic and medical anthropology.

The research trajectory I outline below encompasses three projects that have developed in relation to one another through more than a decade of fieldwork, over which I have cultivated relationships with community members, organizations, and research institutes. I continue to be driven by the larger goal of facilitating collaborative research partnerships that prioritize community-defined protocols, outcomes, and analytics, while aiming to productively transform the ways in which Indigenous challenges and futures are imagined by scholars, policy makers, and broader audiences.


The Social Life of Kimberley Aboriginal Media

My dissertation, Broadcasting Indigenous Futures: The Social Life of Kimberley Aboriginal Media, is based on my 26 months of ethnographic research in the Kimberley region of Northwestern Australia from 2006-16, including 20 months of primary fieldwork in 2014-16. I analyze the rise of National Indigenous Television and Indigenous Community Television in Australia, two national Aboriginal television networks and media models. I engaged these through a study of Goolarri and PAKAM, two parallel Indigenous media organizations based in the town of Broome. Throughout my dissertation fieldwork, I participated in their production teams, following the biographical lifecycles of their projects to illustrate the stakes of contemporary indigeneity embedded within the daily practices of 32 diverse film productions.

My research reimagines collaboration as not only methodological and ethical, but also as a powerful research gestalt that can innovatively integrate anthropological theory, subjects, and objects through a serious focus on the process of producing self-representations. I develop the social life of media as a collaborative process for following the complete biographical life cycles of film productions in Indigenous media organizations through daily participation within production teams, from initial idea through circulation, including the variety of bureaucratic, technological, and interpersonal stages. This approach also fosters ethnographic co-visioning that is grounded within local analytics. For example, I argue that palya film projects (done the good and right way) may be understood through the relationship between local metaphors of “fires, tires, and paper,” which reimagine basic assumptions built into scholarship on creative labor, infrastructure/mobility, and bureaucracy, respectively.

The social life of media also interrogates how themes of futurity develop throughout the production process. I argue that these future-oriented films can mediate disciplinary and Australian imaginaries on what is possible, desirable, and inevitable for Indigenous communities, especially amidst the current mass governmental defunding of Aboriginal organizations and basic community services. Such policies are fostered by collective imaginaries around the inevitability of urbanized assimilation for the “world’s oldest living societies,” who are temporally framed as anachronistic relics. Understanding the social life of Indigenous media can transform anthropological understandings of the intellectual, political, and ethical implications of contemporary projects for the peoples whose own futures depend on these mediations.

Still from Tjawa Tjawa

Production shot from Tjawa Tjawa (credit Clint Dixon)

Still from What a Wonderful World, showing a beach in Broome, AU

Still from Marumpu Wangka: Kukatja Hand Talk

Still from Bush Hunt Hand Talk

Still from Bush Hunt Hand Talk

Kukatja Sign Language Filmmaking 

Toward the end of my fieldwork, I was encouraged by the manager of PAKAM media to take a more central role in our collaborative film productions. Spanning several months during 2015-16 in the remote Great Sandy Desert community of Balgo, I facilitated film projects in the local Kukatja sign language. This research emphasis focuses on three collaborative film productions with media workers in Balgo: (1) Marumpu Wangka, an initial short film that received unexpected circulation of over 15,000 views online; (2) a multi-camera visual dictionary of over 300 hand signs; and (3) The Hand Talk Drive-in, a half-hour nationally syndicated subtitled hand sign drama through National Indigenous Television (NITV). The final two of these, for which we received the annual NITV Spirit Award to produce, are in post-production and nearing final completion.

Hand signs are a bedrock of everyday communication and serve as a gestural lingua franca in the region. This sign language has long-fulfilled a variety of communicative roles within and between communities through hundreds of regularly-exchanged signs, including gestural floating signifiers with virtually limitless potential for meaning. They are essential for silent communication while hunting and are often used to trade secrets, especially in the presence of cultural outsiders, where the contrast between the signed and spoken is a constant source of comedy and commentary on power dynamics. Hand signs also serve various cultural purposes relating to speech avoidance around stepmothers and widows, and correspond with local registers of dignified efficiency in communication.

Collaborative filmmaking provides an essential visual process for translating the complex, embodied, and humanizing intersubjective gestural practices of Aboriginal people. This process is also crucial for language revitalization; due to gaps in generational knowledge resulting from legacies of missionization and forced boarding schooling, many of the hundreds of signs we recorded were known only by community elders. In contrast to the foundational linguistic scholarship on gestural description and classification, this project aims to articulate the importance of filmmaking in understanding and disseminating gestural ideologies and metapragmatics in practice. Building on current research partnerships with community members and gesture scholars, I organized the 2017 American Anthropological Association conference titled “Gesture Ideologies,” bringing together several top scholars from four continents to discuss the future of gesture studies and the increasing importance of filmmaking in this field.

The Aboriginal Hearing Loss Epidemic

Developing out of my current collaborative film projects on Aboriginal sign language, as well as preliminary research embedded within my dissertation fieldwork, my future project seeks to intervene in the hearing loss epidemic in remote Aboriginal communities. This is one of the most significant Indigenous health problems, yet it lacks virtually any sustained qualitative community research engagement. I became acutely aware of the depth of this problem when it was brought to my attention during my pilot fieldwork trips in 2012-13. Otitis media (OM) is a common middle ear infection that afflicts approximately 709 million people each year. Aboriginal Australian youth have the highest rates worldwide, with at least 84% contracting OM, more than an order of magnitude above non-Aboriginal Australian levels. In many remote communities, every single child contracts OM, which leads to severe hearing loss or worse in at least one third of all children. This exacerbates lifelong cycles of structural violence, demonstrated by the majority of Aboriginal prison inmates having significant hearing loss.

In the wake of governmental programs that have failed to improve the situation, grounded interdisciplinary research integrating ethnography, medicine, and policy approaches is crucial for beginning to appropriately address this issue. As this topic covers broad areas of expertise, I will develop a research team encompassing community members, social scientists, medical researchers, and policy experts who can collectively attain deeper insights centered around Aboriginal perspectives on health and wellbeing. My particular experience with Indigenous media production in some of the most deeply impacted communities would provide a unique contribution to an interdisciplinary research team. Recent public health media campaigns—often contracted to and produced by Indigenous media organizations—emphasize the individual choices of blowing one’s nose, eating a good diet, and washing as preventative measures, yet there is ample medical research suggesting that these strategies have a negligible impact on epidemic rates of OM.

Tracing the social life of these media campaigns and their relationship with medical research, policy papers, and the lived everyday life of community members will be crucial in understanding the depth of this problem, as well as respectful avenues for improving the situation in locally defined ways. In addition, collaborative film productions would be integrated within the project to better understand how community members are imagining this issue, as well as providing an effective means for translating and disseminating our findings. This uncommon and interdisciplinary approach would provide key interventions at the intersection of scholarship on medical anthropology, visual anthropology, and public health. This larger ear health project connects with my overarching focus on the representation of Aboriginal people in ways that address underlying challenges without appealing to a politics of suffering, emphasizing the vitality of communities in spite of colonial legacies, as well as the importance of collectively imagining their potential futures, in this case embodied by the children themselves.

Still from Keeping Looma Carers Strong

Still from Sticking 2 Treatment, a music video on Rheumatic Heart Disease

Overview shot of women painting during the Tjawa Tjawa film shoot