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 include my dissertation research on the social life of Aboriginal film production and my emerging projects on Aboriginal sign language and hearing loss. Spanning visual anthropology, Native studies, media studies, linguistic anthropology, and medical anthropology, my research and writing are informed by an explicitly interdisciplinary perspective.
The research trajectory I outline below encompasses three interlinked projects that have developed 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
In my dissertation and subsequent book manuscript, Broadcasting Indigenous Futures: The Social Life of Kimberley Aboriginal Media, I analyze Aboriginal Australian filmmaking as a generative process through which communities imagine and actualize their futures. I draw on my experience working within the production teams of two Indigenous media organizations, in which I traced the biographical social lifecycles of 32 film projects over 26 months of ethnographic research in the Kimberley region of Northwestern Australia from 2006-16, including 20 months of continuous fieldwork in 2014-16. The primary film that I collaborated on, Tjawa Tjawa, was screened at the Margaret Mead, ImagiNative, and Sydney international film festivals.
I view collaborative media production as a framework for reimagining the relationship between anthropological practice, theory, and modes of representation, as well as an ethically-focused methodology. This perspective informs the research process I develop and theorize in my dissertation as “the social life of media,” which traces the biographical lifecycles of films from initial idea through circulation, encompassing the banal and frenetic daily realities of media production. This approach emphasizes local analytics. For example, I argue that film projects that are palya (done the good and right way) may be understood through the relationship between local metaphors of fires (creative labor), tires (infrastructure), and paper (bureaucracy), which reimagine basic assumptions built into Western conceptualizations. At a larger conceptual level, I argue that understanding the process of collective cultural production is essential, since culture itself is not pre-existing, but something that comes into being through doing.
Films emphasizing futurity are particularly critical for asserting visual and temporal sovereignty, and foster the reimagining and actualizing of what Gerald Vizenor articulates as Indigenous survivance. These films are not simply communicating visions of the future, but are actively and collectively producing them throughout the social lives of interconnected film projects spanning years. In light of the current mass defunding of Aboriginal Australian communities and organizations, understanding the production of imaginative and hopeful future-oriented media is crucial for rethinking what scholars, policy makers, and broader publics imagine is possible and inevitable for people who remain so deeply associated with mythic pasts and troubled presents.
Kukatja Sign Language Filmmaking
Toward the end of my fieldwork, I was encouraged by the Indigenous media organizations 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 and directed film projects featuring the local Kukatja sign language. This broader research focus traces the social life of three collaborative film productions with media workers in Balgo: (1) Marumpu Wangka, an initial short film that received unexpected circulation of over 15,000 online views; (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 latter two, for which we received the annually-awarded 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 Australians. This process is also crucial for language reclamation; 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 select community elders. Building upon 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.
The Aboriginal Hearing Loss Epidemic
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. Despite being one of the most significant Aboriginal health issues, it lacks virtually any sustained research. Developing out of my current collaborative film projects on Aboriginal sign language, as well as preliminary research conducted during my dissertation fieldwork, this upcoming project seeks to intervene in the hearing loss epidemic in remote communities. In many 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; for example, the majority of Aboriginal prison inmates have significant hearing loss.
In the wake of governmental programs that have been unsuccessful in addressing this issue, collaborative interdisciplinary research is crucial. As this topic covers broad areas of expertise and articulates with complex histories of ongoing dispossession, I will facilitate team research encompassing community members, social scientists, medical researchers, and policy experts to help identify underlying causes and attain deeper insights centered around Aboriginal perspectives on health and wellbeing. My ethnographic research on Indigenous media projects in some of the most deeply impacted communities will provide a unique contribution to such a research team. For example, collaborative film productions would be integrated within the project to better understand how community members imagine this issue, as well as to provide an effective means for translating and disseminating our findings.
Furthermore, recent public health media campaigns emphasize the individual choices of hand washing, nose blowing, and eating a good diet as preventative measures, despite ample medical research suggesting that these strategies would have a negligible impact on the already-existing epidemic rates of OM. Thus, 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 demystifying this complex issue. My second book manuscript on this project will provide key interventions at the intersection of scholarship on medical anthropology, visual anthropology, and public health without appealing to a politics of suffering, instead emphasizing the vitality of communities in spite of colonial legacies, as well as the importance of collectively imagining hopeful futures, in this case embodied by the children themselves.