Ethnographic Portraiture: Adjusting to Light and Dark

From the Series: Art and Ethnographic Forms in Dark Times

Image by Bernard Perley.

As ethnographers, we try to receive and conduct forms of light and dark that others exude. In this regard, our task overlaps with many other art forms. How do we learn this art of portraying fluctuating luminosity? Even maestros of portraiture may feel uncertain about how to teach this art, as text or image. Consider for example Henry James’s statement of this uncertainty in his 1884 essay, “The Art of Fiction.” Even in its most fantastic or ghostly forms, James (1999 [1884], 578) argues, fiction tries to offer “a direct impression of life. That constitutes its value, which is greater or less according to the intensity of the impression.” Such values and impressions are not easily measured or taught: “It goes without saying that you will not write a good novel unless you possess a sense of reality; but it will be difficult to give you a recipe for calling that sense into being” (James 1999 [1884], 580). While we cannot outline the exact recipe, can we name some elements of it, nearest to our practice? My focus here is on the practice of human portraiture, singular lives rather than wide-angle landscapes or cultures.

What should an ethnographer do before they begin to trust their capacities to turn private impressions into public expression? Anthropological writing on method is often oddly strained, either too formulaic, or too chatty, or quiet, as if the details are too private or complex or mundane to be shared. I found one distinctive element of the ethnographic recipe for reality in the stubborn, repetitive, pestering, and rigorous pursuit of impressions in Zora Neale Hurston’s (2018) Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo.” Written in the 1920s but only published in 2018, we might take this to be among the founding texts of ethnographic method. Hurston (2018, 6) describes the premise of her book:

Of all the millions transported from Africa to the Americas, only one man is left. He is called Cudjo Lewis and is living at present at Plateau, Alabama. This is the story of this Cudjo. I met Cudjo Lewis for the first time in July 1927. I was sent by Dr. Franz Boas to get a firsthand report of the raid that had brought him to America and bondage . . .

Alongside race and gender, part of the reason for the book’s non-publication was perhaps its painstakingly detailed method of receiving impressions, and the way in which the book recurrently makes this method explicit. Each chapter opens with Cudjo’s mood on that day, how many times Hurston met him in a month, and whether or not he wanted to talk on a given day. The questions Hurston (2018, 18) asks Cudjo are shared with her readers: “Didn’t you have a God back in Africa?” Hurston (2018, 28) describes how she steers the conversation, “afraid that Cudjo might go off on a tangent,” but then revises her questions, slowly realizing the significance of “tangents,” such as the detailed genealogies in his narrative. What we have here is an explicit sense of the intimate, transactional nature of ethnographic voice, imbued with the vagaries of mood and fluctuations of intersubjective power. On some days Cudjo declares “Go leave me ‘lone,” “Don’t come bother me on Saturday,” “You ask so many questions.” Nonetheless, Hurston returns the next day with a gift of peaches and a request for further conversation. This is not a novel. It is not a polemic. But it is unmistakably recognizable to ethnographers, even a hundred years later, as what we do.

What constitutes a “finding” in such an art, if we take this to be one of the tasks of a practice, although differently so (and how so?) than the valence that the word “finding” might have in science? While it may be hard to answer such a question in general terms, I offer one instance, from the first time I can think of myself as doing ethnographic work in this style of portraiture, two decades ago.

In 2001–2002 I conducted research on the decline of cinema halls in Old Delhi. A key ethnographic persona in this research was a man in his early sixties, whom I called BKji, a former trade unionist, an aspiring actor, and at the time of my fieldwork, the manager of a soon-to-be-shuttered cinema hall in the heart of Old Delhi, next to the Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India. Rereading an article of mine from 2008, on this phase of fieldwork, I pause over a footnote that describes how I prepared myself to narrate BKji’s life,

The quotations I insert from BKji are a synthesis of four recorded interviews conducted over a period of about six months at his office in Jagat cinema. I would request time specifically for an interview each time I felt I had learnt enough from fleeting conversations with BKji and others in his milieu to be able to ask a different set of questions from the previous time. (Singh 2008, 5).

One crucial finding for me of this labor was of Hindi-Urdu cinema not as a form of ideology, or nationalism, or globalization, as media and cultural studies often “read” it. Instead, through BKji, I saw it as a lyric tradition (as song and spoken word) that plays a therapeutic role, enabling those who receive its currents to recast life situations in a softer or grander light. Cinematic form remained central to BKji’s life, partly as a bewitchment, as art can be: he left a stable job in Delhi in the hope of joining the film world in Bombay. Commitment to an art form may continue even when it fails to deliver “happiness,” narrowly conceived as the promise of professional success. After various disappointments in Bombay, BKji returned to Delhi after his mother died in 1968. He joined a small cinema hall as a gatekeeper, and then assistant manager. He described to me his involvement within an emerging and then waning cinema workers trade union movement. His life trajectory and the lyrics and dialogues through which he rendered it, made an impression on me stronger than any film “star” ever had. It felt like I was encountering his life in Act V, with some sense of the preceding drama. For instance, I entered his office one evening in 2002 to find him yelling at a group of junior employees, insisting that there was no hope of collecting their last few months of outstanding dues from the management when the hall had temporarily been closed. As they argued back, the pitch of his voice rose. My mind wandered back in time:

I thought of BKji and the passion with which he had told me his trade union stories—here he was leading a mashaal juloos (torchlight rally) on a late October night in 1979. And then the time he was beaten up, returning from a union meeting. “Meri peeth par Hindustan ka naksha bana diya tha” (With sticks they drew the map of India on my back). . . .
A few weeks ago, moved by a poem he had recited, I told BKji that I could see the revolutionary, the actor and the filmmaker in him. He told me: “Arre yaar, main sher hota tha, sher. Abhi bhi sher houn. Par ab mujhe lagne laga hai ki main circus ka sher hoon” (I used to be a lion, proud and ferocious. I am still a lion. But now I have started feeling that I am a lion in a circus).

Methodologically, I could not have received the force of these images without the ethnographic rigor of repetition. What do we call such a finding? It is not exactly “data.” And yet I hazard that this much is verifiable, at least in confidence between us: here is an instance of a very particular kind of light and shadow through which art is joined to life.


Hurston, Zora Neale. 2018. Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo.” Edited by Deborah G. Plant. New York: Harper Collins.

James, Henry. 1999. “The Art of Fiction.” In Henry James: Major Stories and Essays. New York: Library of America. Originally published in 1884.

Singh, Bhrigupati. 2008. “Aadamkhor Haseena (The Man-Eating Beauty) and the Anthropology of a Moment.” Contributions to Indian Sociology 42, no. 2: 249–79.