21st century fieldwork

I wish I could say that this is all I brought to the field with me:

Fieldwork kit | 1

Two blow-up toys, a sleeping bag, and a small backpack. I rather admired the monastic look of this scene. Alas, it was never thus. This is what that stuff, and more, was contained in:

Fieldwork kit | 2

Two medium-sized backpacks, and a box of rations to share. (My old backpack, that I got as a young student setting off for fieldwork and has done every fieldwork with me ever since, is still serviceable after 20 years, but I need to send it in for patching and sewing.) The plastic toy isn't mine. My only true concession to the monastic life was to have just two changes of clothes.

So what else were in those bags? Here's one universe of possibilities:

Fieldwork kit | 3

Pens and notebooks (with spares) came along, as did my laptop. I goofed this time, though. I was in such a rush to leave home that I forgot to bring along some old songs and photos for general sharing (my field packing and unpacking includes giving the MacBook Air's hard drive a periodic spring-cleaning) and my (organic) memory doesn't have permanent storage capabilities. As my Batek travel companions hilariously pointed out, I could only remember snatches of lyrics to entertain people with, and filled in the gaps with a lot of la-di-di-da ("you sing only one word at a time—where's the rest of it!").

For power, I used two solar kits (this and this); with rain falling and the sun behind clouds almost every day, I was glad to have two solar batteries (middle of photo). Indeed, other than the pre-charged camera batteries and a couple of disposables to run a GPS receiver, I was entirely on solar power. I seem to have finally devised the ideal PV system that literally travels on my back and imposes natural limits on my geeky tendencies, forcing me to spend most of the time on good old participant observation.

The iPhone continues to be a trusty companion, now with a new attachment—a mic that enables audio recording in .wav format. For the same purpose—getting archival quality uncompressed files—I'm also using a Zoom HN5 (portable handheld digital recorder—top centre of the photo). The iPhone got used a bit more; it's more portable and quicker to whip out at a moment's notice. I haven't yet compared audio quality across devices, though I should.

For photography, I'm approaching wretched excess, I suppose. My beloved Nikon D700 is on permanent standby (only one lens brought to the field this time: 50mm 1.4—my favourite) but I'm also using the iPhone camera a lot more now. The division of labour between cameras is about 50-50, with the D700 for "important" shots (rough yardstick: "this image needs to be lovingly preserved in RAW format"), and the iPhone for functional shots, memory aids and, my favourite use of it, panoramas (examples here). But as you can see from the photo above, I also now have a Sony mirrorless camera, the Alpha 6000. Originally I was looking for a lightweight but good pocket camera to take the strain off my shoulders, but I can't wean off the D700 after all. So the a6000 is now for movie recording (impressive audio capture and subject tracking, I must say) and extremes of low light (24 MP!). In short, boys and girls, instead of each new camera replacing the previous one (as the D700 had replaced the Nikon D70, and the D70 the Nikon FM2), I seem to be sprouting new photographic wings, exploring different image-making possibilities with different devices simultaneously. To what end, I wonder.

The main issue now is to develop a more-or-less efficient workflow. One does get swamped with data, none of which is useful unless properly organised, categorised, and integrated across media. Right now, for example, I'm annotating video and audio data, and keywording photos. Recently I was admiring my workflow in Cambodia, the care I put into designing useful keywords and writing photo descriptions most days in the field. Because those descriptions were written on the same day the photos were shot, they have an immediacy and vividness to them that you just don't get if you're writing years after the fact, when the feelings and sensations have been nudged aside by other feelings and sensations. Doing fieldwork with farmers in Cambodia is very different from fieldwork with hunter-gatherers in Malaysia, though. But I'm trying to go back to those good fieldnote-writing habits... at least I'm now downloading digital data by the day and monitoring progress...(you might notice there's a card reader hidden among the wires in the photo above; it too comes along on fieldwork).

Now, about those inflatable toys in the first photo above. It's all about age. Youthful injuries have, I suppose, caught up with me; I'll spare you the details, but I do increasingly appreciate the little luxuries like a super-comfy air mattress that folds down to the size of a hot dog (no, don't go there...).  I don't normally sleep more than four hours per night (I take naps, gloriously long naps) but with that air mattress I can get seven hours in, no problem, and wake up refreshed, ready for participant observation...

I'll try to post more in the next few months, but I'll be in and out of the field, collecting and processing data (did you hear that, students?).


  1. The camera spread seems ideal. We must chat about video, its shooting and uses... I've long been interested but all stuff so far so-so.

  2. Nice and informative article


Post a Comment