Real Photos from the Field

(Audio Version) I was recently asked to provide a catchy action photo of myself in the field. I was meant to be doing something exciting and interesting. It should be visually arresting and reflect what I actually do in the field. Without thinking too much about it, I sent my the head shot that I got in the last American Anthropological Association meeting in Vancouver. There was a photographer taking free head shots and I happened to catch him when he was alone, and I didn’t have to wait. A few weeks after the conference, I got this lovely shot, that I’ve been using for just about everything ever since.

Unsurprisingly, this semi-formal shot of me looking all corporate and professional isn’t very reflective of much of my fieldwork– though increasingly, what I do in Pakistan does involve wearing a suit and hanging out with other people wearing formal (usually Western) clothes.

A shiny smiling Me at the Vancouver AAA 2019

So I dutifully sent along more action looking shots. I have always enjoyed these photos because they make me look like I was really living the life of a local Punjabi farmer. In one photo, I’m casually holding a shotgun that some old friends of mine used to ward off animals like jackals and wild boar who like to help themselves to either farm animals or crops. I should admit here and now that I’ve never shot any animal in my life and have zero desire to do so. When I was 13 or 14, a friend took me on a hunting weekend. My friend didn’t hunt either, but his dad, and his dad’s friend liked to hunt and his dad hoped that this would toughen up his son and make him a proper man. We drove for a long time to some isolated place somewhere in Texas and set ourselves up in a lovely cabin in the woods. When we went out hunting the following day, my friend and I were not given guns, but trailed along behind the proper hunters. They were hunting wild turkey. I could see the turkey up in the trees (who knew that turkeys could fly well enough to get up into trees?!?). I really didn’t want to see a turkey get shot so I ‘accidentally’ stepped on a branch that made some very loud cracking noises. All the turkeys flew up in a most impressive display of flying ability (I know– shocking). My friend’s dad was seriously angry. He glared at me. He stuck his finger out pointing back to the cabin and said, ‘Go back to the cabin.’ He was usually a really friendly guy, but there was nothing friendly about the way he said that. As we were walking back, I apologised to my friend and he shrugged and said he hated hunting and didn’t even want to come this weekend. He’d only agreed to go if he could bring a friend. Bad luck for his dad, he picked a friend who doesn’t see killing animals as sport.

So my hunting credentials are decidedly weak. I have the gun and the belt with the extra shot to make myself look like someone who kind of knows what they’re doing, but it’s a complete sham. I was posed. My friends placed my hands and my hat exactly the way they wanted them to be. They laughingly staged it so that I would look more like them.

Another smiling Me in Punjab in 1999.

When other friends saw the photo they laughed but told me not to show it to anyone because they didn’t know whether the men had a licence for the shotgun. Since the man with the gun is, sadly, dead now, and I have no idea where the shotgun is, I think it’s safe to go ahead and share the photo now. I have very good memories of playing at being a person who hunts, but I never really want to be that person.

The next photo I shared was of me hard at work as a potato farmer. In this photo, I’m doing the back breaking labour of digging the dirt for potatoes. It’s not particularly pleasant work and even with the cooperation of another farmer, as in this photo, it gets tiring pretty quickly. I always tried to do farm work when I could. I have cut fodder with a little hand scythe, I have driven tractors, I have winnowed grains and a lot more. I think there aren’t many agricultural tasks that Punjab farmers do that I haven’t tried. But when I say ‘try’ I am not saying much. I was once squatting and using a hand scythe to cut some weeds around a field of canola plants. The farmers around were very amused and no doubt mentally dismissing my lack of skills at both squatting and using a hand scythe. Then a car passed by the nearby road (about 50 meters away). They got very agitated and insisted that I stand up immediately. I obeyed, as I always tried to do when commanded by Punjabi farmers in their territories. After the car was out of sight, I asked what the problem was. They told me that the car belonged to someone from a neighbouring village and they were watching me. I didn’t see the problem, but they explained that if people in the neighbouring village saw that people in ‘my’ village were putting me to work as a farm labourer, there would be hell to pay. Guests, they patiently explained, were not to be put to work. They were to be fattened up and sat on charpai and made happy. I said that learning to be a farmer made me happy. They shook their heads and said it didn’t matter what I thought made me happy– the reputation of the village couldn’t withstand the kinds of insults and teasing that would go on if they made important visitors like me do manual labour.

Trying my hand at digging dirt for potatoes with my old friend Mr Rasheed in 1999.

The picture of me digging dirt is pretty obviously a fraud. No one would wear that kind of shalwar kameez with a waistcoat to do manual labour if they had a choice. If I shared the video, it would be obvious that I don’t have any muscle memory of doing that task either. I only made it work because Mr Rasheed, my partner in the photo, did know what he was doing.

I thought about what constitutes an action shot for an anthropologist who does fieldwork. These photos are not completely dishonest– I genuinely did hang out with farmers and I really did try to do everything they do (minus the hunting). But it wasn’t really what I do in the field. So I also shared a photo of me in action. In this photo, I’m sitting in the village ‘hotel’ (local terminology for a tea shop) with a few local farmers and landowners. The two men on the right of the photo are landowners. I’ve known them both since they were children and they’ve become good friends over the years and regularly teach me something new about Pakistan and Punjab every time we meet. The men on the left of the photo work for the landowners (off and on in some cases). They too, have become good friends over the years and I remain in awe of their wisdom and patience with a numbskull like who is evidently incapable of learning a fraction of what they know about farming.

An ‘action’ shot of me in the field. Mr Rasheed (my partner in the potato digging picture, is in the light coloured shalwar kameez on the left (2014).

In this tea shop photo, I am doing what I do most in the field. Sitting comfortably chatting to friends and non-friends about ‘stuff’. I drink a lot of tea. I eat a lot of biscuits and somosa and generally look like a pretty lazy sort of person. I take scratch notes throughout the day, and occasionally I ask if it’s ok to record what someone is saying if it starts to get a bit more complicated than I think my poor old memory can retain (even with scratch notes). I’m sure that watching me has boosted the parental motivation to get their kids educated more than anyone will ever know. All those Punjab farmer parents would have looked at me and thought, ‘How in the hell does that guy support himself without doing anything that actually looks like work?’ Believe it or not, I’ve been asked many times who would pay me to do what I do and how can they get my job. When I tell them you need a bucket load of educational years under your belt to be paid to do what I do, they nod seriously and I can see the wheels spinning in their heads as they plan out the life of leisure for their children (or possibly grandchildren if they think one generation isn’t enough to get from where they are, to where they want to be).

But here’s my final admission for the day– even that photo is a fraud! I invited some young filmmakers from Lahore to come out and make a film of my little village. They were extremely creative and hardworking young men who wanted to flex their filmmaking muscles and try out some things so they agreed. The director and I had blocked out a kind of a storyboard for the film. I’d asked them to keep an eye out for specific social patterns and to film them when they arose. They listened patiently to my requests but were having absolutely none of this serendipitous event capture. If I wanted a social pattern on the film, they were going to make it happen. So in that photo, I had asked the filmmakers to capture the ritual of handshaking when people meet. In a setting like that, when a new person arrives, he’ll shake hands with every single person there (with a few exceptions). They will all say Assalaam o Waleakum and respond with Waleakum o Assalaam. In these COVID-19 days, it’s hard to imagine the amount of touching that was deemed normal in Punjab, but those were easier days in some ways. So my filmmaking team orchestrated the scene. They grabbed the men who were around and placed them in the charpai with me in the centre. They put empty tea cups in front of us and had another young man come in and shake each of our hands. One of the farmers who was sitting next to me found this all baffling. When the director told us to pretend to drink the tea, he stared at his tea cup and said, ‘But it’s empty.’ We laughed and said we knew, but just pretend, because the tea wasn’t ready yet. He just kept saying to me, ‘But Steve Sahib, this cup is empty. There’s no tea here.’

In the end, we chose what is possibly the least dishonest of the staged pictures. I have other photos of me in the field, but by and large they are not interesting. When someone goes to take a picture, we all pose, either sitting or standing bolt upright in a straight row. It doesn’t capture much of what I do in the field. And since my focus is not typically on me in the field, I don’t have much of a photo library of me doing fieldwork. This may be as close as I’ll ever get to an honest picture of what I actually do when I’m carrying out fieldwork. Is it real? Maybe it’s real enough for the web…

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