2.1. The Art of Dialogue: Behind the Scenes of Light in the Borderlands
Films tend to have rigid boundaries indicating the beginning and end of a story. These boundaries are sometimes determined by opening and closing titles. Light in the Borderlands is no exception. The entire film is encapsulated within a concise documentary framework, bounded on each end by text indicating a start and conclusion. If we consider, however, the dialogue, before and after the film was made, between participants and researchers, along with the involvement of other human and nonhuman actors, these boundaries may be extended.
Considering this expanded notion of boundaries, the beginning of Light in the Borderlands can be traced back to the summer of 2012. The film was conceived while I (Adolfo Ruiz, author one) worked as a research assistant in the Department of Human Ecology (University of Alberta) with Megan Strickfaden (author two) on a project exploring how disability is situated in the design process. That summer, Strickfaden curated In Focus, a photo exhibition based on the work of blind and partially sighted photographers. The idea behind the exhibition, based on the use of photovoice (a method used for thematic explorations in community-based work), inspired Light in the Borderlands.
Participants in our film became involved through the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) after author two got in touch with the organization. Expressing interest in the study, Shafi, Eleanor, and Carol were initially contacted via telephone—the project was introduced, and an initial meeting was planned. The remainder of this section is made up of three parts—each one includes the creative process, meetings, and overall experience of working with each participant, as described by author one. Within each sub-section, we begin by situating the participant within this research, noting their connection and contribution to the film, and describing our first meeting. We continue by discussing the process of working together, and conclude with an urban journey (determined by each participant). Through the making of Light in the Borderlands, fieldwork was a collaborative experience, as participants provided verbal and visual content for the film. In this section we describe fieldwork as a series of dialogues and evolving relationships between participants and researchers.
HANDS-ON RESEARCH (SHAFI’S JOURNEY): Of all three participants, Shafi’s interests most naturally suited the methodology of research through filmmaking. In his journey we learn that life is an opportunity for artistic creation, musical exploration, and storytelling. Shafi’s interests were also a good fit with my own background in art and design.
Shafi was the first participant I met [12
]. Content for Light in the Borderlands
emerged during our first meeting at a coffee shop in north Edmonton in the summer of 2012. It was through this initial dialogue that the project began to take shape. More importantly, Shafi’s stories, enthusiasm and high school involvement in photography and film convinced me that co-creating a film was possible.
This research was my first experience with disability. I came into the project as an outsider. But Shafi’s warm, open, and creative disposition was reassuring. During our conversation I found common ground in talking about drawing, film, and music. As the first encounter between participant and researcher, my initial meeting with Shafi is in many ways the story before the story, which I will share over the next several paragraphs.
I initially met Shafi in a north Edmonton coffee shop, very close to his house, on a warm summer afternoon in July. I arrived a few minutes early (just before 2:00 pm). I purchased a tea and looked around at the clean, but rather stagnant, air conditioned interior. I tried finding a good place to sit. Loud noises emanated from the baristas and coffee machines. From a sensory perspective, the interior of the coffee shop felt cold, and generated too much noise for a recorded conversation to take place. I walked outside where I had the option of sitting at a table. As I tested the recorder I realized that I was in the middle of a large parking lot surrounded by box stores. The recorder was picking up constant traffic moving through the area. Learning that both interior and exterior provided less than ideal conditions for the interview, I walked back inside and decided to read a newspaper as I waited for Shafi. I did not know what Shafi looked like.
It was 2:05 pm when a young man, stylish, late teens, with a slim build and a mod haircut walked into the coffee shop. He appeared to have perfect vision as he looked around the establishment. We even made eye contact, as he began to interact with his phone. I assumed this was not Shafi. I looked away and started reading a new article in the newspaper.
I cautiously sampled my hot cup of tea. As I continued reading, my cell phone rang. I picked it up and it was Shafi (the young man who had just walked in) calling from inside the coffee shop. I approached him and we shook hands. I thanked him for coming, and he jokingly commented on how helpful his phone was in finding me. He was soft-spoken and had a kind, gentle demeanor. I bought him a coffee. The interior space seemed to be getting noisier as new customers walked in so I proposed we sit and chat outside.
Our conversation began on very casual terms. I was curious about his art practice, and was surprised to learn of his interest in music and filmmaking. He was happy to share stories about recent and past events in his life. During the last year he completed a video as part of a competition at his high school. He was part of a social justice group that raised money for local charities, providing funds for the construction of a school in Afghanistan. Furthermore he played the guitar and was planning to start a band. Born in Afghanistan, and raised in both India and Canada, Shafi’s linguistic ability (at nineteen he speaks five languages) reflect a life of travel and intercultural experiences.
During our conversation I asked a set of questions (standard for each participant) that covered basic information on urban travel and mobility. In response to the first question (what places do you most often visit?), Shafi indicated school, mosque, and hospital. In response to the second question (what places do you most like to visit?) he referred to the Art Gallery of Alberta and the Royal Alberta Museum. We easily agreed on the art gallery as the location for our second meeting. I also recommended he bring some of his artwork to the excursion.
Less than a month after this first meeting, in early August, I once again met Shafi in north Edmonton. This time we drove to the Art Gallery of Alberta located in the central part of the city. We spent over an hour walking through the building. The space brought forth new conversations but also revealed unexpected barriers. Not surprisingly, the gallery staff had strict rules on where and where not to film. More importantly, the dim lighting in the exhibit areas made the artwork difficult for Shafi to see. Although there were several large scale paintings and installation works, the darkness and rules against touching, made large parts of the exhibitions inaccessible to Shafi. There was a moment where he put his hand on a sculpture, but was quickly asked to not touch by security personnel. Shafi’s desire to explore the tactile qualities of exhibited material was discussed after the gallery visit.
When I put my hands on the art I can see more. I can feel it, I can see it is real art, it’s not just a picture.
After our gallery visit we had the opportunity to put our hands on real art as we recorded and discussed drawings made by Shafi. The transition from a dark and distancing gallery visit to a hands-on, engaging discussion about the experience of creating art, highlighted a key theme of this project: ability. Through the presentation of these sketches, Shafi revealed his talent, while also sharing memories and anecdotes associated with each image. Through our meetings in different locations, and conversations about art-making, collaborations with Shafi reveal unique lived experiences of legal blindness. These experiences are rich and complex, suggestive of the dynamic, often misunderstood, borderland experience described by Omansky [3
] (p. 5).
CONVERSATIONS AT A FOOD COURT (ELEANOR’S JOURNEY): Eleanor was the second participant we worked with. Of all participants, her stories come closest to familiar notions of blindness. She is the only participant, for example, to discuss the use of a cane. By not basing her journey on an overtly creative activity (as was the case with Shafi), her discussion focused on everyday experiences of mobility. The knowledge shared by Eleanor is valuable in understanding the challenges as well as the strategies of independent travel within Edmonton. Her description of environmental light, public transportation, and shopping embodies another way of knowing a built space from the perspective of a woman who is partially sighted.
I first met Eleanor in September, 2012, at the Edmonton branch of the CNIB where she worked at the time. She was friendly and very helpful in finding a conference room for our first meeting. Eleanor was generous in providing time and knowledge throughout this research. Her kind disposition and sense of humor made our co-designed journey enjoyable. She provided some of the most insightful and articulate descriptions of the research. However, the in-depth insight and knowledge that comes through in her story (as communicated in the film) did not emerge until our second meeting in the mall.
Our first meeting was efficient but lacked spontaneity. The restrained nature of this discussion was due to the structured nature of the interview. Unlike the first encounters with Shafi (and later with Carol), this meeting mostly revolved around predetermined questions. More importantly, this was the only meeting that took place in a formal work setting. With limited time, our dialogue was more to the point, as I aimed to have a series of questions answered within 30 min. We managed to cover key topics that eventually led to our second meeting at City Centre Mall, but an active dialogue had not yet been established.
Our second meeting began, one month later, at a coffee shop across the street from Eleanor’s work. It was late in the afternoon on a weekday. Eleanor had finished her job for the day. The sky was overcast, with a light sprinkling of rain. We each ordered a cup of tea and casually discussed the plan for this second interview/journey. We then took a bus to City Centre Mall, about 4 km from the coffee shop. The changing settings, and unstructured nature of our conversation produced a dialogue that, unlike our first meeting, was effortless and continual.
Our journey in the mall began with an unplanned stop at a large department store inside the mall where Eleanor purchased an umbrella for her return home. The insight provided by Eleanor, later in the interview, emerged from informal dialogue, like the one below on lost umbrellas.
Adolfo: So here they are.
Eleanor: This is them is it?
A: Yup. Oh, and they’ve got more here on the side.
E: Okay I’ve got one of those. Oh that looks nice. I’ll just grab that one. That one might be easier to see. Na, I’ll just grab this one. Good enough.
A: I’m notorious for losing umbrellas.
E: I leave them on buses all the time. I think I lost three this year already.
A: Did you?
E: Oh yeah. I usually hook it on the seat or something like that, and then I don’t think about it.
A: The ones I usually have are really small ones, so it’s easy to lose.
E: Oh the small ones I don’t lose because I stick those in my backpack. It’s the big ones—this one might not last me very long (laughs). These are the ones I forget.
A: Well, hopefully someone else makes good use of these lost umbrellas.
E: I hope so.
Throughout this journey, specific places within the mall elicited memories of old businesses. After purchasing the umbrella Eleanor remembered the department store that used to be in the space where we purchased the umbrella.
E: This store used to be Woodwards.
A: Oh really.
E: Woodwards used to have a special for people that were clients of the CNIB. They used to have a 10% discount. So I used to shop there quite a bit.
Our dialogue evolved as we visited different sections of the mall. We explored a large pedway that connects the east and west side of the retail center. Eleanor discussed her preference for shopping with friends. We went up and down escalators as she talked about her desire to move back to Edmonton after spending many years in Saskatoon. It was at this stage in the research, that “place” most clearly influenced knowledge. In other words, it was through this process of “talking whilst walking” that we explored “the relationship between humans and place to uncover meanings and understandings of the life world” [8
] (p. 255).
Our journey concluded in the food court, where Eleanor shared the major insights that are included in the film. It was after our journey through the mall that she described her experience of light, and use of public transportation. The dialogue that we fostered while exploring the busy mall, concluded with candid stories, told while seated in the quiet surroundings of the City Centre Mall food court. Through our collaboration, Eleanor provided significant knowledge on mobility and environmental conditions. However, the opportunity to casually walk, talk, and explore a place, also facilitated a shift from research formalities to relationship-building—this shift led to interactions that were often driven by casual dialogue and personal stories.
THE STORYTELLER TAKES THE LEAD (CAROL’S JOURNEY): Each participant in this study possesses unique qualities that were captured in the film. In the case of Carol, she was the exuberant, wholehearted, and committed storyteller. The footage she recorded during a dance class illustrates the creative energy she injects into daily activities. Meetings with Carol extended well beyond the formalities of predetermined questions. Observations and ideas were often the catalyst for stories, critical discussions, and at times, chitchat.
Carol was the third participant to join this research, in late 2012. I first met her on a weekday morning at a busy coffee shop in Sherwood Park, just outside the city of Edmonton. It was not difficult to establish a lively and engaging dialogue. Carol is a natural storyteller, and did most of the talking throughout our meetings. During our first twenty minutes she described her recent experience of applying for a telecommunication job. This rigorous and time-consuming process involved a range of interviews, security clearances, and exams. One of her tests was administered by an educational institution in Edmonton. Carol shared the challenging experience of searching for technology within the college to facilitate the test.
I had to pass a typing test and there was no visually impaired version of that. I tried disability services there and I said: “Do you guys have a visually impaired typing test? Like either where it’s delivered orally or where it’s large, or it’s on a computer because the contrast can be changed. I have a retinal disorder so that’s a really big thing for me.” And the lady at disability services said to me, “oh dear, maybe this just isn’t the job for you.” And I’m like “oh for God’s sake.”
Many of the stories shared by Carol revolve around her willingness, and ability, to overcome obstacles. During our conversations she made this clear by stating that “you have to work to your full potential, and sometimes it means knocking on doors, asking questions—I think it’s very important to go out and strive”. Carol has also helped others overcome obstacles. At her gym, she recently organized a fundraiser and opened a trust fund for a gentleman, who is raising two small children on his own after his wife , who was legally blind, accidentally fell into the Edmonton LRT tracks in 2012.
Carol has full knowledge of the sighted world. She became legally blind as an adult. Some of our discussions made reference to this process of change and adaptation.
I lost my sight when I was twenty-seven. So I had all that independent stuff. I went away to school. I went to post-secondary, I drove a car. I did all that stuff. Not that I was pleased with it—it was a difficult transition. I mean I went through a lot of things, but on the other side of it I’m pretty okay with it. I had my chance to do those things.
Carol has been able to maintain her career throughout this transition. She studied music at Grant MacEwan University, the University of Alberta, and Humber College in Toronto. She currently provides private voice lessons from her home studio in Sherwood Park. It is not her intention to quit music, but she is hoping to cut down on the number of students she teaches, and acquire better health benefits by taking on the telecommunications job.
Conversations with Carol were engaging, positive, and often made reference to projects—recently completed or future ones. The process of applying to this new job was the project she had just started when we met. Activities at the gym, dragon boating, and the filming of Light in the Borderlands are examples of other projects that reflect her active and passionate disposition. Carol’s joie de vivre also comes through in her storytelling—our urban journey involved a trip to her gym, where she recorded hand-held footage while dancing at a Zumba class. There is a palpable enthusiasm in her voice, and an openness to share thoughts and experiences. The last sentence of a recent email message highlights her eagerness to articulate what’s on her mind: “thank you for allowing me to tell my story, it was very freeing and therapeutic for me”.
2.2. The Voice of Researchers and the Use of a Camera
After sharing the three journeys that make up Light in the Borderlands, we conclude this section with a description of our own role, as researchers, in the making of this film. We will briefly discuss the way in which our voices are implicit within this work—particularly at the post-production stage. We will also talk about the role that the camera played in this research.
In the making of Light in the Borderlands
participants speak of personal experiences while responding to the presence of a researcher (author one). This ethnographic response is highlighted by Hammersley and Atkinson when they write that “in interviews the very structure of the interaction forces participants to be aware of the ethnographer as audience” [13
] (p. 176). From this point of view, the researcher becomes an unheard voice, insinuated throughout the ethnography. The relationship between participants and this unheard voice is an important part of Light in the Borderlands
The researcher’s voice is also expressed in the very structuring of this film. Though not heard, this voice is implicit in the editing of image and sound. What is presented in the film as three continuous monologues is in fact the product of several hours of conversation, reflection, and casual chatting. The results of this verbal interaction were recorded and subsequently pieced together in order to tell each of the three stories. The choice to include specific parts of each interview and to omit the researcher’s voice was considered integral to the focus of this project; namely, conveying the urban experiences of participants.
The editing of this film involved collaboration and extensive discussions between the researchers, (authors one and two). Aerlan Barrett, a young filmmaker, also provided valuable feedback and suggestions after seeing an initial draft of the film. The distinct soundscapes created for each journey emerged from his critique. The voices of authors one and two, along with Aerlan Barrett, therefore, are also implicit in the editing of Light in the Borderlands. Shafi, Eleanor, and Carol were involved in the recording and narrating of the film, but not in its post-production. Due to the multi-layered nature of Light in the Borderlands (made up of different stories, each with a unique sense of time, place, and movement) we took on the role of editing in order to provide a cohesive voice—a sense of continuity—that carries across all three stories. After making this first collaborative film, however, we are interested in expanding participant involvement (in future projects) beyond the production phase, and into the editing of the work.
Involving participants in the editing of the film would allow for further exploration of the shifting boundary between participants and researchers. In the context of this project, the boundary between participants and researchers often became dissolved at the production stage of Light in the Borderlands. The line separating participant and researchers was blurred as the latter largely determined the content and context of the film. Participants often played the role of researchers by steering both conversations and journeys.
This shifting boundary was also embodied in a cultural artifact that epitomizes visuality: the digital camera. This is another important actor not seen in the film. With this technology participants captured journeys that reveal mobility (as in Eleanor’s walk through the mall), aesthetic exploration (as in Shafi’s footage of the gallery), and kinesthetic sensation (as in Carol’s movement during a Zumba class). The camera reinforced the practice-based nature of this research by providing participants with an opportunity to document their own practices of navigating through built environments, making art, and dancing.
The standard definition Sony Handycam used in the recording of this film is a small, easy to operate camcorder. The camera facilitated a straightforward recording of urban journeys. Requiring one simple step before use (the pressing of a red button), the device also facilitated a rapid exchange between a researcher and participant as the camera could easily be handed back and forth. At times the device acted as an object of exchange and transition, as conversations led to recordings, or technical explanations of the zoom lens were followed by the capturing of footage. The quality of these interactions reflect Arjun Appadurai’s notion that objects possess a “social life” [14
] (p. 15). During the recording stage of this project the relationship between participant and researcher was often mediated by the camera. In other words the camera was a key actor in this investigation, enhancing interaction and dialogue between people.
After initial meetings and conversations, the camera helped to dissolve the boundary between researcher and participant, enabling the latter to document his or her experience of the built environment. The ethnographic encounter shifted when the camera was handed over to participants—it was at this key juncture in the project that participants began to play a more active role as filmmakers and co-investigators.