When Sol Worth and John Adair set out to teach their Navajo students how to make films, they cited various goals for their project which extended beyond the production of the movies themselves. These goals ranged from their hopes to bring innovative research methods to the field of anthropology to their desire to learn how to effectively teach technology across cultures. They also discussed what the implications of their research would be for the Navajo students and their community.
Worth and Adair used a method of filmmaking which Worth designated “bio-documentary.” In Through Navajo Eyes, the researchers describe the method:
A Bio-Documentary is a film made by a person to show how he feels about himself and his world. It is a subjective way of showing what the objective world that a person sees is “really” like. In part, this kind of film bears the same relation to documentary film that a self-portrait has to a portrait or a [biography to an] autobiography. In addition, because of the specific way that this kind of film is made, it often captures feelings and reveals values, attitudes, and concerns that lie beyond the conscious control of the maker (1)
Worth had used this method to teach film-making to “eleven-to fourteen-year-old Negro dropouts in Philadelphia and college students in a school of communication” (2) He also used this method with “young adults” in Helsinki, Finland (3).
An Anthropological Perspective
In his proposal to the National Science Foundation (NSF), Worth sited Malinowski’s idea that “The final goal of which an ethnographer should never lose sight…is, briefly, to grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realize his vision of his world (4).”
In the proposal, Worth explained that the discipline of anthropology, and especially anthropological film, had up till then “been dictated by American (or Western) trained eyes and hands and guided by the emotions, attitudes, and values of that culture” (5). He went on to say that
“as outsiders to Navajo culture, we have always carried the bias, not only of western man, but also of our own disciplines. So that the selection of what we observe, and what questions we ask is necessarily a limiting factor in the body of knowledge we have acquired” (6).
Because of this, he proposed that “Using a camera himself frees the Navajo from the unconscious domination of the anthropologist” (7).
In other words, Worth and Adair hoped that when anthropologists had a chance to see the world “through Navajo eyes,” they would be able to learn more about the Navajo worldview than they could have learned from their observations alone.
In his field notes, however, Worth made it clear that he did not view this project as ethnography. On Tuesday, July 5, he wrote,
I must say quite frankly in these notes that I am totally uninterested in an anthropologist who is not interested in the work that I am doing. I say this flatly and baldly because it seems to me that one’s work cannot be pleasing or interesting to people of all specialities. I deeply believe that the analysis of communication problems in which I am engaged can best be accomplished in an interdisciplinary fashion with those anthropologists who are interested in the relationship between culture and the communicative process. It could include those anthropologists who are interested in the forms of expression particularly visual expression and their relationship to cognitive style AND culture. The kind of work we are doing will never be of real interest to an ethnographer, because its purpose is not ethnography, and I don’t think that we are getting purely ethnographic material. I can see that some of the things that we are doing can support ethnographic findings, but in effect it is never going to be pure ethnographic research (8).
Film & Language
However, as the researchers also explained in Through Navajo Eyes, “the purpose of our work was not only to find out about the Navajo. We chose the Navajo precisely because much is known about them…We were interested in studying the general nature of the cognitive processes involved in film use within specific cultural contexts” (9). In terms of film specifically, Worth and Adair wrote that,
“we were not so much concerned with exploring the aesthetic or normative questions like “What makes a film good?” but rather the substantive questions involved in how a person who sees a film determines what it means, and how a person who makes a film determines what to shoot, how to shoot it, and how to put it together in a sequence so that a viewer will get from the film the meaning the filmmaker wants him to” (10).
When discussing the ways in which people from various cultures might have used film, Worth compared film to language. As he stated in the NSF proposal, “A secondary goal of this project is to obtain the film in such a way that it will be useful for other projects attempting to explore the structure and meaning of film language itself” (11).
While they insisted that the comparison of film to language should not be taken literally, they were concerned how the Navajo students engaged with the “grammaticality” of film. As Worth put it, “(1) correctness of form,; that is, all the right elements are present in the right order, and (2) correctness of use, or appropriateness” (12).
Would the Navajo students naturally adhere to the grammaticality proscribed by the Western film tradition, or would they do something completely different? If so, would their use of film “language” give insight into their culture or their “cognitive process”?
Communication & The Transfer of Technology
Why were Worth and Adair so interested in the the ways that people in different cultures worked with film? Worth came from a background in communication, and it seems that his true research interest had to do with the potential for teaching communication technology across cultures.
Early on in the study, the researchers were uncertain that they would be able to teach their Navajo students how to make a film at all. At first, Worth was concerned with determining “whether a concept and a technology necessary for mass communication through a visual mode can be taught and transferred to a culture which doesn’t already have it” (13). Even if this technology could be taught, Worth speculated, “It is very possible that they can learn the technology of making a movie, and yet not understand that a movie is for communicating something that they have some feelings or thoughts about” (14).
Building off of Adair’s past work teaching medical technology of Navajo people, Worth hoped to eventually hone the method used for transferring the technology of film to the Navajo so that it could later be applied to other technologies and other culture groups (15).
While it seems that Worth and Adair were primarily concerned with the research goals mentioned above, they also emphasized, especially in their conversations with the Navajo people themselves, their goal to give agency to a people who had historically been subject to the anthropological gaze.
In his field journal, Worth wrote,
I told Johnny that we had come here with the idea of finding out if I could find some young Navajos and teach them to make movies about whatever they felt was important and whatever they wanted to do. Told him that so often that people like myself came and made movies trying to explain the Navajo life but that now I wanted a chance to teach Navajos to do it (16).
In his speech addressing the Pine Spring community at the local chapter meeting on Sunday, June 5 1966, Adair described how
In past times, anthropologists and other whites came to take pictures of the [Navajo]. for the white man; now we’re here to teach the [Navajo] people to use film, or movies, and to make movies about what they want so that they can show the white man what they want him to know about him and his community (17).
In his field notes, Chalfen described a conversation between himself and the other researchers, during which they “spoke some on giving a people a new way and chance to communicate something – Potentially filmmaking can provide a tool for uniting an entire community…” (18).
One of the ways that the researchers purposed film as a way to unify the community was the idea of passing traditional knowledge on to future generations. This idea is illustrated by a recorded and transcribed classroom exchange between Worth and Nelson, during which Worth compared Navajo traditions with Jewish ones:
JN: Well there’s some [Navajo people] that, some of these people in fact there’s quite a few that have that sort of a feelings that when you take a picture of a like sand painting, which he feels should be only in the mind of…the medicine man or someone like that. If you take that picture and have it developed that he won’t have anymore of that —— spirit or something, Like it’ll be ruined forever. That’s why some of these uh, people…they’re very strict in having their pictures taken when they’re in a real healing ceremony or something like that (19)…
SW: …when I first started out as a photographer, I was young and one of the jobs that beginning photographers always get in the big cities is to take pictures of weddings. And once I was asked to take a picture of a Jewish wedding. And this is you know, sort of among the young people, the modern people, it’s perfectly alright. And there were a few old men, like the same as medicine men, only Rabbis and they were very angry. I tried to take, you know, they had big long beards, and they wore funny hats, and I thought, gee, wouldn’t it be a nice picture, and they got very angry. And the kids, the children who were being married, they wanted the picture, and they went over and they started talking, — I remember, one of them was the grandfather of the boy that was getting married. And the groom, the boy that was getting married went over and had a long talk with him and finally he waved to me that he said I could take the picture. Then I asked the boy several days later you know, what did you say to your grandfather so that he would, you know, He seemed to want me to take the picture. And he said, I told him that I wouldn’t have any way to remember him. I wouldn’t, you know we don’t wear beards anymore and we don’t, they have these long sideburns with curls, and he says, we don’t have that, and if I don’t have a picture of you, grandfather, I’ll never remember the old ways (20).
Worth later wrote in his notes that this story was “false” (21). In Through Navajo Eyes, the researchers described a story in which Worth chose not to take photographs at the wedding out of respect (22). However, it is clear that during the recorded conversation he emphasized the potential of film to strengthen families and communities.