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Research Filming of Naturally Occurring
Phenomena: Basic Strategies
E. RICHARD SORENSON,. ALLISON JABLONKO
The unique vanue of film records in many kinds of phenomenological
research has been understood almost from the earliest days of the camera
(see Michaelis 1955; de Brigard i.p.). However,. only in the last decade
(largely in response to the rapid environmental and cultural change since
World War II) has much attention been given to making visual records of
passing natural events maximally useful as a permanent scientific resource
(Sorenson and Gajdusek 1963, 1966; Jablonko 1967; VanVlack 1965;
Sorenson 1967a,. 1967b, 1968b).
The concept and method of the research film that have emerged are
compatible with a variety of research and filmmaking goals and have now
been used by more than twenty scientists and filmmakers to document
vanishing cultures. They specify a format for turning exposed- footage
into research documents after filming and deal primarily with the
assembly and annotation of film footage taken by anyone for any purpose
in order to maximize its scientific potential. However, even though the
stated aim and philosopy of the research film method may be extrapolated
to help to guide filming, they do not tell how to use the camera in the
field to increase the research value of the film record.
Although no generally applicable guidelines for research FILMING have
yet been stated, basic theoretical and methodological considerations have
been raised and discussed (Sorenson 1968b, 1973). Here we turn our atten-
tion to formulation of practical guidelines for research filming. Drawing
from insights we have gained during a decade of collecting visual data
from disappearing cultur,es for study and use,. we present here
the basic strategies we have learned.
What makes research filming such a powerful tool of inquiry into past
...
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148 E. RICHARD SORENSON, ALLISON JABLONKO
·events is the unique ability of film to preserve an objective chemical
facsimile of visible phenomena. Because we have film, we may mak·e
windows, however small, through which we can review past ·events ..
But the value of these windows depends on how they are made and
documented. For example, it is difficult to make many deductions
from what is seen through windows on the past unless we know some-
Hung about how, where, and when they were p]aced. For this reason the
established research film methodo]ogy requires documentation of time,.
place, subject, and photographer's intent and interests. However, when
actually engaged in research filming, we also face the problem of how,.
where, and when to place these camera windows in order to obtain a
potentially more productive or representative sample. It is to this
latter problem that we address this paper.
A great wealth of visual information emanates from all natural events.
To attempt a "complete" record ofeven a smaH event would be a fruitless
pursuit of an unachievable fantasy. Many more than thousands of "chan-
nels" would be needed to show "aH" micro and macro views of everything
from all angles and perspectives. We can only SAMPLE. In our own
research filming efforts, we have found that we increase the potential
scientific value of visual records of passing phenomena by adopting a
basic tripartite sampHng strategy based on OPPORTUNISTIC SAMPLING,
PROGRAMMED SAMPLING, and DIGRESSIVE SEARCH.
Opportunistic Sampling
Seize opportunities. When something interesting happens, pick up
the camera and shoot. Opportunistic filming, a freewheeling yet
indispensable approach to visual documentation of naturally occurring
phenomena, takes advantage of events as they develop in unfamiliar
settings.
Some degree of opportunistic filming is us·eful in filming any natural
event. The world in its dynamic diversity continually churns out trans-
formations. We can never fully anticipate what is going to happen, when
or how it will occur. What is "normal" here and now may not be so later
or ·elsewhere. Expectations, insofar as they are constructed from
·experience and circumscribed sophistication, are not completely reliable
as guides to what will come. Opportunistic filming documents
cipated and poorly understood phenomena as they occur. It relies
on that most basic tool of dis.covery and the source of all our knowledge,
the individual human mind. It uses to advantage the selective interests
Research Filming of Naturally Occurring Phenomena: Basic Strategies 149
and perceptive eye of individual workers by tapping intuition,. impression,
and partially formulated ideas.
When a photographer is filming opportunistically, he flows with the
events of the day and cues into them at some personal level, suddenly
noticing that "something" is about to happen and following such events
intuitively, without a worked-out p·lan. He takes it as it comes. Thus,.
the visual data sample achieved refiects the personality of the filmer:
it takes its form and content from his interests, inclinations, and style.
But by linking the camera to the pattern-r·ecognizing capability of the
human mind, the visual data sample reflects prearticulated stages of
discovery. Such footage may not always be dire·ctly relevant to a
determined scientific study, but it can be a powerful resource in the quest
for knowledge.
Because observers with or without cameras always. affect what is obser-
ved opportunistic film records made during early contact help, to reveal the
nature of the influence. As a setting reacts to the presence of field workers,
subtle transformations and adaptive restructuring of relationships.,
attitudes, and responses begin to take place. The kinds of information
fieldworkers get often depend upon the natur·e of the relationships that
they develop with selected persons and things within the community.
An early record, continued through the familarization period, makes it
e.asier to see the nature of the change and thus to gauge the effect of their
own presence on the situation being documented.
In spite of its advantages,. opportunistic sampling remains an unfor-
mulated sampling procedure. It allows us to cope with an unfamiliar
situation profitably but according to a personal style that is not always,
and never completely, obvious. Its major strength as well as its weakness
is that selection of the sample is controUed by the interests and
of the photographer. One of its most important advantages is that it
aUows the cameraman to Bow with and in fact be controlled by the events
-as an integral part of the
Programmed Sampllng
Programmed sampling is filming according to a plan-
deciding in advance what, where, and when to film. It is therefore
based on a cognitive framework and a concept of significance .. Pictures
are taken according to a preconceived structure; tbere are pigeonholes
to fill.
A program can be very simple (e.g. taking pictures of a single cate-
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150 E. RICHARD SORENSON, ALLISON JABLONKO
gory of actruvity, such as nursing behavior or agricultural practice) or it
can be a complex attempt to samp]e broadly (e.g. Hockings and McCarty
[1968] programmed their sampling of an Irish vi.llage to obtain some
film coverage of every household type, every economic activity, every
archltectural style, every economic condition from richest to poorest,
all key figures in the communication network, a visual suggestion of the
ag·e pyramid, every type of trans.port,. every kind of farming device, the
daily sequence of typical activities, each center of public interaction, etc.)
Like opportunistic sampling, the programmed approach also reli·es
on human interests and ideas, but instead of unstated personal impr·es-
sions and inclinations, a formulated statement governs the filming. This
makes programmed visual samples easier to interpret and more scientific.
They extend beyond the narrower personal inclinations and preoccupa-
tions of an individual to take advantage of the accumulated, systematized,
and articulated knowledge that unit,es him with colleagues and a cultural
heritage.
Programmed sampling depends on structured information rather than
intuitions and inclinations to guide the filmer. This structured informa-
tion takes its form from our articulated way of viewing things according
to the concepts, ideas, and values bestowed upon us by our training and
background. It provides us with a means of symbolically dealing with the
undifferentiated phenomena about us by relating them to discrete cate-
gories manipulable through rules of language and logic. Structured in-
formation gives us an intellectual grip on experience and enables us to
plan our own movements relative to it. It provides an anchor for discus-
sion, conjecture, and study, and is the KNOWN to which we relate dis-
covery in order to learn its significance.
A postulated uniform flow of time and a defined geometry of space
are indispensable structural concepts in the scientific analysis and des-
cription of phenomena. They are fundamental in the construction and
validation of scientific knowledge. In studies dealing with development,
differentiation, diffusion, or communication, physical and temporal
separation are the critical functions. Time and space parameters are
essential in any research filming program.
Programming the sampling procedure according to any stated
conceptual mod,el is also useful. Not only do such models bring order
into our minds and help us to "see" into the muddle of the real world, but
they also enable us to place the footage shot in a mor·e clearly defined
context both for ourselves and for others.
Thus programmed sampling helps to break the egocentrism of
opportunistic sampling by imposing a comprehensible structure over the
Research Filming of Naturally Occurring Phenomena: Basic Strategies 151
often hard-to-gr.asp vagaries of hunian -inclination. It does this by
drawing from the public knowledge of a culture. Programmed samples
represent ethnocentric distillations of human interests, desires, and
inclinations. Because of the more public nature of ethnocentric bias,
especially in cultures with written histories, the skewing effect may more
readily be taken into consideration than in the case of opportunistic
samples.
Digressive Search
Neither programmed nor opportunistic sampling solves the problem of
how to branch out beyond our personal predilections or the structural
concepts of our culture. Programmed sampling is limited to preconceived
ideas about what is important to document. In essence,. it prejudges
importance and therefore misses categories of events not considered.
Opportunistic sampling avoids this problem by deliberately taking ad-
vantage of unanticipated events, but because it is subject to the personal
inclinations and vision of the photographer,. it too prejudges and skews
the sample, but in a less decipherable way.
A digressive search he]ps to solve these difficulties by deliberately
intruding into the "blank areas,." i.e. those places and events outside
our range of recognition or appreciation. This tactic allows us, somewhat
blindly at first, to expand our vision as we visually sample and document
events alien to our structured formats and habitual shooting instincts.
By digressing inquisitively, we may penetrate areas and situations
pheral to our attention, beyond our range of awareness or comprehension,
and interstitial to our points of view and predilections.
This kind of sampling requires that we turn our attention away from
the obvious to the novel- even to what may seem pointless, aberrant,

or meaningless .. We have to be purposefully digressive, in both space and
subject matter turning our gaze from the familiar and "importanf'
to events that appear incoherent and insignificant. A randomness must
be intruded into the way we direct attention (the search has
also been called semirandomized [Sorenson 1973]). We must sample in
places we know nothing of or which lie between the kinds of locales and
events to which our sampling program or interests are anchored.
Digressive tactics such as these can broaden a visual data sample
yond the originally defined scope of a programmed sample and the
und·efined scope of habitual and unstated shooting predilections. To
our observations and visual data sampling into fringe areas of
11''
I 52 E. RICHARD SORENSON. ALLlSON JABLONKO
understanding and attention, and thus beyond presumption and habit,
is deliberately to add unanticipated, interstitiaiD visual information to the
research film sample. It is in this as.pect that the greatest potential of
research filming as a tool for discovery may lie.
DISCUSSION
The theoretical format underlying research filming presented here relies
on three basic general strategies: (l) seizing the opportunity we "see," (2)
taking advantage of the colle·ctive knowledge of our culture, and (3)
looking into the unknown. These strategies. take advantage of the unique
ability of film emulsions to objectively r·ecord unrecognized and unap-
preciated visual information. They parallel thre·e basic elements of
scientific inquiry: (I) the significance-recognizing capability of the human
mind, (2) an accepted, rationalized body of knowledge, and (3) the desire
to learn.
Byers (1966) said that "cameras don't take pictures . . . people take
pictures". This statement is us.eful because it cleverly stresses the subjective
aspect of photography. But it is only half accurate. While it is true that
cameras do not take pictures, it is not true that people take pictures.
People only select the pictures to be taken. Quite literally it is the film
that TAKES the picture. Its emulsion takes light energy
emanating from a sc·ene to produce objective chemical changes that
capture a permanent record of the pattern of light received. Because of
this, the basic condition in any approach to research filming is the
mutual depend·ence of (1) human selection of what to film and (2) the
ability of film to preserve an objective chemical facsimile of the pattern
of light it r·eceives. In this equation the camera is only a facilitating device.
Its sple purpose is to form under human guidance an image on the film
and to control the amount of light admitted in order to produce a read-
able chemical image of the scene selected.
Each of our three basic strategies has its own merits. Opportunistic
sampling can be quite easy, parti·cularly in unfamiliar or novel situations.
(However, when we want to flow well with the events developing around
us by getting more intimately into them, considerable energy and in-
genuity may be required.) Opportunistic sampling also permits a flexi-
bility in approach which allows greatest advantage to be taken of per-
sonal imp·ressions and insights.
On the other hand, programmed sampling enables us to take advan-
tage of the parameters and structural concepts that have already been
Research Filming of Naturally Occurring Phenomena: Basic Strategies 153
developed and proved significant (at least in our own culture). Such
programs, drawing from sources broader than just ourselves, help us to
sample more comprehensively and l·ead us to types of events that would
otherwise escape attention. They also giv·e us a starting point in an
unfamiliar situation and the needed explanation of what we are doing
among the people we may be filming. The articulated existence of such
filming programs makes the visual samples obtained more widely intel-
ligible and interpretable. Furthermore, when a program asks for things
that cannot be found, attention is directed to an absence that in itself may
be significant.
Both programmed and opportunistic sampling rely on forms of mind
and habit which r·eflect the past: they depend either on the state of
publicly accepted knowledge as developed through history or on the sensory
abilities, interests, and habits provided by man's evolutionary background
as programmed by his life experiences.
We may begin to move away from these limitations by adopting a
deliberately digressive (or semirandomized) search and, with camera
in hand, by recording what we may neither appreciate nor "see." Such an
approach allows us to increase the content of unrecognized information
in a visual record by moving, even if blindly, beyond the constraints of
either personal intuition or sophisticated program, to document ahead
of understanding and awareness. A digressive search makes it possible
deliberately to impregnate the visual sample with information yet to
be discovered.
Each of the three strategies has advantages and disadvantages. Each
skews the sample in a different way. But in concert, they begin to balan·ce
one another so as to increase the informative potential of the visual
records.
Although we originally moved somewhat intuitively in this direction
(Jablonko 1968; Sorenson 1967, 1971, 1973), an analytical look at what we
were doing suggested that the basic strategies are broadly applicable.
They are compatible not only with the nature of scientific inquiry but also
with such recent, more specific anthropological field filming endeavors as:
demonstrating culturally standarized behavior (Bateson and Mead 1942;
Gesell 1946; Mead and McGregor 1951; Mead 1954, 1956; Jablonko
1968; Lomax, Bartenieff, and Paulay 1969; Sorenson 1968a, 1971, n.d.);
analyzing micromovements in human interaction and communication
(Birdwhistell1952, 1960, 1972; VanVlack 1966); sampling human move-
ment style as a means of characterizing and classifying culture (Jablonko
1966, 1968; Lomax, Bartenieff,. and Paulay 1968, 19,69); studying child
handling in order to discover developmental dynamics and culturally
r· .. ,
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154 E. RICHARD SORENSON. ALLISON JAI3LONKO
specific patterns of behavior (Sorenson 1968a, 1971, 1973, n.d.; Liny and
Sorenson 19'71); inquiring into s.odo-ecological processes and outlining
the ecological basis of a hitherto unidentified type of society (Sorenson
1972; Sorenson and Kenmore 1974); investigating an indigenous
organization and nutrition in an isolated culture (Sore_!ltson and Gajdu.sek
1967, 1969; Sorenson eta/. 1968); comprehensively documenting disease
and management in its natural cultural and environmental
setting (Gajdusek, Sorenson, and Meyers 1970); preparing a visual
adjunct to an expedition log or travel diary (Stirling 1926; Gajdusek
1957).; documenting life crises and ceremony in order to more closely
re,examine ritual process and thus discover ways in which unarticulated
gestalts are transmitted to successive generations (Rundstrom and
Rundstrom 1970; Rundstrom, Rundstrom, and Bergum 1973); document-
ing life crises and ceremonial events in order to more closely reexamine
events that reflect and anchor organization (Gibson 1969); reveal-
ing tbe social and procedural context of law enforcement practice
shall 1969a, 1969'b); documenting the procedural and nonverbal compo-
nents of litigation in order to show the effect of culture on resolution of
social conflict (Nader 1970; Gibbs and Silverman 1970); analyzing the
effe,ct of culture on the facial expression of emotion (Ekman, Sorenson and
Friesen 1969; Sorenson 1975); visually presenting a cultural setting while
eliciting a culturally determined view of it through camera interview (Mac-
DougaU 1972, supra; revealing how p,eople in a culture view their lives and
surroundings by letting them film themselves and their activities (Worth
and Adair 1972); discovering the effects of diverging paths to socializa-
tion in changing society by filming boys and their discussions as they
apart toward different kinds of lives (DiGioia, Hancock, and
Miller I 973); revealing to students the knowledge developed by
pologists (Asch and Chagnon 1969; Asch, infra); reconstructing the past
by filming persons reenacting the old ways (Balikci and Brown 1966;
Sandall 1 '971); revealing the lives of others through the selective eye and
particular awarenesses of an individual observer (Rouch 1955; Gardner
1957; Marshalll958).
A single photographer may be by the basic strategies we have
presented in order to increase the scientific usefulness of the visual sample
he obtains. But these strategies also provide a means to balance a con-
tinuing sample involving several filmers. It would probably be preferable
to have different filmers each contributing to a growing overan sample.
Accumulation of visual samples in a systematic way would increase
the value of any record by putting it in a broader perspective. For example,
effects of the diverse patterning and programming of human behavior
Research Filming of Naturally Occurring Phenomena: Basic Strategies 155
by culture, background, and experience can only begin to be studied
with incr,easingly comprehensive samples of increasing depth and breadth.
Because we still lack such re·cords or a place to accumulate them, we can
only start to scratch the surface of the various ways man's behavior has
been programmed and organized under a variety of natural conditions.
The preparation of an increasingly comprehensive and continuing human
behavior sample across time, place, and culture in a central film study
center will immeasurably further the study of such vital concerns as the
behavioral potential of our own species under the varying social and
environmental conditions that the world provides and alters.
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158 E. RICHARD SORENSON, ALLISON JABLONKO
Films
1
ASCH, T.,. N. P. CHAGNON
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1
See Filmography, infra, for details.
Research Filming of Naturally Occurring Phenomena: Basic Strategies 159
SORENSON E. R., D. C. GAJDUSEK
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