George Gmelch is Professor of Anthropology at the University of San Francisco with interests in migration, sport cultures, tourism, and environmental issues. Over a long career, he has done field research among Irish Travellers, English Gypsies, return migrants in Barbados, Ireland and Newfoundland, commercial fishermen, Alaska natives, professional baseball players, and Caribbean villagers and tourism workers, and is the author of 15 books.
George chatted with On the Move to tell us about his research with the project and how he got involved in the Digital Stories. While driving home from work one autumn day, he discussed how he got engaged with On the Move, how he ended up working on digital stories and what we can learn from them.
Hi George! Thanks for chatting with me today. To start, can you tell me a little about yourself?
As a cultural anthropologist I have an old connection with the island of Newfoundland and was at the Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) way back in 1972-73. I came back in the late 70s to do some research on return migrants in Newfoundland. My subjects back then were not mobile workers but people who had left Newfoundland years before to find work on the mainland and were returning home for good, some in retirement. I was invited on this project by Barb Neis and Sharon Roseman, I guess mostly because of the return migration work I had done in the 1970s so for me it was an opportunity to come back to Newfoundland. Barb had actually offered me research on hockey players, which was tempting because of my interest and earlier work on professional sports, but that research would’ve been done outside Newfoundland, so instead I chose to do the oil and gas transshipment workers in Newfoundland.
I understand that you recently finished a digital story on a family that works in that sector. Can you tell me about it?
The subjects of the digital story are Aiden and Zula Brown. Diane Royal and I first interviewed them in 2014 and they were wonderful. When this idea of digital stories came up they were one of the first couples we thought of. When we returned to New Harbour, Aiden was at sea on a five week rotation, so we couldn’t do it. Then when I revisited them two years ago for a follow-up interview I was reminded of what good subjects they would be for a digital story. Barb liked that idea, and that’s how the current project came about.
Why did you want to highlight their story in particular?
I think what’s most interesting about this story is that it’s an entire family of mobile workers. Aiden works on a tanker, Zula does long daily commutes as a nurse, and the son Andre is in the Coast Guard, up in the Arctic right now.
What do you think we can learn from their story?
I think we learn something about the stresses and strains of mobile work on an entire family. Again, they are all mobile workers. In the other stories we’ve done, it’s always been the man who has been the mobile worker, so here you get a good sense of what it means for the wife also working away, and then the child. We also learn what it means for the relationship and the difficulties of raising a child when you’re away for half the year on rotations.
They are also good at talking about the cycle of emotions that goes with working rotations. You know, how when going back to sea it takes a while to get back into the old routine and then at the midpoint in the rotation to start thinking about getting back home, and then in the few days at sea being almost desperate to get home. And then there is also a cycle of emotions associated with being at home from the rotation. On first arrival home, it’s sort of like a new romance. Aiden and Zula talk about falling in love again each time he comes back and then by the end of his time at home, she’s ready for him to leave so she can pursue her kind of independent life and the activities that she doesn’t get to do when he’s around.
Do you often use digital stories in your research?
No, never, this was the first time. We first got exposed to the power of film in 2011 when my wife Sharon and I went back to Ireland after many years away to do a research project with Irish Travellers. An Irish filmmaker became very interested in the research and asked if he could shadow us on part of our research trip reconnecting with Travellers from our early research and make a film about it.
When we got on the OTM project, Sharon Roseman put forward the idea of doing digital stories and I was pretty skeptical. You need a lot of skills to put one of these together, and I didn’t have those skills and didn’t think it would be easy to learn them. The irony is that when I was in the OTM workshop on making a digital story that Barb, Sharon, and Derek Norman put on in the beginning of the OTM project, I was one of the skeptics, and then here I am today having been involved in producing five digital stories. But all of the filming and technical work was done by others.
What about the other film-related work you’re doing in Newfoundland?
Well, midway through our research Diane and I decided that it would be interesting to look at mobile work in the context of a single community. We had discovered this great place, Bay de Verde, and we were keen on going back there. A filmmaker, Dennis Lanson, became interested in the possibility of making a documentary after learning something about our research from an article Diane and I had published. That was the start, and since then Dennis and I have involved a few more filmmakers and a brilliant still photographer, Andrew Lincoln. An Irish filmmaker, Martin Beirne, who I had met in Alaska last summer, volunteered his time and, besides helping out with the documentary, became the primary producer of the Aiden and Zula digital story. In short, I have relied on others who have the expertise to do the technical stuff, while I did the interviews and logistics.
What’s the documentary about?
There are two films. The first one which is not finished yet is called “The Village at the End of the Road.” It’s basically a portrait of a community – Bay de Verde — with a focus on people involved in mobile work. All the filming is finished and we hope to have the editing done this winter. The other film, tentatively called “Fishing for Knowledge: an Anthropologist at Work” is being edited now. Its primary audience will probably be students and others interested in what anthropological fieldwork is all about. It looks at the experiences and fieldwork of a MUN PhD student from Estonia, Joonas Plaan, who we filmed when he first arrived in Bay de Verde in 2017 and then filmed again at the end of his fieldwork a year later. I’m quite hopeful for this film’s prospects and was able to get a National Science Foundation grant for the editing.
What changed your mind about the value of doing digital stories?
I teach a course called “Culture through Film.” But apart from that, in all my courses its become really evident that this generation of students doesn’t read much, but they’ll watch video. Fortunately, in teaching anthropology, video is often a better medium for communicating an understanding of other cultures and an appreciation for them. That old saying of the picture being worth a thousand words has some truth in teaching cultural anthropology.
Sharon Gmelch and I discovered this recently in writing a book about Irish Travellers that paralleled the documentary film that was produced by Irish television, RTE. The film, “Unsettled: From Tinker to Travellers,” has reached so many more people than the book, and has had a much greater impact. It has been rebroadcast several times on Irish television and has enjoyed large audience shares in Ireland. In contrast, the book is hardly known outside of a small circle of specialists. Seeing the impact of the film vs the book has made me more interested in digital stories, and in producing the documentaries we are working on in Newfoundland.
Cool! I’ll keep an eye out for it. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me about this. Do you have any final thoughts about your work on this project?
Well, I hadn’t been part of a big team collaboration before. Most anthropologists work pretty independently of others. So this is been a new experience for me and a very satisfying one. It makes me want to do more team research.
To see the digital stories made by George, Diane and the On the Move team, check out our Digital Stories here.