By Letizia Bonanno

“Athenian Skyline.” Athens 01/12/2015.

Between July 2015 and January 2017, I carried out fieldwork in Athens, Greece. I moved there to explore how practices and practicalities of care were reconfigured under economic austerity, which, at that time, had already been underway for five years. Much scholarly work has extensively investigated the relation between austerity and grassroots and solidarity initiatives, which had since the 2009 crisis mushroomed throughout Greece and aimed at providing aid and material support to those citizens who had been excluded from welfare state provision (see Rakopoulos 2015; Rozakou 2016). As a medical anthropologist, I was soon intrigued by the work, ideology, and political potentials of self-organized health-care facilities known in Greece as Social Clinics of Solidarity.

“Sorting Pills.” The Social Pharmacy where I carried out fieldwork and I also worked as a volunteer. Athens 17/03/2016.

However many of my expectations about relocating to Athens crashed against the casual difficulties of settling in a new city, gaining access to the field and trust from the people I wished to work with, learning a new language, and all the odds ethnographers have typically faced. My notes on my first months of fieldwork were about the deep sense of displacement and bewilderment I was experiencing as a foreigner and young woman in Athens. However, words were not enough: my Greek was not sufficient, and both my Italian and English were fading away. In the mess of language and affect, drawing became an attempt and a strategy to fill the gaps left open by the impossibility of translating different languages into a coherent text. It was as if the language of affect (Italian), anthropology (English), and ethnography (Greek) could never come together. Drawing became a mode of ethnographic translation. By translation, I refer to the process of expressing in academic language the variety of communicative registers, affects, and language(s) through which the ethnographer develops her relationships in the field. At the same time, I consider turning the complex experience of fieldwork in a written text as another form of translation: a process through which knowledge of the self and other(s) is produced. Therefore, I hold the practice of drawing as a particularly apt method to convey the complexities of fieldwork beside and beyond the written text.

“Kind of Malinowski’s Diaries.” Athens 26/11/2016.

Drawing helped me go beyond words, to recover and pin down details that I was not able to make sense of through assemblages of words. When verbalized, those details appeared totally irrelevant and unrelated. In the absence of an effective writing style, drawing provided a space to sketch on paper the mise en scène (Artaud 1958) of the ethnographic encounter against the backdrop of grammar constraints and narrative linearity that the writing presupposes and imposes. In this sense, I saw drawing as a strategy to escape patterns of ethnographic description, through which we make understandable our experience to others. In Michael Taussig’s (2011, xii) words, I was “drawn along.” Sometimes I wrote my fieldnotes and added some sketches at the margin of the written text. But more often than not, I just drew rather than write. With drawing came a sort of “semantic relief” (Causey 2016, 8).

“Mise en Scene of an Ordinary Lunch in Omonoia.” Athens 16/12/2016.

Andrew Causey (2016) advocates for the importance of drawing as an ethnographic method that could, and should, be taught along with the more traditional ethnographic methods that characterize our discipline. I admit that drawing provided me with an incredibly powerful tool to go beyond verbal language and to actually catch and pin down many of the “imponderabilia of everyday life” (Malinowski [1922] 2014) that would have otherwise gotten lost in translation. While it rings true that everything we see can be drawn, I suggest drawing is more than representing visible reality. Rather, it is about resembling the reality as we both sense and make sense of it. It is by drawing that we make sense of ourselves and of others. The value of drawing in the field therefore lies in the sense-making it allows. Tim Ingold (2011, 2) claims that drawing has the potential “to reconnect observation and description with moments of improvisatory practice.” In a similar vein, Carol Hendrickson (2008, 120) argues that sketch-books became part of “the visual process of coming-to-know.”

“Towards an Ethnography of Greek Melancholia. Dance Me to End of Piraeus.” Athens 02/12/2016.

In this regard, I will try to explain more in detail how drawing became a way of seeing and of doing ethnography. Here I draw on John Berger’s (1972) argument about drawing as a strategy to firm multiple temporalities. Drawing results from unrepeatable and momentary encounters, yet it accounts for the transitory, incomprehensible, and open-ended intimacy of the ethnographer with reality. The sketchy nature of drawings seems to perfectly complement what ethnography leaves unaddressed. To say it with Causey (2016, 3), “there are some things one can capture in words to convey information, some others are best photographed, yet other experiences are best drawn.” Indeed, the messiness of fieldwork can barely be translated into the neat categories of academic arguments; yet this messiness is an integral part of fieldwork experience.

“Fieldwork is Contingent. Of Public Transport Strike and Other Disruptions.” Athens 26/05/2016.

As such, drawing allowed me to reformulate and translate my affects and experiences into images that “by their very nature establish a different relationship between the ethnographer and the world she explores” (Grimshaw 2001, 3). In this sense, drawing provided a rather unusual cognitive space for individual self-expression and experimentation and a powerful visual cue to engage with the anthropological assumptions underlying fieldwork. To some extent, drawing was also a method to engage with some theories informing anthropological research. At the same time, it was my strategy to fight anxiety and uncertainties. Through drawings, I tried to deconstruct my ethnographic experience of fieldwork, which proved to be quite unsettling.

“Me and Foucault.” Athens 07/09/2016.

As an alternative method to written notes, drawing required a different degree of self-reflexivity. On another level, illustrating rather than writing fieldnotes helped me render visible the contradictions and ambiguities of my position as an ethnographer. It helped me better understand some relational dynamics with my informants, as in the case of the illustration below. Leonidas was the psychiatrist of the self-organized medical practice where I did my fieldwork. He was a very talkative man with whom I had the pleasure to share several lunches and interesting conversations about the antipsychiatric movement, Franco Basaglia, and the French psychoanalysis. It was impossible for me to reformulate into a text the rhythm and the tone of our conversations, where I was often listening to him as if I were his therapist. As an ethnographer and an outsider, I slowly realized that Leonidas, like many other informants, referred to me in order to be “listened” to. In this sense, drawing allowed me to deconstruct and remake my ethnographic encounters, while pushing the boundaries of the ethnographic encounter. Sketching is “a form of visual thinking and an embodied and situated practice that reflects cultural norms about being situated, looking, as well as stylistic and representational conventions” (Geismar 2014, 99).

“Shifting Roles. Me, Leonidas and Freud.” Athens 29/10/2016.

Artaud, A. 1958. The Theater and Its Double. New York: Grove Press.
Berger, J. 1972. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books.
Causay, A. 2016. Drawn to See: Drawing as an Ethnographic Method. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Geismar, H. 2014. “Drawing It Out.” Visual Anthropology Review 30 (2): 97–113.
Grimshaw, A. 2001. The Ethnographer’s Eye: Ways of Seeing in Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hendrickson, C. 2008. “Visual Field Notes: Drawing Insights in the Yucatan.” Visual Anthropology Review 24:117–32.
Ingold, Tim 2011. Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description. New York: Routledge.
Malinowski, Bronislaw. (1922) 2014 . Argonauts of the Western Pacific. An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. New York: Routledge.
Rakopolous, T. 2015. “Exception, Solidarity and Conferral Politics: a Look at the Greek Crisis.” Allegra Laboratory website.
Rozakou, K. 2016. “Socialities of Solidarity: Revisiting the Gift Taboo in Times of Crises.” Social Anthropology 24 (2): 185–99.
Taussig, Michael. 2011. I Swear I Saw This: Drawings in the Fieldwork Notebooks, Namely My Own. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.